What do you get a birthday girl who has just packed up her life, put about 90% of it into storage and is lugging around the rest in a suitcase so she can gallivant across Asia for a few months? If it were up to me, I would settle for warm birthday wishes transmitted over the interwebs and a drinks IOU for when we’re next in the same country, but it seems I have better friends. They, very wisely, went for the gift of food; these friends are keepers. I was lucky enough to get those birthday wishes, but with a side of lunch at Wharekauhau, one of New Zealand’s most luxurious countryside estates located in a remote part of the lower North Island.
Wharekauhau is only a 90 minute drive from Wellington city, but after you’ve wound your way up, around, and down the Rimutaka Ranges, you will feel like you’re a world away. The drive is very scenic, however if you’re pushed for time, have deeper pockets, or are royalty, you might want to take the 11 minute helicopter ride instead. Either way, the end result is the same… you will arrive at a small slice of New Zealand paradise where the views are breathtaking and the atmosphere is supremely serene! We were met at the door and taken on a short tour of the main lodge before settling into our table where the outlook was idyllic and the only soundtrack was from the birds outside.
Lunch would consist of us ‘trusting the chef’ as they say at Wharekauhau; five dishes made from ingredients which were seasonal or favoured that month, though they did grant us a choice for the main course. On the whole, the menu of the day looked rather exciting, but starting with a carrot soup was the not the sprint off the starting blocks I was hoping for. This coffee cup cliche was pleasant but pedestrian, and not even the addition of labneh could make it more exotic or luxurious. The bread, however, was excellent – warm, fluffy, and almost an insult to dip it into the soup. Let’s say we did not refuse when the offer of another crusty bun presented itself.
The Japanese inspired Ōra king salmon dish was more in line with my expectations; looked a picture, tasted a treat. This award-winning dish from chef Marc Soper had a buttery piece of salmon wrapped in seaweed, flanked by teeny tiny towers of crisped rice, cured egg and kelp. The layers of snap, crackle and pop in textures was wonderful but the highlight was undoubtedly that Ōra King salmon itself, a sustainably bred product which has a succulent sweetness and high oil content which keeps the fish incredibly moist and flavoursome. I loved this clever dish, a play on sushi which was surprising yet in some ways so familiar to the palate.
I felt a tad sorry for the duck egg custard that followed, never in its wildest dreams would it ever be a match for the salmon but it did have a certain sophisticated vigour to it. A spoonful on its own was velvety decadence, but that was kept in check by the medley of zesty summer greens that came alongside. When we did get a choice, both of us were drawn to the beef fillet. We hadn’t eaten beef for a while so the thought of medium rare fillet and beautifully braised rib was too enticing to refuse. The reality was not quite as exciting as the dish of our imaginations but it was still the warm, comforting beef embrace we craved. The parsnip puree and vegetables were classic Sunday roast, the addition of a cranberry and walnut barley was a little left field, but what the beef (and I) was crying out for was a sauce. That would have brought the whole dish together in one fell swoop!
When I had read ‘white chocolate mousse’ on the menu, my stomach did a bit of a nervous somersault. Usually too sickly sweet for my tastes, white chocolate desserts rarely get ordered on my watch but we were here to ‘trust the chef’ so I did just that… and it was good. Very good. Remarkably ethereal, and paired just right with a tart plum sorbet and jelly. This along with the salmon dish were my favourites from a solid, if sometimes a little too safe, offering from Wharekauhau. The quality of the dishes was strong but I hope they continue to be more ambitious. Regardless of whether they’re serving the likes of royalty, rockstars, the rich and not even famous, or just little ol’ me, I think they could do with a touch more razzmatazz to match their breathtaking surroundings and reputation!
Did you know that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stayed at Wharekauhau when they visited New Zealand?
Have you ever stayed at Wharekauhau? If so, let me know what it was like!
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