These are dishes that won't disappoint. Happy eating.
Many of our picks have big regular followings. Some are signature dishes that are deeply connected to the restaurant's image and success while others are simply irresistible because of their combination of flavours and textures. They are all the kinds of dishes you'd tell someone on tour they "just have to try".
Custard squares, Gather Food House, $5
The custard squares from Gather Food House is the sweetest "sandwich".
They get these Kiwi faves bang on - the key being the perfectly made, golden crispy puff pastry that keeps its crunch. One layer on top, one on the bottom, and a filling of delicious homemade custard (with a hint of vanilla) that holds its shape without being rubbery. It is the sweetest "sandwich": creamy and crunchy, and dusted with icing sugar to finish.
Coconut rice pudding, Hayes Common, $14
There are lovely layers of flavours in this Asian spin on rice pudding. It's served in a stemless glass and the more you probe, the more you find. The creamy coconut rice has a touch of floral from kaffir lime, it's topped with plum compote flavoured with star anise, and there is texture, crunch and more good tastes from star anise sugar, freeze-dried pomegranate molasses and edible flowers. An elegant end to a meal.
Hayes Common's coconut rice pudding makes an elegant end to a meal.
Kitchen table menu, Palate Restaurant, $120 (wine matching an additional $70)
From a tastefully set table opposite the kitchen pass, you have the pleasure of watching Palate's chefs prepare your seven-course degustation dinner. Owner Mat McLean and his team compile the kitchen table menu on the day, and great care is taken with wine matches.
You might eat tortellini of Clevedon buffalo ricotta with paua, brown butter and sheep's sorrel; lamb with dauphine potatoes (golden deep fried balls of mashed potato, choux pastry and goat cheese); and local cheesemaker Cilantro's goat milk sweet treat Cajeta. And more. The table caters for two-six people.
Kitchen table at Palate Restaurant, where diners watch their food being cooked.
Serial Griller food truck burgers, $13-$15
Cooks Beach-based couple Dave and Keren Kurth make damn fine American-style burgers with crispy-edged meaty patties cooked to their "smash" technique that seals in flavour and juices.
The patties are assembled in fresh demi-brioche buns from Hamilton's Volare Bakery, and Serial Griller's homemade sauces and chutneys provide extra zip.
Image by Christel Yardley
Serial Griller foodtruck parks up next to Little George on Hood Street doing a monthly gig in Hamilton, renowned for great burgers.
Fish special, Alpha St Kitchen & Bar, $38
The fish special changes at the whim of the kitchen, but you can always be guaranteed a treat. The one that took our eye had hapuku as the hero, moist and flaky with crispy scored skin.
The supporting cast included brandade of smoked fish and mashed potato in filo pastry, roast Jerusalem artichoke, delicate squid ink tuille, slivers of pickled onions and a divine hit of anchovy salsa. Cheers to that.
Fish special at Alpha St Kitchen & Bar, Cambridge.
Artisan sourdough, Ruapuke Artisan Bread, $6.50
Get in quick for Jenny Carter's sourdough. It's handmade at her bakery at remote Ruapuke and sold from her tiny hole-in-the-wall shop in Raglan's main street.
Jenny's sourdough is crunchy, crusty and chewy. You'll love its flavour and texture, and it's the perfect vehicle for poached eggs, avocado, homemade jam.
Jenny's sourdough is crunchy, crusty and chewy.
For handcrafted sourdough in the city, head for Volare Bakery at 236 Kahikatea Dr, Hamilton. This gets the tick, too.
Duck Island Ice Cream, $7 for a double scoop
Join the queue at Duck Island for singular flavour and creamy delight. Duck Island Ice Cream's become a local legend with its seasonal think-outside-the-cone creative flavours.
Duck Island Ice Cream's become a local legend with its seasonal think-outside-the-cone creative flavours.
To name a few examples: raspberry, coconut and coriander; orange blossom and chocolate chip; candied violets; maple honey and smoked almonds; roasted white chocolate and miso; black sticky rice; and good old feijoa.
Steak tartare, Crudo, $26
This is steak tartare at its silky best. The meat is cut into tiny dices, formed into a round and topped with a flavour-infused gel disc set with mustard seeds, capers and shallots. It's plated with caperberries, a crispy cruton, wasabi mayo and a raw quail's egg for a soft yolky sauce. The flavours are a mix of meaty and sharp, there are green leaves to cut the richness, and the cruton adds crunchy texture. Everything perfectly judged by chef Gareth Cowie.
Steak tartare at its silky best.
Aglio olio, Scotts Epicurean, $10.50
This comforting, modestly priced spaghetti dish has been on the menu since Scotts opened in 2000. The cafe changed hands last year but the aglio olio remains and it's as good as ever (as is the coffee).
Aglio olio comprises the simple ingredients of good quality spaghetti swooshed through with dried chillies, garlic, lots of fresh parsley, grated parmesan and olive oil. Excellent warming lunch on a winter's day.
This comforting, modestly priced spaghetti dish has been on the menu since Scotts opened in 2000.
Cucumber & elderflower gimlet, Wonder Horse, $16
Wonder Horse is the home of seriously classy cocktails; this elegant beauty – reworkig a classic – delivers a splendidly refreshing hit of Hendricks gin, cucumber, lime and elderflower. There is a goodly lineup of other attractive options to choose from. If you're into gin, try as well the lovely gin and green apple juice cocktail (with a touch of Peychaud's Bitters), at Pony & Provisions, 55 Duke St, Cambridge.