Eating New Zealand in San Francisco

Last updated 13:29 24/07/2013

As a slightly wistful expat it seems like be it physically or mentally I'm always heading to New Zealand. So when a bit of New Zealand is brought to me here, it sounds too good to be true.

WH1LP and I dined in at the Waiheke Island Yacht Club last night. The restaurant opened at the start of July, a 6500 square foot pop-up restaurant dreamed up on the fly by Auckland restaurateur Tony Stewart (he owns Clooney in Freemans Bay in Auckland). It is a large, impressively decorated shed at Pier 29 next to the America's Cup Park in San Francisco. The whole thing came together following Stewart's trip to San Francisco at the end of April to sniff out any possible business opportunities with the cup looming. His New Zealand-themed restaurant is the only restaurant on-site at the cup park. The entire enterprise was dreamt up and built in about six weeks, which is insane.

The America's Cup in San Francisco, amidst tragic accidents, legal squabbles, uncontested races, local disinterest and mismatched competition, has had a soft, tepid opening at best. It was good to see that Waiheke Island Yacht Club might be the one thing affiliated with the cup that is actually crossing over in the city.

People often ask me about New Zealand food. Culturally, I find it hard to see our own uniqueness sometimes and I'm prepared to admit that that might be a product of my own shortsightedness. The dominance of British and American culture in New Zealand can point at unoriginality. Do we have an aesthetic? A food you couldn't get anywhere else? Something we started and pioneered? Those questions flummox me.

WH2Eating at Waiheke Island Yacht Club showed me a New Zealand aesthetic in an American context and with the right touch it felt infinitely more unique than I'd ever given it credit.

I never felt I was particularly unique culturally until I left New Zealand for good, so maybe our style is the same?

When you step inside the restaurant you're walking over New Zealand macrocarpa, which has been used to create the entire dining room. Auckland's Douglas & Bec have created collapsible leather seats for patrons, a fun riff on our archetypal summer beach chair. It was casual and classy. We were served up Antipodes sparkling water, just like my Mum gets at home. I ordered the Moa Pale Ale and after a few years on mostly American IPAs I really loved how it had much less of a hoppy, bitter edge. The bread came with Anchor butter and the dessert menu had a dish on it that featured Crunchie bars.

I'm not going to lie. I got pretty excited, pretty quickly. 

We started with oysters, working our way through ceviche, duck, New Zealand venison, lamb and line caught fish from Leigh, north of Auckland. LP is the foodie in our relationship. I'm not. I lack the descriptive capacity to do this food justice. I'm a self-employed writer who spends a lot of each day at home eating cereal.

WH3Waiheke Island Yacht Club has a four course a la Carte menu and the dishes tend toward the lighter end (getting heavier as you progress through). But each dish has its own individual quirk. The venison was raw, if I had eaten it blind I would've told you it was tuna, but it was delicious. The lamb came with dollops of sauce that was so good LP and I were almost licking our plates to make sure we got it all. The Crunchie bar dessert turned out to be a much more fine-dining suitable version of such a thing, hokey pokey flakes served up with chocolate mousse and dashes of manuka honey.

The ingredients were all familiar to me, typical backbones of any New Zealand pantry, but the presentation took it to another level. The restaurant is bringing in a lot of New Zealand ingredients from home (venison, lamb, seafood) and supplementing it with local stuff when it is impractical to bring it in (in between shipments of fish, they buy locally).

LP and I were lucky to be the guest of Tony Stewart (in full disclosure, I previewed the restaurant's launch for the San Francisco Chronicle) and having him personally choose our meal, stop by to chat and explain out each of the dishes made it a very special dining experience for us.

For a man who has pulled off a restaurant on this scale, in that time frame, Stewart's composure is remarkable. He seemed understandably tired, but an extremely gracious host nonetheless.

WH4The courses were all well paced and despite being stationed right on the Embarcadero on San Francisco's waterfront the restaurant has the feel of its own little world.

It was an extremely pleasant way to spend a few hours. If you're in San Francisco between now and December 31 and are after a piece of home, or just really great food, it's a must.

And did I learn anything about the New Zealand aesthetic, which I sometimes have such trouble accepting? Sure.

Waiheke Island Yacht Club presents a version of us that pays homage to our culinary pillars - lamb, venison, seafood, cheese (they can't serve New Zealand wine because of a contractual requirement) - while maintaining a simplicity, intelligence and elegance in execution that appealed to me.

It felt like a pretty honest version of a best-case scenario of New Zealand themed fine dining.

Our best foot forward, right in the heart of San Francisco. Who'd-a-thunk it?

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