While we traversed 3000+ miles of NZ terrain and 600+ miles in Australia, we saw two animals over and over and over again – sheep and cows. They were everywhere! When it comes to food what does that mean – delicious lamb, steaks, burgers, cheese, and ice cream. The two nations share a British culinary influence, naturally, so they have some of the most scrumptious fish n' ships east of the English Channel. In addition to these staples, we also had the freshest of produce, especially in NZ, thanks to their booming agriculture industry, world class beer and wine, and the best coffee we've had so far. NZ truly offers some of the best food and drink any one country can provide. And Australia satisfied our hankerings for more ethnic food cravings, just like back home.
That said, the scope of eating-out was limited in both countries due to the fact we were there for well over a month—so budget and health dictated that we cook frequently. Whether in hostel kitchens or our van (down by the river), we hit the grocery stores weekly to prepare our own meals, which illuminated us to some great snacks from down under! Luckily we did balance this with some really great restaurant meals and local eats, which did not disappoint.
With all those cute little sheep running around we knew we had to partake in some delicious lamb dishes, and NZ didn't disappoint. From rack of lamb to shredded lamb in honey cinnamon sauce we had some amazing fresh and tender meats from those puffy little white guys. Best restaurant won pretty much on their feature of this star ingredient.
Best Restaurant – NZ
The best restaurant we visited while in NZ was a place in Queenstown called Pier 19. As the name suggested, Pier 19 is situated right on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, offering beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Initially we scoffed at the restaurant since it is situated in a fairly touristy area of Queenstown (though most of the city is touristy, so not much of a surprise there) but it ended up being a very tasty, local, and fresh menu. We started with the best presentation of crayfish we had in NZ, a giant ravioli stuffed with chunks of crayfish, topped with fried whitebait. It was fishy yet delicate, and we were tempted to put in a second order so we could enjoy more. It definitely made up for the sub-par crayfish we had in Kaikoura, further demonstrating the value of a good chef. I then moved on to the crispy lamb rack, and Carrie enjoyed the red-wine braised beef short ribs, both using locally sourced meat – maybe even from a farm we drove past a few days earlier! Both were delectable – so fresh and cooked to perfection we barely needed knives. As we finished our meals we watched the sun go down, leaving us with a violet sunset over the mountains and a sweet breeze from the lake. This made Pier 19 our favorite restaurant in NZ, and one we'd highly recommend to anyone looking for great food in a chain-dominated city.
Best Individual Dish - NZ
Our best dish in NZ, however, wasn't one of the meals we had at Pier 19, but rather from a burger shop around the corner. It was at the world-famous Fergburger, another Queenstown staple. Similar to Shake Shack in NYC, Ferburger boasts a line around the block of patrons waiting to get their hands on delicious burger concoctions, like Sweet Bambi (wild deer with plum chutney) and Little Lamby (NZ lamb with mint jelly). To avoid the lines we went there for a late dinner our first night in town and ordered up two of their “classic” burgers – gotta go original to get a feel for a burger joint – The Fergburger with cheese. It was simply one of the best burgers we've ever had (and I've had MANY) – a peppery, juicy, perfectly cooked burger on a kaiser roll, topped with red onion, tomato, and fresh leaf lettuce, plus their signature garlic aioli. Neither of us said a word to each other as we scarfed down the burgers in record time, only nodding periodically to indicate our satisfaction. And just like Shake Shack (and Corner Bistro, and Umami Burger) we understood why there was always a line, and agreed that the line was totally worth the wait. It was so good that we went back a few nights later, making Fergburger the only restaurant we dined at twice since Don Julio in Argentina.
Stone Fruits. We happened to be in NZ during stone fruit season so everything was fresh and local, pick-it-yourself or grab it from a fruit stand. In case you're curious (like we were), stone fruits are any fruit with a pit, so peach, plum, nectarines, apricots, cherries, are the biggies. The NZ fruits are some of the best we've ever had. The plums were the stars, followed closely by the apricots and cherries. But seriously, those plums. When ripe, they were two to three juicy bites of perfection.
And thanks to their great fruits and agriculture along with milk, NZ is also known for a sweet local specialty, one you can find everywhere - “real fruit ice cream”. Real fruit ice cream is exactly what the name suggests – ice cream mixed with your choice of fresh fruit. Usually bought from just a little stand, these purveyors of deliciousness have a special machine to mix up the treat. They toss in a few scoops of vanilla ice cream, along with few scoops of your fruit of choice raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, plums or a mixture of any of the above, then push a button on the machine, causing an auger to lower into the bowl, thus grinding all the goodness into smooth, fruity ice cream. It's sweet, flavorful, and so refreshing after a warm hike in the wilderness, a day spent out on the water, walking home from dinner, because it's Wednesday, etc. We've never seen anything similar and don't really know why since it's simple, delicious, and kinda healthy. I'm investing in an ice cream mixing machine when I get home.
Chocolate – There's a Cadbury factory in Dunedin, and there are more varieties of chocolate there than you can shake a cocoa bean at, so we had to try as many as we could. Best one – Cadbury Marvellous Creations. Milk chocolate with jelly beans and pop-rocks inside. Yeah....
Best Restaurant - Australia
As with most major tier-one cities, both Sydney and Melbourne boast tremendous ethnic foods. We also had the best meal in both NZ and Australia at a Spanish tapas restaurant in Melbourne called Movida. Small and incredibly popular, we feasted on fried sardines, buttery red snapper with clams, and a seared duck breast with plum sauce that was exquisite.
Best Dish – Australia
The winner of all the foods (and one of the best dishes we've had....period) was the mushroom croquette from Movida. Deep fried in panko and filled with the most rich and savory mushroom mousse, these little four-bite morsels were so good we placed an order for two additional ones after we finished our main meal. Who ever said you can't have an appetizer for dessert?
Local Specialties – Australia
Balmain Bay Bugs. Bugs, eh? These “bugs” are a crustacean, and are a cross between lobster and shrimp and a crab, both in taste and appearance. Kinda like sweet shrimp or crab, they are served cold with a side of dipping sauce (that we skipped since it ruined the taste of the fish) and cut in half so you can peel the meat out like a mini lobster tail. They are little white pillows of seafood perfection. We may have to find some after we get home.
Vegemite. When we came down for breakfast on our first morning in Sydney we saw little packets of vegemite next to the bread, so we made some toast, spread a little bit on it, and steeled ourselves for the really bad taste we'd heard so much about. And, well, here's what we thought...
Sorry Australia, we just can't support vegemite. To us it tasted intensely sour and like licking vomit off of stinky feet. We're guessing it's an acquired taste, but we don't want to work towards acquiring any more of that taste.
Differences & Observations at Mealtime
Produce – the produce in NZ and Australia is very fresh and local, but the interesting thing here is that they have weird names for some common staples. We ate lots of capsicum (green peppers), courgettes (zucchini), squash soup (butternut pumpkin), and chips (french fries). We also enjoyed delicious drinking chocolate (hot chocolate) with trim milk (skim milk) many nights in the hotel.
All the “junk food” in NZ and Australia is much healthier than back in the States. All their chips, crackers, cookies and candy have easily pronounceable, whole ingredients. We examined all the food labels to try and find SOME invented ingredients but couldn't find anything. No monounsaturatedtriglyceridical oils for us!
When at a restaurant, you have to pay at a counter. Everywhere. Even at the fancy restaurants you have to bring your check to the counter to pay. They then ask you what table you were sitting at and you need to turn around and point to where you were sitting. They then will either add up what they think you ate or try and dig up the ticket from your waiter. It's a way overly complicated process that seems like it can be solved by just bringing the credit card machine to the table. Come on, NZ and Australia!
Bars don't normally do “tabs”. When you order a round of drinks you pay for it right away. Probably a smarter way to do it, but kind of a pain when paying with a credit card every time.
Best Grocery Store Find
The Natural Confectionary jelly candies. The snakes and the fruit slices were the best, and kept us going on some of those long driving segments. We purchased an embarrassing number of bags of these “natural” gummy treats.
NZ is experiencing a craft beer revolution, and it shows in how many breweries are popping up all over the place. We've mentioned a few of the breweries in earlier posts, but we can safely say that if you're a beer aficionado then NZ is the promised land. Here's a quick recap of some of our favorites:
Best Brewpub – Brothers Brewing, Auckland. A cross between a brewery and the set of that 70s show, the vibe here is laid back and cool, with great beers to enjoy on their burlap couches.
Best Brewery – Garage Project , Wellington. Incredibly inventive beers and excellent examples of the usual staples make this the best brewery on the trip so far.
If beer isn't your thing, NZ also has fantastic wines. Their sauvignon blancs lead the way, with the best ones coming from the Marlborough region in the northern part of the South Island. Even if you don't find whites all that interesting (like me), their whites are fantastic. They also do some great Pinot Noirs, but the star of the show are the sauvs.
Best vineyard – Saint Clair. Nestled in a corner off the main drag in Marlborough, NZ Saint Clair offers an open air dining room where tastings and food are inexpensive and the view through the vineyard is breathtaking.
Best wine – Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
I'd be remiss in not mentioning Australia for their wines, but we didn't really spend time in wine country while in Oz, so we can't really speak to their delicious shiraz. But we did drink some tasty boxed Australian Shiraz in the back of our van, so that has to count for something!
And last but certainly not least – the coffee. Kiwis and Aussies love their coffee, and we took full advantage. From the Long Black to the Flat White we were heavily caffeinated during our time here and will never look at Starbucks or D&D the same way again.