Ruth Pettit snips away in her fragrant garden, gathering an armful of aromatic gardenia and lemon verbena to steep for tea. It’s a sample of what awaits the hungry visitor in search of both beauty and sustenance in the North Island’s stunning Coromandel coastline along the northeastern shore. When asked about farm to table cuisine, Ruth seems a bit flummoxed. “Well, we’ve always done it this way,” she says with a shrug.
Ruth and her husband Andy own the Colenso Country Shop & Cafe, an outgrowth of the family orchard business. “With four children to put through school, we needed more than mandarins,” said Ruth, who opened the cafe and shop 22 years ago.
Perched on a scenic hillside overlooking Mercury Bay, the cafe is on “state highway” 25-A – one of the ribbons of gorgeous roadways crisscrossing the North Island. The Cafe’s menu is all about fresh and seasonal comfort fare, usually starring herbs, veggies and fruits from the garden out back. Dishes might include local lamb enfolded in buttery puff pastry, wedges of feta and spinach pie and grilled ham and cheese panini featuring happy porkers from a nearby pasture. Homebaked scones, with clotted cream and fresh peach jam, are the perfect accompaniment for Ruth’s just-picked herbal tea.
After lunch, browse through the stylish shop for a few New Zealand made goods to take home. At the very least, buy a jar of local Manuka honey, a tonic for just about anything that ails you. Then again, the same can be said for New Zealand, a destination that’s definitely good for the soul.
Salad from Ruth's garden
Lamb pie and salad for lunch
An exciting scene at Cafe Hanoi
The action is nonstop inside Cafe Hanoi, an artsy new VIetnamese restaurant on the corners of Galway and Commerce in downtown Auckland. Situated in a grand old bank building, with bare concrete and brick walls and the glow of oversized paper lanterns, the interior reminds a traveler of the faded opulence of the Old Quarter in Hanoi.
Yet local chef Jason van Dorsten and his team are channeling something quite modern with dishes like cured pork skewers atop romaine leaves served with crunchy sliced of green banana and cucumber and a chili dipping sauce. Each dish is made ala minute, with the open kitchen in a constant state of motion, garnishing plate after plate with handfuls of frsh mint, squeezes of lime juice and bunches of chopped cilantro.
The flavors are clean and layered with eye popping color and texture. The pork spare ribs arrived fragrant with five spice and caramelized with a crust of ginger and sesame, just perfect. A stir fry of morning glory with garlic and sesame seeds was wonderfully fresh, the flash in the pan just long enough to give the tender leaf some bite.
In a city with a vast Asian gastronomy, a reflection of the polyglot that is New Zealand’s cultural make up, Cafe Hanoi brings a luster of culinary sophistication to the table, an excitement and a “scene” that is irresistible. Expect to pay around $100 NZ for dinner for two, especially if you enjoy a fruity glass (or two) of the region’s wonderful Sauvignon blanc.
Cafe Hanoi's open kitchen never stops moving
Whole crispy snapper with lemon grass and chili
Jaheb Barnett helps a passenger on the way from LA to Auckland
Traveling to a new place always raises logistical questions, from what’s the best way to get from the airport to the hotel to where to find the tastiest local cuisine.
Fly Air New Zealand, and your questions are answered before you even touch down. Meet Jaheb Barnett, one of a team of 45 International Airline Concierge whose job is to give travelers inside info even at 35,000 feet. A program unique to the airline industry, Air New Zealand’s crackerjack concierge have been answering flyers’ queries since the program kicked off in 2008.
Using the interactive entertainment system, passengers can click on the Concierge icon and noodle around to learn the best place for brunch (Orvieto) and lamb chops (Vinnie’s) in Auckland, where to get the best cuppa’ in Taupo (Steaming Bean) and top choice for a dip in the thermal pools in Rotorua (Polynesian Spa). You can even type in your own question, and at some point during the flight, the concierge will pay you a visit at your seat to help.
Jaheb, a native of Devonport on Auckland’s north shore, trained for an extra two months to prep for the job, and, working with his colleagues, can provide information about cities on most of New Zealand’s long haul routes. And the advice offered isn’t canned copy, it’s vetted and spoken with the insight of a local expert.
All that talk about friendly Kiwis isn’t just talk – even the skies are friendlier in New Zealand.