Dishing up great views
In the adventure capital of New Zealand, it's no surprise to discover the food dished up in Queenstown's finest eateries has had its own wild ride to your plate.
Take the venison that Jonathan Rogers, the head chef at Matakauri Lodge, serves in front of a roaring fire in the lodge perched on the edge of Lake Wakatipu.
A jigsaw of clouds floats in the sky while across the water lay the stunning Remarkables and the Cecil and Walter Peak mountain ranges, but the stories inside Rogers' kitchen are just as dramatic.
Roaming the rugged terrain of Fiordland, the wild venison is hunted from helicopters and brought fresh to Rogers' kitchen.
"Yeah, it's all pretty extreme around here," says Rogers.
He's not exaggerating. A five-star boutique hotel seven minutes' drive from Queenstown, Matakauri Lodge's inventive cuisine is matched by lovely accommodation, with eight cottages, three suites and the newly opened Owner's Cottage offering an impressive, unfussy level of luxury.
The heated marble floor in the spacious bathroom wins my vote for comfort, while the deep bath with panoramic views of the lake and snow-capped mountains is also a highlight.
There's also a spa, fitness centre, outdoor infinity swimming pool, sauna, jacuzzi and walking trails should the view and all those creature comforts ever get tiresome.
Matakauri achieves a good balance between privacy and conviviality. The communal areas inside the lodge invite conversation, especially with the young, friendly staff, but guests dine separately and it's easy to hide away if solitude is preferred.
But admiring Rogers' culinary chops turns into the perfect icebreaker when it comes to meeting other guests.
A champion of local and seasonal ingredients, Rogers changes the menu every day according to what he can hunt and gather from his army of suppliers.
An organic farm near Cromwell provides him with figs and berries, a wide variety of tomatoes, "beautiful" artichokes and "the best asparagus I've ever seen".
He also singles out a merino producer in Cardrona Valley for supplying some of the best lamb he has cooked with.
Central Otago is renowned for its game, and Rogers' menus also feature hare, rabbit, tahr, quails and pheasants.
"The diet's different; the lambs are eating more tussocks and grasses and getting more exercise," Rogers says. 'The muscles are more developed, so the texture is different and the flavour better.
"I think as you mature as a chef you get more comfortable and you don't need to show off with pointless garnishes," he says.
Rogers' canapes are true to his word, with watermelon tartare, kingfish with rice wafers and avocado puree and fried chicken an ideal way to begin dinner.
The mountains surrounding Queenstown are a magnet for thrillseekers, sightseers and filmmakers, but the stunning landscape also provides a rich bounty for the country's top chefs, including two judges on MasterChef New Zealand.
A similar philosophy of using local and seasonal produce guides the menu at Rata (43 Ballarat Street; ratadining.co.nz), a stylish diner nestled next to the historic 1878 courthouse that is widely regarded as one of Queenstown's best restaurants.
A forest photographed by owner Fleur Caulton's husband spans one wall of the restaurant, which is decked out in polished stone and wood to reflect the surrounding Otago scenery.
The open kitchen provides glimpses of Josh Emett, the only Michelin-starred chef in New Zealand, who is a picture of concentration as a steady stream of delicacies are dished up to diners fresh off the ski slopes and the end of bungy ropes.
Rata's menu changes daily according to what is in season, and even utilises what Caulton's friends grow in their gardens.
"We get boxes of produce brought in daily by them. I've got three friends who grow Jerusalem artichokes, and they've got so many of them they could never eat them in a million years."
Caulton and her staff are avid foragers, and the fruits of their labours can be seen in the jars of preserves lining shelves, the herbs that flavour dishes and the rocks that hold salt on each table.
Caulton and Emmett's passion for food is matched by their love of the region, which is also shown by their support for Project Crimson, a charity that seeks to protect the endangered rata tree.
We graze happily on Stewart Island hapuka and Cloudy Bay clams, Otago wild rabbit terrine, merino lamb rump and smoked eel washed down with local wines.
Fortune favours the brave, and going off-piste with crispy duck tongues served with nectarine, edamame and radish also proves a tasty success.
"A few challenges are thrown out there," Caulton says. "But we're not trying to be cute or clever. We're just saying these things can be eaten and are quite delicious."
The mountain of black angus sirloin that confronts us the next evening at Jervois Steak House (Brecon Street, Lower Steps; jervoissteakhouse.co.nz) sets a culinary challenge of a different kind.
The saloon-style restaurant also boasts a judge of MasterChef New Zealand, Simon Gault, at its helm - a sign of Queenstown's strength as a food destination - and bills itself as "the steak house to end all arguments".
Conversation at our table certainly stops as we attack the very generous serves of tender beef. Farmed from around New Zealand, the menu features a range of cuts, from South Island rumps and eye fillets to T-bones from Turihaua Angus, near Gisborne. To accompany, there is an eye-watering range of sauce suggestions - gorgonzola mascarpone, brandy and green peppercorn, syrah and truffle jus, to name a few.
Many of Queenstown's best eateries are also blessed with its finest views.
Perched on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, Eichardt's Private Hotel (2 Marine Parade; Eichardts.com) is worth a visit for the views over Queenstown Bay and the Remarkables mountain range, and the historic building, let alone its culinary offerings.
Eichardt's tapas menu by chef Will Eaglesfield again favours local produce - a highlight is the charcuterie board with wild boar ham and tahr salami, Fiordland wild hare and harissa-marinated Cardrona merino lamb ribs.
Offering boutique accommodation, the hotel also holds regular winemaker dinners, with its next five-course degustation dinner on March 21 hosted by Brian Dennis and Amisfield Estate Winery. A classy wine menu spruiks tipples from New Zealand's wine-growing regions, plus a couple of Dom Perignon bubblies - $1195 for the 1988 vintage and $2750 for the 1976 bottle if you really want to celebrate.
Or test the barman's mixing skills with one of the locally named concoctions from the cocktail menu. Eichardt's mule and bloody mary are a local twist on familiar brews, while the Pimms lassi - Pimms, yoghurt, marmalade, pineapple juice and Tuaca vanilla liqueur - is a sweet surprise.
The writer was a guest of Matakauri Lodge.
Matakauri Lodge, from $595 a person (excluding GST) for a lodge room. The room tariff includes pre-dinner drinks with hors d'oeuvres, seasonal gourmet dinner, full breakfast, complimentary mini-bar including domestic beers and use of facilities except spa treatments.
Sample the flavours of Spain with celebrity chef Pete Evans, who will dish up tapas and raciones inspired by his travels across the Iberian Peninsula. April 11 to 13, $1600 plus GST. See matakauri.co.nz/pete-evans.
FIVE MORE TOP QUEENSTOWN RESTAURANTS
Housed in a historic stone building and two acres of landscaped gardens, Gantleys has scooped up awards for its dining and wine list. Head chef Craig Hendry does a six-course degustation menu, featuring Cardrona merino lamb cutlets and seared North Atlantic scallops, with matching local wines. See gantleys.co.nz.
McNeill's cottage, built in 1882 by Scottish stonemason James McNeill, provides a stylish setting for Queenstown's premier Italian diner, Sasso. Local produce - Marlborough salmon, Southland beef, Mataura veal - are transformed into Mediterranean favourites and dished up with a lengthy list of Italian and Otago wines. See sasso.co.nz.
Located in nearby Arrowtown, Saffron makes a virtue of its climate and landscape with an ever-changing menu that favours the adventurous eater with lamb sweetbreads, rabbit confit with black pudding and Asian-inspired flavours gathered by owner/chef Peter Gawron on his travels. See saffronrestaurant.co.nz.
ATLAS BEER CAFE
Tucked away at the back of Queenstown's Steamer Wharf, cosy Atlas has a large selection of on-tap and craft beers, New Zealand wines, whiskies and ciders. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Atlas does steaks and Sunday spit roasts. See atlasbeercafe.com.
The historic gold town of Arrowtown is not a place you would expect to sample Spanish flavours, but La Rumbla scores for fine tapas-inspired dishes in a convivial atmosphere and friendly service led by owners Penelope Johnson and Sam Gruar. See facebook.com/larumbla.arrowtown.