It is seven o'clock on a Saturday night when I step outside the Art Deco Masonic Hotel, the slick 1930s-style boutique inn where I am staying. It is early May and the rain-soaked streets of Napier are empty.
The self-styled Art Deco Capital of the World is best known for its pastel-hued architecture, mostly built between 1931 and 1933 after the Hawke's Bay earthquake - one of New Zealand's deadliest natural disasters - flattened most of the town. But I am not here for the coastal city's buildings or history, fascinating as they both are.
In Hastings Street, a three-minute stroll from the hotel, is the feted Bistronomy, two-time winner of Best Regional Restaurant at the national Cuisine Good Food Awards.
As the door swings open, the place is jumping. Electro music thrums from the speakers as waiters in brown aprons dart across brushed concrete floors, delivering modern, globally inspired cuisine to a packed house.
The restaurant is among the eateries, markets and tour operators putting the Land of the Long White Cloud on the map for travellers hungry for the next great foodie experience.
"New Zealand's food scene is young, which means it's unrestricted by tradition. Anything goes, as long as it's delicious," says James Beck, owner and head chef of Bistronomy. "We also have magnificent natural resources and produce some of the best meat in the world."
An emerging hub for this foodie revolution is the coastal city of Napier in the Hawke's Bay region.
One of the leading foraging restaurants there, Bistronomy, is "less about fine dining and more about fun dining", says Beck, an alum of The Savoy Hotel in London and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck.
He takes his business seriously. Sustainability is a priority, from how he receives produce ("we eliminated single-use plastics long ago") to cooking techniques ("we no longer sous vide, preferring more traditional methods such as braising, poaching and confit").
Beck also ensures his team is paid fairly. "We're one of a handful of restaurants in New Zealand that are certified Living Wage Employers and the only hatted restaurant to do so," says the community-minded chef, who also served a protest dish this past winter, in solidarity with one of its suppliers.
"The Te Mata Mushroom Company has been farming mushrooms just outside of Havelock North for the last 50 years," says Beck.
"Recent urban sprawl means they're now subject to resident complaints about the smell of the compost they use, and they've been fined by the council because of it.
"So we created a dish, which is a landscape of Havelock North made from mushrooms - the offensive smell is represented by truffle oil, and the one thing on the plate that shouldn't be there, and can't be eaten, is a Monopoly house."
The dish proves more palatable than the real-life situation. Incorporating mushroom consomme, shitakes and a native edible fungus called pekepeke kiore, the dish is earthy with loads of texture and a lovely light crunch.
My favourite item on the menu, though, is the salty yet acidic pilchard boquerones (a tapas-style marinated white fish), with roasted winter apple, beer-soaked grains and whey sorbet.
THE PICK OF THE PRODUCE
Chef Beck is a regular at Hawke's Bay's biannual Food and Wine Classic (F.A.W.C!), a culinary festival that shines a light on local producers and chefs, and takes place over four weekends each summer and winter. The next event runs from June 7 to 30.
While it is worth scheduling a trip around the popular event, gourmands can also sample home-grown produce year-round, on Sundays, at the Hawke's Bay Farmers' Market, one of the oldest and largest markets in the country.
"Our food scene is set apart by our distance from the rest of the world, size and varied climate - and Hawke's Bay is considered the fruit bowl of New Zealand," says Ms Emma Glover, manager of Hawke's Bay Farmers' Market.
"All of our stallholders are locally owned and operated businesses, selling products they've grown or produced themselves."
On the lawn of the Waikoko Gardens, surrounded by mature trees, stalls offer everything from Manuka honey to the many apple varieties grown in the region, along with feijoas - also known as pineapple guava, the fruit originally hails from South America, but is grown here in Hawke's Bay - which come "fresh, freeze-dried and in chutney", says Ms Glover.
There are also stands operated by local, family-owned winemakers Maimai and Hawkes Ridge Wine Estate.
Hawke's Bay's fertile soil and warm, temperate climate make it among New Zealand's leading producers of wine - notably chardonnay and red wines such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.
Tip: To see the region at its verdant best, visit in winter - in summer, the hills are scorched brown by the sun.
For a comprehensive overview of the region's wineries, Prinsy's Tours offer flexible half-and full-day wine tours.
Among the cellar doors they visit are Moana Park, a highly awarded boutique with a focus on natural, preservative-free winemaking; Church Road, the first in New Zealand to craft exceptional quality Bordeaux-style red wine; and Mission Estate, the close to 170-year-old grand dame of the wine region.
When I mention my penchant for dessert wine, my driver makes a beeline for Askerne Winery, which is known for its sweet tipples, including a surprisingly nice Dessert Cabernet, which pairs beautifully with rich chocolate-based dishes.
But the best way to experience the Hawke's Bay wine region has to be on a bicycle tour with Napier City Bike Hire.
Starting in Napier, my guide Jamie led me on a flat, easy-to-ride 23km route that took in beaches and wetlands, for just over two hours, before delivering me to Elephant Hill winery for lunch.
Named New Zealand's Best Winery Restaurant last year, the modern eatery serves up spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, which are superbly matched by head chef Ashley Jones' refined food. His sweet meets salty oak-smoked duck with tamarillo, carrot, hazelnut and honeycomb will linger happily in my memory for years to come.
And I was thankful for the two-hour cycle - a pre-emptive calorie strike - when the restaurant's decadent and plentiful cheese platter arrived.
KEEPING IT NATURAL
After two days spent sampling the region's finest food and drinks, I was reluctant about meeting Mr Hayden Penny, the winemaker and viticulturist at Supernatural Wine Co. The reason: I felt completely and utterly full.
But on his Millar Road Estate - where luxury self-catering accommodation abuts the brand's modest 8.9ha vineyard - Mr Penny casts a spell with his label, which is leading the region in organic winemaking.
"Red wine is fermented with its skin, but it's not commonly done with white wine," says Mr Penny of his naturally vinified, low-sulphur and skin-fermented white wines, which have been certified organic since 2015.
His philosophy is, like vegetables, the peel of the grapes holds all of the goodness, such as antioxidants.
The skin fermentation process produces a darker white wine, which is cleaner on the palate and less likely to leave you with a headache the next day.
"With the organic movement, everyone seems to want to know where their food comes from, but then they buy a $10 bottle of wine at the supermarket without even looking at the label. In New Zealand, there's maybe 80 legal additives you can add to wine. We use only one: sulphur dioxide."
I am not a huge fan of white wines. But after sipping a spicy The Supernatural Sauvignon Blanc and rose gold-coloured Spook Light Pinot Gris, among others, I leave with a couple of bottles to take home, and a new appreciation of organic wine.
THE LAST SUPPER
Back at the Art Deco Masonic Hotel, I have time for one last meal.
It is a chilly Monday night, but the hotel's Emporium Eatery & Bar is warm and near full with patrons.
As I dine on 12-hour braised lamb shoulder - chef Damon McGinniss was one of New Zealand's Beef and Lamb Ambassadors last year - I see a couple at the bar dressed in full 1930s-style clothing. It seems fitting, given Hawke's Bay's inclination to stand out from the crowd.
• Rachel Lees is a travel writer and former magazine editor based in Australia.
• The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand, and return flights in Premium Economy were sponsored by Singapore Airlines.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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