On the Menu
Smack bang in the middle of one of our most fertile food and wine producing regions, you’re guaranteed an incredible epicurean adventure in the art deco city of Napier.
Chef and owner James Beck does not shy away from change. As much as we all dislike the word, he’s the master of a good ol’ lockdown pivot. When hospitality took a hammering back in March, he ditched what he calls his “cheffy food” in favour of a new comfort menu. Every dish is reassuringly familiar yet knockout tasty – fish pie, full and beautifully smoky with lashings of mackerel; beef cheek and bacon Wellington with pastry so tender and crisp it melts in the mouth; juicy fried chicken; and his signature rich, dark mocha cake. Sit up at the pass, if you can, and watch Beck at work. He says the change has been “fun and invigorating” and the restaurant, open seven nights, is always humming. And still, the ideas keep flowing. Vinotech at Bistronomy, a daytime tasting room and shop, is Beck’s latest project, with up to 400 wines on offer, which guests can try via Coravin, and a selection of tapas matched to your pour.
This place is smart. From the wait-staff kitted out in red stripes and smiles, to the cosy circular booths upholstered in velvet, to the open kitchen and jungle-themed wallpaper, Central Fire Station Bistro is a restaurant and bar that does everything well. The menu showcases local meat and seafood and Hawke’s Bay wines, along with lesser known regional producers such as Craggy Range Sheep Dairy cheese and Hastings Distillers gin. The Bistro embraces classic cookery in dishes such as confit duck and flank steak – every item bursting with flavour. Chef and owner Sam Clark, his wife Florencia Menehem and their young son have relocated from Auckland – where Clark held roles at Clooney and Cable Bay. Not content with taking on the challenge of one new business, they’ve opened two, using space down the side of the Louis Hay art deco building to sweeten the deal with Flora’s Cake Studio, offering celebration cakes and coffee from talented Argentina-born Menehem.
This eatery is the Dr Ashley Bloomfield of the Napier cafe scene – always busy, dependable, and to be relied upon at 1pm (particularly for an excellent flat white and a big table on which to spread out the newspaper). With a calming fitout of sea-green walls and bentwood chairs, this corner site boasts a cabinet that’s crammed with classic fare – sandwiches, tarts and slices – and a blackboard menu of familiar brunch favourites with lots of vegan options. Ajuna nails Wellington-cafe chic, right in the heart of Napier.
There’s no beating Smiths, in the seaside suburb of Ahuriri, for flavoursome daytime cafe fare that packs a real punch at lunch with some interesting takes on European and Asian standards (think blintzes, salmon pastrami, chaat, char siu and cassoulet.)
What’s more, these guys are more than happy to blend you a Bloody Mary or mix a mimosa at 8am (both seem to pair perfectly with one of their legendary omelettes) and they will ensure your glass is always nicely topped up. The outside tables border an enormous herb and vegetable garden – perfect when the sun is shining. And do look out for details of their Il Pirata offshoot too – an occasional Italian dining experience held on the premises.
BANH MI SAIGON
Tucked away in a strip of shops in suburban Greenmeadows, Banh Mi Saigon is a lo-fi locals’ favourite. A sandwich bar offering quick, tasty, takeaway banh mi (Vietnamese baguettes stuffed with salad, meat and sauces), where the bread is all baked on-site, the flavours are unabashedly bold and the prices satisfyingly low. Have a chat with chef and owner Cong – you’ll spot him loading torpedoes of plump, yeasty dough into his oven – while you wait for your banh mi chicken satay (turmeric chicken, lightly spiced peanut sauce) or the ever popular banh mi Saigon – the traditional blend of braised pork with sausage and pate, pickled vegetables, coriander and red onion.
Blink and you might miss it… but please don’t. Perennial favourite Monica Loves, sequestered down a little laneway off Tennyson Street, has had a glow-up under new owners Darren Strongman and Tania Camplin. Offering great hospitality is at the very heart of who they are – in fact, they even met in a bar – and they’re bursting with fresh ideas for the place, including introducing more live music, specials for local hospo staff, and a Monica Loves Wine Club. For starters, chef Taine Reid has refreshed the short bar menu, including lamb wontons (a satisfyingly crunchy shell, juicy lamb, spicy dipping sauce), eye fillet crostini, polenta chips and fish tacos. The wine list is 90 percent local, the cocktails fly off the counter, there’s a guest craft-beer tap for those looking for a tasty brew and – always – a warm greeting and a ready smile from the friendly staff.
You can’t possibly visit Hawke’s Bay without covering off a winery or two. Not all of those over on the Napier side of the Bay offer cellar doors, but Crab Farm does, and it’s also a charming spot to grab a drink andwatch a gig. Rustic nooks and crannies with a vaguely Santa Fe feel to the decor, a blazing fire pit to gather at, and a rotation of local and visiting musicians make it a laid-back, family friendly place to while away some time.
The latest addition to Napier’s hospitality scene, Market St is a buzzy, vibrant space popular with Hawke’s Bay’s growing tribe of young professionals. Step off the cobbles and into an airy bar and eatery that has a modern, New York loft atmosphere and a range of weekly “rituals” to keep you coming back for more. Our pick? The Lazy Sunday ritual held every other week – with live music and a chef on the barbecue filling tummies with bangers and brisket. There’s also Dollar Dumplings on Thursdays, an Espresso Martini Saturday special and make sure you ask for their luxe Rosebud cocktail when you pop in – rumour has it Market St’s resident mixologist has had to strap his wrists, he’s been busy shaking so many of them.
Working towards a zero-waste goal, Unpakd is a fill-your-own grocery and dry-goods store in picturesque Ahuriri. Take your own clean jars (or purchase on-site) to stock up on staples like rice, lentils, various flours, nuts, seeds and spices – they also have vats of oil and vinegar, refillable peanut butter, and kombucha. A fresh fruit and vegetable section is laden with organic produce, and at the rear of the store you’ll find a bodycare and naturopathy corner, where you can replenish your first-aid kit with natural balms and salves, sample tonics and tinctures, and find a wide range of eco cleaning products, body washes, shampoos and moisturisers.
Turning out delicious fresh tortillas made with Kiwi corn, Hands Down is the brainchild of Henry Lyons, Will Innes and Bradley Minton. They’ve set up their press in a central city building, producing high quality tortillas using traditional methods and sold at an affordable price. What’s different? Well, Hands Down’s corn – currently sourced from Tolaga Bay, with plans to use Hawke’s Bay organic maize in the near future – goes through a process called nixtamalisation. It sounds tricky, but it is, in fact, a simple technique the Mesoamericans developed: soaking corn kernels in lime water to make it more delicious and digestible. Next, the corn is ground in Hands Down’s volcanic-stone grinder to produce masa dough, which is then kneaded and pressed into tortillas. You can try Hands Down tortillas at the aforementioned Monica Loves, as well as eateries Meximama, Hapi and food truck Hermosa, and as we went to print there was confirmation of a factory door retail shop opening on-site, with fresh tortillas sold direct and hot off the press. Esplendido!
Fiona Fraser | Contentment Agency
Kia Ora Magazine
October 2020 edition
Air New Zealand operates daily non-stop flights to Napier from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, with connections across the domestic network.