Sep 1, 2021 Restaurants
A full overview of all our winners, runners-up and finalists.
Estrella Damm Supreme Award
Ever the bridesmaid, Cazador — runner-up for the Supreme Winner award in 2017 and 2019 — is finally the bride. It is, we couldn’t be happier to announce, the best restaurant in Auckland in 2021.
Its darkened doors, shrouded in black by curtains which shut off the rest of the world, open into a gently lit dining room that does everything to tell you this is the right place to be. It’s warm and lively, imbued with the individuality of a deeply felt, lived-in history, of which Cazador has had plenty.
Cazador’s food is considered and patient cooking: much of its menu requires extensive preparation and planning, like the butchering, or the charcuterie platter, assembled from in-house terrine, rillettes, parfait and the best damn salami we’ve ever had.
In the last year or so, Cazador has simultaneously become a bigger and smaller restaurant. While its dine-in seats dwindled, Auckland gained the Cazador Delicatessen @cazador_deli. The team also gained a new head chef, Gilles Papst. Sadly, this means a goodbye to previous head chef Brendan Kyle, who has been at Cazador for many years and has played a big part in its journey to what it is today.
It is, quite simply, the food we want to be eating now in the place we want to be eating it.
And congratulations, too, to our runner-up, Sidart.
It was a close race this year. No one else in Auckland is doing food like Sidart. The menu, which just lists ingredients of its dishes, doesn’t truly convey the ambitious scope of what eventually arrives at your table. It’s a surprise, every time: things hidden under other things, sauces which pack an immense punch of flavour but never enough to overwhelm your palate, pops of textures in places you never expect them. The artistically composed plates and bowls entice you to dig deep, mix it all together, and discover.
Best Casual Restaurant — City Fringe
Runner up: Ponsonby Rd Bistro
As we were talking among ourselves about the Best Casual Restaurant award, it dawned on the panel that there was somewhere nearly every single judge had gone to on their own time and money, somewhere all of us who’d been had said they’d gladly return to again and again. Pici, a small eatery that has inserted a big jolt of energy into our dining scene, is this year’s winner for Best Casual Restaurant, City Fringe. Pici set up shop in Karangahape Rd’s St Kevins Arcade in 2020; soon enough, the crowds started piling in as word spread, particularly of their pici cacio e pepe (which was also nominated for Best Dish). Pici prides itself on pasta made fresh daily, extruded or, in the case of its pici, hand-rolled on site. The vibe is saucy, hot and fast, with sometimes-droll but friendly service, in a tiny space that thankfully has an overflow into the arcade. It’s accessible, tasty and emblematic of the style of dining we’re in love with right now — easy eating, low fuss, communal, and serving the community it lives in.
Our runner-up, Ponsonby Road Bistro , is the old faithful that we can rely on to always deliver on delicious food, plus service that shows the bistro has been in business a long time (now in its tenth year, in fact).
Best Casual Restaurant — Central city
Our winner of Best Casual, Central City is in a mall. Gochu opened in the middle of 2020, and it was a long time in the making. We had been following its Instagram account, @gochugotyou, for a year or two prior to that, with little to go on but a black ink logo and the fact that David Lee and Oliver Simon, ex co-owners of Simon & Lee, were involved. It turns out the long lead time was because they’d signed the lease in January 2018, expecting Commercial Bay, the mall Gochu is in, to open in April 2019. It opened in June 2020. Jason Kim (ex-Sidart, Cassia ) and Nathan Lord are in the kitchen — all four are co-owners — and much of the food is inspired by Kim’s childhood flavours, showcasing Korean food that stretches beyond bibimbap and gochujang. “New Korean”, they call it, and the spicy, zingy, unexpected elements immediately hit your palate with maximum impact. We like that Gochu has created a singular identity, cordoning off a distinct set-up in between the other outlets that curve around in the space overlooking the Ferry Building and waterfront, and that as a result, it has real character. It introduced something original to downtown Auckland: genuinely delightful food we haven’t eaten elsewhere, in the middle of a buzzy and renewed part of the central city.
The runner-up, Amano, needs no introduction. It often feels like Amano is what Britomart hums around, with people swanning in and out of their doors from 7am in the morning to late at night amongst its lovely, romantic interiors (dried flowers and brick abound) that huddles diners in even while being in what is essentially a cavernous warehouse. Though recently sold to Savor Group, we’ve found there’s been no immediate need to worry: Amano has kept running smoothly to the beat of the same drum.
Best Smart Dining
Runner up: Mr Morris
We love this new, sleek Spanish eatery in the middle of Britomart, where you can settle in for an elegant long lunch or snuggle up in those window-facing seats, watching the world go by. With Jo Pearson on the tools, the restaurant was conceived after a trip to Andalusia, a southern region in Spain, by Pearson, Hip Group’s founder and CEO Jackie Grant, and manager Natasha Parkinson. Taking inspiration from that region, the food is tasty and smouldering, immensely charred and flamed to tasty perfection. It’s comforting but somehow exciting, with unfussy dishes bursting with bright and bold flavours which invoke a sense of the sea-breezy, coastal Spanish region while using local Aotearoa produce. There’s something really nice about its specificity — Andalusian-inspired cuisine, with Spanish wines, varietals and sherries — and finding how that food, inspired by far-flung travels, fits in with the local produce and seasons.
Andalusian cuisine itself is a blend of cultures, with Arabic and North African influences, so a sebiche (or, ceviche) comes with almond and harissa, for example. It’s a cuisine less explored in the Auckland restaurant scene, and the bare-bones menu encourages a conversation with your server, who is always happy to clarify what pinchitos, escabeche, and ajo blanco might be. Take it from us: it’s all good.
Mr Morris, our runner up, is in Britomart’s Excelsior House, now covered in Shane Cotton’s Maunga. Opened just last year, it’s a triumph of great food, smart service and a lovely atmosphere, helped by Cheshire Architects’ soothing fit-out.
Church Road Best Fine Dining
Sid and Chand Sahrawat @sidsahrawat @hospomum opened Sidart in 2009, and it was announced in May this year that they have sold the restaurant to long-time friend and colleague Lesley Chandra @lesleychandra, who at the time was working as the head chef of Sid at The French Café. While Chandra’s official start date as its owner is 7 September, he’s already stepped into the kitchen during the transitional period. And we think Sidart is going to be just fine.
At Sidart, there is a unique, intriguing use of flavour, texture and technique which intermingle to express a sense of delight and joy that can sometimes be missing when eating at the fine-dining level: quail rubbed in spice and cooked over charcoal to emulate the tandoori oven; a take on the street-snack chaat which requires diners to dig in and mix up the components; a wagyu steak with a swipe of laal maas curry on the side. Courses are often served with an explanation of intention, adding a storytelling element that enriches the experience.
Best Neighbourhood Restaurant
Runner up: The Engine Room
A game meat restaurant in the middle of Dominion Rd. Who would have thought it? Well, it’s here, and has been in some form since 1987. Owned by the same family which got it all started, Persian-inspired Cazador uses ingredients from hunters and local producers in a sustainable-forward approach to cooking and eating.
The restaurant was opened by Barbara and Tony Lolaiy; their son Dariush Lolaiy, now co-owner and executive chef, took over the business in 2012 with his partner, Rebecca Smidt. Through their nine years at the helm, the couple have brought a vibrant freshness to Cazador, transforming what it means to eat there, while the original white stucco walls and animal trophies remain immovable parts of the restaurant’s decor — a statement that the past will always have a place in its present.
That’s what we love about Cazador: it stays true to exactly what it is. A charming neighbourhoodness is immediately apparent by how the staff greet diners, some of whom are shown to their regular table. It is, without a doubt, the kind of place you can drop in for a drink and some nibbles in the outdoor courtyard, or book in for a special dinner and know they’ll have your back. We’re infinitely jealous of anyone who can call Cazador their local.
Runner-up The Engine Room has been one of our favourites now for over 15 years. It’s lovely to sink into the buttery lighting, quiet buzz and long, generous dining room that envelopes diners into its soft, homey ambiance which seems to work equally well for a casual, I-forgot-to-cook midweek dinner and a milestone meal.
Best Destination Restaurant
Winner: The Shed
What makes the Best Destination Restaurant, the Best Destination Restaurant? Well, for starters, it’s probably somewhere beautiful. It’s definitely somewhere that makes you excited to go. And it’s most definitely somewhere that makes the journey worthwhile. Our winner this year, The Shed at Te Motu Vineyard, ticks all those boxes, and more. With chef Yutak Son now at the helm, our judges noted that the food here is the best they’ve had on Waiheke Island for a while, and raved about every element of their meal, from dish-of-the-day (and nominee for Best Dish) Via Vio Scamorza to the Pakaraka Pickles. (It’s cliche but not untrue to say food tastes better when you have some understanding of the story behind it. The Pakaraka Pickles come from Pakaraka Permaculture, a regenerative farm from Thames.) All of which to say is: there is plenty of fantastic wine here, and elsewhere on the island, but believe us when we say the food alone is worth the ferry round trip.
Best New Restaurant
Winner: Mr Morris
After having a break from the Auckland restaurant scene when Merediths closed in 2017, Michael Meredith is back at it again, this time with something a little more approachable than his fine-dining past. It’s already made a significant, deeply felt impact into the Auckland dining scene, becoming a go-to recommendation for out-of-towners and locals alike. None of that would matter, though, if the food wasn’t also genuinely impressive — but it is.
Inside, Meredith can often be seen in the kitchen turning over octopus tentacles and slabs of meat, anchoring the middle of his team as they plate and tweeze around him. It’s intricate, supremely thought out food, in an environment that wavers between casual and fine; the waitstaff wear smart jackets, but you wouldn’t look out of place in jeans and a tee.
Since the menu is light on dish descriptions — merely a list of ingredients — what you actually dig into is always a little different from what you imagined, and some extra sketching out from the waitstaff is often required. We love that about it.
Winner: Milk bun — Gochu
Pici cacio e pepe — Pici
Katsu sando — Omni
Mushrooms with egg, black fried rice and shiitake broth — Ahi
Easterbrook quail, macadamia, leek, saffron — Sidart
Beef tongue, olive, preserved lemon — Alma
Via Vio Scamorza — The Shed at Te Motu
Served with a side of silky beurre blanc, the Gochu Milk Bun is already on a one-way ticket to becoming an Auckland icon (it’s even spawned a collab with fashion label Checks Downtown). Initially something you could only get as a “special”, the milk bun, filled with spicy kimchi pork, is now on the permanent menu. It’s infinitely craveable, deceptively simple — and that’s to its strength. It may not have a million components, but it’s exactly the kind of food that sticks out in your mind and you come back to again and again. Spicy. Salty. Rich. Texturally delightful. Yum.
Runner up: Hugo’s Bistro
Ponsonby Road Bistro
The Engine Room
When we think about what makes a good restaurant, we think of the food, sure, and maybe the vibe, and the fit-out. But service, too, is an integral component of any dining experience. Types of service may differ between different genres of restaurants, but all great service does the same thing: make diners feel taken care of. Our Best Service winner, Cazador, embodies that fully. From the warm welcome, to the thoughtful, knowledgeable way you’re taken through the menu, to the gentle but confident drink suggestions, to the lively small talk with servers (but only if you want it, of course). Headed by co-owner Rebecca Smidt, she has recently been joined at front-of-house by restaurant manager Simon Benoit, who is also nominated for Restaurant Personality of the Year. They make it all look so easy.
With the front-of-house mostly looked after by Sophie Beaton (a nominee for Restaurant Personality of the Year), the service at Hugo’s is assured and friendly. It’s the ideal place to sit back, relax and be looked after. “The service there is flawless,” one judge said.
Esk Valley Best Wine List Award
Winner: Mr Morris
Runner up: Alma
Decided by wine writer and Top 50 Wine head judge Oliver Styles @olly.styles, he had this to say of winner Mr Morris: “Looking through Mr Morris, the drinks and wine list really opened up. A bit like finding this lovely grotto with nook after nook of interesting possibilities, all within a really navigable layout. Each page was like a promise of something interesting. So it’s Mr Morris for a well-crafted, interesting wine list.”
The runner-up, Alma, has to be commended too for, “having another really tight, well-crafted list that knows what it’s doing and has considerably more by-the-glass options than not.”
“It’s really heartening seeing how many restaurants have a broad list of wines that push out into minimal-intervention wines from both NZ and abroad, as well as keeping classics, crowd-pleasers and small producers,” Styles said.
Campari Best Bartender of the Year
Winner: Salvador Brown — Ada
Anton Baylon — Ahi
Akira Ohki — Masu
Arun Rodgers — Onslow
A word from our sponsors, Campari: “A great restaurant bar should be more than a waiting room for guests before being seated at their table. And a restaurant bartender is integral not only to first impressions, but to creating a beverage offering that elevates the meal from start to finish: from aperitivo to digestivo.
The best bartenders form an integral part of the restaurant atmosphere and experience. Passionate about the drinks they create, these bartenders draw inspiration from – and in turn inspire – the flavours, textures and colours of the outstanding food that drinks are served alongside.
Congratulazioni and cin cin to the Campari Bartender of the Year 2021, Salvador Brown from Ada.”
Brown demonstrated an overall passion and personality alongside a great cocktail list that had synergy with Ada’s food.
Restaurant Personality of the Year
Winner: Minkyu (Paul) Lee — Ockhee
Runner-up: Simon Benoit — Cazador
James Pain — Pici
Sophie Beaton — Hugo’s Bistro
Diva Giles — Beau
We don’t think there’s anyone who embodies the spirit of their restaurant quite like Minkyu (Paul) Lee, the co-owner and front-of-house at Ponsonby eatery Ockhee. A visit to Ockhee almost certainly means a visit to Minkyu Lee: a hustler, a grinder, a dude who just wants you to have a good time. What we mean is, Lee works really bloody hard, in a way that goes beyond the usual parameters of a restaurant, forging connections with his diners and convincingly shepherding them into the wider Ockhee family. Ockhee is a restaurant but also a brand, spawning merchandise in the form of T-shirts, lighters, bottle openers and the ubiquitous “Seoul” diva stickers: all things people want and purchase because they believe so fully in the food and identity of the place. Lee is a big, undeniable part of that, so it was a no-brainer to recognise him as Metro’s Restaurant Personality of the Year.
Runner-up Benoit (previously of The French Cafe) is an absolute pro, talking his way around the drinks menu, how your day’s going, and whether or not you really do need that extra entree, with no difficulty. As one of our judges said, “Anyone who can handle my mum with that much ease deserves a shout out.”
The Produce Company Best Chef Award
Winner: Jo Pearson
Jason Kim — Gochu
Michael Meredith — Mr Morris
Yutak Son — The Shed
Dariush Lolaiy — Cazador
At one point, Jo Pearson was the executive chef of around nine (or more — who can keep count?) restaurants and cafes under the hospitality powerhouse Hipgroup. In March this year, Savor Group acquired Hipgroup’s remaining venues (Amano, Ortolana and The Store), and Hipgroup, which had redefined the Auckland dining scene throughout its operation, was essentially Hipgroup no more. But what it didn’t include in the sale was newly minted restaurant Alma, the group’s Britomart restaurant that felt a little more grown-up than its previous venues. Alma took a little while to settle in, but now that it’s found its feet, we can say it has some of the best food Pearson has served up: smoky, earthy, sun-soaked flavours that we endlessly crave to put in the middle of a table and devour as a group.
After many years of having her hands and knives in so many of Auckland’s great restaurants, Pearson will soon have her own, co-owning Alma alongside general manager Natasha Parkinson. Congratulations, chef, and congratulations, too, on being this year’s The Produce Company Best Chef.
SanPellegrino Young Chef Scholarship
Winner: Prince Sharma
Li Xian Hon
Vallensia Cavella Wijaya
This year, Metro partnered with Sanpellegrino for a joint initiative, the Metro Sanpellegrino Young Chef Scholarship, which recognises a young, up-and-coming chef in Auckland. We wanted to find someone with passion, a unique perspective, and enough experience under their belt that shows they’re well on their way. So we put the call out for entries, asking all chefs to submit a recipe they feel showcases their culinary identity, and to tell us their personal approach to food: how do they see themselves contributing to Auckland’s diverse food scene?
Metro and SanPellgrino chose five finalists, all who brought something different to the table. Ultimately, though, we decided on a winner. Prince Sharma, at the moment a junior sous chef in QT restaurant Esther, submitted a dish that we all wanted to eat immediately: a red wine-braised tahr tortellini, chicken and saffron brodo, with curry leaves. “This showcases a Mediterranean twist on the flavours and ingredients I grew up with in India,” Sharma says. “I have been heavily influenced by my mother, who was a great cook. I have fond memories of her making roti dough, drying chillies in the sun, preparing fresh pickles, and her famous saffron rice pudding. Slow-cooking, braising, drying, pickling; a lot of work done by hand is needed to get the best flavour and make something tasty out of simple ingredients.” That comes through in this dish.
Sharma will receive a minimum 2 weeks’ experience across New Zealand and Australia’s leading restaurants; $5000 cash to cover flights and accommodation; and a feature in the next issue of Metro, including his winning recipe (so look out for that).
Restaurateur of the Year
Winner: Emma Ogilvie and Nick Landsman — Bar Céleste , East Street Hall
Rebecca Smidt & Dariush Lolaiy — Cazador
Sid and Chand Sahrawat — Sid at French Cafe, Sidart, Cassia
Emma Ogilvie and Nick Landsman have technically only been restaurateurs since they opened Bar Céleste @bar_celeste, their Karangahape Rd wine bar/restaurant, in 2019, but they’ve been familiar faces in the scene for long before that. Their fun and vibrant pop-ups under La Pêche was the start of great things to come. After the huge success of Céleste, Ogilvie and Landsman opened East Street Hall with business partner Henry Temple, transforming the previous community hall of the Samoan church into a bar/restaurant/club/venue space/whatever else it wants to be. They used the space for community-led activations, with a goal to give a platform to underrepresented groups; it seems like everything they do is done with a fresh perspective, an aim to achieve something different. As one judge put it, “I’m always excited to see what they do next.”