After one million recommendations to do so, Emma Clifton heads down to Taranaki for a food-focused trip around one of New Zealand’s most popular cities, and discovers there’s much to love (and eat) in this seaside spot.
As someone who took 35 years to make it to Queenstown, it’s fair to say I’m a little slow when it comes to visiting New Zealand hotspots. I’d had a whole heap of people tell me to go to Taranaki in the recent few years, so when an opportunity came up to do a foodie tour of the region, well, I bloody leapt at it.
After driving into the King and Queen Boutique Hotel, we quickly realised that the majority of our next meals were within walking distance, which was terrific because as Aucklanders, we hate driving and also as Aucklanders, we had just driven the wrong way up a road onto a highway and were pretty interested in not accidentally doing that again. So it was with great relief to learn that any further opportunities to cause traffic chaos would be limited.
When it comes to alcohol, I would refer to myself and my boyfriend as being enthusiastic ignoramuses, so when we discovered that we would be doing a quiz about gin at the Juno Gin Distillery, as part of their tour, we were worried. “Gin is the clear one, right?” Shahab whispered to me. “Yes, the one that isn’t vodka,” I nodded sagely back.
Well, rest assured we were in safe hands with Jo, co-creator of Juno Gin, who put us at ease by a) immediately giving us a gin cocktail and then b) telling us that she and husband Dave knew next to nothing about gin – other than the fact they really liked it – when they decided to open their own distillery. What followed was a combination of New Zealand “ah, well, let’s have a crack at it” mentality, mixed with their backgrounds in science. The result is a range of divine gins, created with locally sourced ingredients – very locally sourced, Jo tells us, with an anecdote of how she managed to source one ingredient during level four from a local neighbour and had to work out a non-contact way of getting it.
The Winter 2020 Seasonal Gin, she says, was inspired by this nationally lonely time – flavoured with mid-winter Christmas spices, designed with the joy of one day again being able to drink it with friends around a roaring fire. It is also at Begin Distillery that I first discover local hero Monica – Juno Gin have an edition called Monica’s Gin. Monica Brewster, it turns out, is a feminist icon in New Plymouth thanks to her work in women’s rights, the environment, pacifism and passion for the arts.
After trying a lot of gin – and learning even more about it – it’s time to go for dinner at a place that sounds straight out of the Ron Swanson playbook: Meat & Liquor. For our health/cost/environment, blah blah blah, we’ve cut down our red meat intake but when you’re going to do it, do it well – and this is why we end up sharing a $47 steak that is basically a religious experience. Also in the spirit of ‘do it well’, we get a range of sides: a light and zingy summer salad; spring asparagus with crème fraiche and then a third vegetable side: bone marrow mac ‘n’ cheese, with pecorino and pancetta (whoops, maybe no vegetables to be seen on that one?!) With a month’s worth of meat in our very happy stomachs, we walk for about one minute before we hit the coastal walkway that runs along the city, the sea air immediately making us feel less sleepy. A city where you can get a world-class, fancy pants meal and then be at the beach a minute later? God bless you, Aotearoa.
Feminist hero Monica makes a reappearance the next day, in the form of the beautiful, plant-filled Monica’s Eatery which – pre gin tour – I had assumed was named after Monica from Friends, an assumption I then felt immediately terrible about. There is a tiramisu French toast on the menu – with a side of coffee mascarpone and maple syrup – which would absolutely be calling my name if I didn’t know that I was in for a two-course lunch, so sensibly we opt for steel-cut oats instead. Ah, adulthood (although, served with strawberry poached pears and coconut cream, it’s not exactly a hardship). We have a sunny wander around the hotel, checking out the stunning art gallery, which reflects the beautiful blue sky.
Because there are not one, not two, not three but four simultaneous festivals running in New Plymouth the weekend we’re there – Food, Garden, Arts and Lights – there is no room at the inn for us to stay another night at the lovely King and Queen Boutique Hotel, so we shift to State Hotel. The beauty of State Hotel is that it is filled with antiques, it’s quiet, it’s elegant, it’s in the heart of the city and it’s also above State Pasta, meaning we don’t have to travel far for a post-lunch nap.
We are lucky enough to meet Carl Maunder, the executive chef and co-owner of State Pasta, and Jade Lucas, Carl’s wife and business partner, both of whom moved back to NZ from Dubai when Covid-19 kicked off and then decided to immediately open a restaurant, in a pandemic, which is a baller move that is absolutely paying off . “Are you okay with double cheese?” Jade asks as she orders us a selection from their menu – and yes, we are more than okay with double cheese. To start, she orders from the antipasti menu – gem hearts with white anchovy and parmesan crumbs; housemade ricotta, with beechwood honey and almonds; Massimo’s burrata and cab sauv vinegar; a plate of the thinnest, most delicate prosciutto San Daniele and then a bowl (or two) of pillowy soft housemade rosemary focaccia.
Carl grew up in Taranaki, before training as a chef in Wellington and running restaurants with some of our most well-known chefs – Sean Connolly, Mark Hix and Simon Gault – as well as also running restaurants in Singapore, Australia, London and Dubai. State Pasta is a culmination of all of that international experience, mixed with knowing the ins and outs of the Taranaki food scene; the produce, oils, cheeses and vinegars all coming from his favourite local suppliers. For our mains, we all share four pasta dishes: orecchiette with broccoli, lemon and chilli flakes; pici with spicy nduja and mascarpone, ravioli stuffed with chicken and served with sage butter, and finally, spaghetti with the sweetest possible Cloudy Bay clams and chives. Every dish is so magnificent that we do that thing where you stop and start for the next hour, leaving no pasta for behind. For dessert? A delicious, two-hour nap.
Maybe it’s the four festivals, maybe it’s because New Plymouth is the hotspot to go to, but on a Saturday night, the town is buzzing as we head into town (a five-minute walk, the best kind of commute) to catch dinner and a show. We’re booked into the Japanese-inspired Snug Lounge at 5.30pm – my dream time to eat – before our 7pm tickets for the musical show Cringe Worthy and it’s a full house, so much so that the table next to us swaps tips with us about what to order (the miso broccoli, the pork belly steamed buns, and chicken karaage, a tip I now pass along to you).
As Aucklanders, we’re still fairly unused to being in a busy room, so between dinner and then the sold-out show, it’s pretty glorious to be around so many people. Knowing next to nothing about Cringe Worthy, apart from a quick Google that described as a tribute to 1970’s New Zealand, we know we’re in for a good time when we realise that the Theatre Royal is filled with 99% 60-70 year olds, dressed in tie-dye and sequins.
What follows is a bloody raucous delight of jingles, songs and jokes from the 1970s and even though we’ve both missed that era by a good decade, damned if we weren’t joining along with some singing (and some nostalgic crying, too). On the walk back to our hotel, the good vibes are continuing and it’s wonderful to see so many out and about (and a good reminder of what the rest of the country has been like, in comparison to Auckland, over much of this year).
Despite a threatening weather forecast, we’ve had nothing but blue skies and warm sunny days and so we have cautious optimism that on a trip along the coastal walkway, we’ll be lucky enough to see the famously shy Mt Taranaki from the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge. The mountain is a classic extrovert/introvert mix – loves to put on a show or loves to be hidden from sight, never an in-between. Well, she’s clearly in a good mood today as she stands in full glory, framed between the white curves of the pedestrian bridge. Taranaki – your sea, your people, your mountain and your pasta; you deserve every bit of spotlight you’re getting!
Emma and Shahab were hosted by the lovely folks at Real Good and Strategy Collective