The year that was in Waikato hospitality

Vietnamese eatery Banh Mi Caphe is one of the best newcomers.
Vietnamese eatery Banh Mi Caphe is one of the best newcomers.

Denise Irvine reflects on the year that was in Waikato hospitality.

This is the season when celebrity chefs and food writers make their culinary predictions. Will 2014 be the year of the vegetable, or the grain, or the farm shop? Or was that last year?

Will we continue to eat quinoa, artisan butter, sliders, small plates, shared plates, coconut oil, cauliflower couscous, confit duck and pulled pork?

Will we see more pop-up restaurants, will the "no reservation" policy of some places become the norm?

I am always drawn to food pundits who prefer not to make predictions - MasterChef New Zealand judge Ray McVinnie among them - but simply embrace the notion of eating seasonally and, where possible, eating locally. Taking great ingredients, giving them a tasty treatment, but not mucking around with them too much.

One of my most perfect meals this summer has been a classical Italian caprese salad: sliced fresh mozzarella, flavoursome outdoor tomatoes and homegrown basil, lightly seasoned with salt and olive oil. Another dish, where ratatouille was the star, was a melding of summer beauties such as yellow courgettes, red capsicums, red onions, tomatoes, fresh garlic and herbs.

All were eaten in the company of that other good ingredient, family and friends, and none of it involved hours of preparation, or a restaurant chef.

Having said that, there have been many good meals out as well - and it's time for reflection on the year that was in Waikato hospitality.

Best newcomers in Hamilton in 2013 were in Victoria St's south end: Mexico in April and Vietnamese eatery Banh mi Caphe in November.

Mexico brought lively food and a lively vibe - also some singular take-it- or-leave-it house rules around no reservations except for 10 or more, communal tables, and no table allocation until the entire party has arrived. A night in Mexico won't bust the budget, and you will have good fun, and good food on your plate.

Enrico Mazzi makes excellent pizzas at A Slice of Italy - making the restaurant our joint favourite Italian option.
Enrico Mazzi makes excellent pizzas at A Slice of Italy - making the restaurant our joint favourite Italian option.

Same at the quirky Banh mi Caphe, where prices are modest and the food is delicious. Their Vietnamese sandwich is warmly recommended.

Best finds include Walton Street Coffee, in Te Awamutu, run by Zoe Anderson - where you will find fresh flavours, a funky fit-out, good coffee, and a warm welcome - and Goneburger.

The latter's generous burgers, with top-quality buns and ingredients, are dispensed from the purpose-built mobile trailer that now alternates between Victoria Square in Cambridge and Swarbrick Landing in Hamilton. Check their Facebook page for details.

Then there's Wholly Cow, Cambridge, selling excellent meat from Tommy and Carrie Andrews' sheep and beef farm at Whitehall; and Sweet Painted Lady Cafe at Waharoa, near Matamata, where the Jacques family and their staff do homemade baked goods, sammies and pies.

Best move has to be Chim Choo Ree, which shifted from its intimate spot in Victoria St's south end to the vintage Waikato Brewery building in Bridge St.

The fit-out has been done with stylish hands, making the most of a great space.

It is light, cool, airy, almost understated, but still channels the Chim charm - as does the creative menu.

In another good move, Jacks Coffee Lounge expanded its space in Cambridge Rd, continuing the hospitality, quality food and coffee that are hallmarks of this neighbourhood eatery.

Favourite Italians
share the honours: Caffe Centrale, Alma St - where Marco and Alessandro offer good service, generous food, and warm-hearted style - and Slice of Italy, in Heaphy Tce, Fairfield, home of authentic pizzas and hospitable Italians Kuki and Enrico.

I hesitate to name best coffee because there are plenty of places doing a fine job. It's too hard to single out one, but my Hamilton favourites, in no particular order, include Scotts Epicurean, the River Kitchen, the District, Demi-Urgos, Hazel Hayes, Mr Milton's Canteen, Rocket Espresso in Hamilton East, and Rocket Coffee in Barton St.

Most laid-back place is the Good George Brewery & Dining Hall, in Somerset St, Frankton, a deceptively simple operation. Look closely and you see smart people and ideas at work here.

Best tapas is Clarence at Mavis, in Hamilton East, where the creative food and knowledgeable service continues.

Top title was won by Victoria Street Bistro, which took home the honour of Best Regional Restaurant in the Cuisine NZ Good Food Awards. Palate and Chim Choo Ree were up there too in the awards, and Palate has previously won the regional gong. Well done to this trio for setting high standards in food, service and well-considered wine lists.

Saddest news was the fire in late December at Pumice, Te Rapa, the devastation of Kerr & Ladbrook's award- winning flagship restaurant. Best wishes to the team for a rebuild.

It was sad, too, earlier last year, to learn of the departure of Chris and Hayley Scott, of Zinc in Queenwood, where they had nurtured a strong commitment to Waikato produce.

More recent is the news of Nosh's departure. I will miss its cheeses, meat, and the smaller-scale shopping.

On a more cheerful note, well done to the farmers' markets and other markets at Tamahere, Gordonton and beyond, which supply farm-to-plate Waikato food.

Keep up the good work everyone. You are much appreciated.