Gourmet Traveler: Seattle’s Brian Canlis on New Zealand's Remarkable Food Culture
The top West Coast restaurateur is inspired by the authenticity of New Zealand’s food and wine – especially at its world-class luxury lodges.
Brian Canlis is a Seattle restaurateur whose family started the Canlis restaurant back in the 1950s and still run it today, three generations on. It is routinely voted among America’s top restaurants, particularly for its incredible attention to wine. By one count, the restaurant – now a comfortable Modernist icon – has the biggest private cellar on the West Coast of the United States.
Recently, he spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand, taking in the incredibly varied, but very sophisticated food scene that New Zealand now offers. In Auckland Canlis, – along with his wife Mackenzie, and friends Christina Tosi and Will Guidara from Momofuku Milk Bar and Eleven Madison Park respectively – ate at the very hip new Woodpecker Hill, a restaurant in the bijou suburb of Parnell, which manages to fuse American barbecue and Thai flavours within a fit-out that combines country club with Balinese resort.
The next night, they headed to a gritty uptown street to eat at The French Café, the city’s finest restaurant – it is an exercise in restraint and mastery, from the modern art on the walls to the dish of scallops cooked in cauliflower cream and served in the shell. During their time in Auckland they also checked out Ortolana – whose owners source much of their menu’s produce from their farm, just west of the city – as well as Giapo, where humble ice cream has been transformed into something transcendent. On their last night, meanwhile, they ate dinner at Depot, the rustic downtown oyster shack of celebrity chef Al Brown. The following day, they headed to Waiheke Island just off the coast, for an afternoon of wining and dining.
From there, they headed to Queenstown in the Southern Alps of the South Island where, after asking locals where to eat in Arrowtown, they were directed to The Blue Door: “this little pub down an alley,” Canlis says. “The people were so kind and the food was so delicious.”
From Queenstown, they returned to the North Island, this time to The Farm at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay on the East Coast – a 6000-acre sheep and cattle ranch surrounded by precipitous cliffs. At the center of the farm is a 22-suite luxury lodge that seems as old as some of the farm’s original farm buildings, though it was only built in 2007. There are hefty wooden beams and flagstone floors, plenty of leather and burnished timber: it is comfortably contemporary. As well, there’s an extensive collection of New Zealand art, gigantic wood-burning fireplaces and spectacular views out over the Pacific Ocean. It is a refined, rustic sort of sensibility – what a century-old farmhouse might have been like, had it had good New Zealand syrah and high thread-count sheets.
At night, guests eat a tasting menu from chef James Honore that uses vegetables from the farm’s extensive gardens, matched with beef and lamb either off the property or from surrounding Hawke’s Bay estates. The menu, as a result, is largely determined by the seasons and what is available: it changes every day – garden leeks, say, matched with a slow-poached egg, pancetta and salsa verde, followed by a shellfish risotto with cavolo nero and tomato and fennel. And that’s not to mention the extensive cellar, which has some of New Zealand’s – and certainly Hawke’s Bay’s – most sought-after wines. The lodge has managed to secure wines from the country’s most sought-after boutique vineyards – vineyards that only produce a few hundred cases a year. “Everything on the plate was from within a stone’s throw of that kitchen,” says Canlis, “It was New Zealand to its core –a simple expression of pure flavours. It’s a refreshing way to eat.”
From there, they drove three hours to Huka Lodge, one of the country’s oldest lodges: it was founded in much more rustic circumstances as a fishing cottage on the banks of the fast-flowing Waikato River in the 1930s, though it was rebuilt – beautifully – in the 1980s. Dinner here was a five-course tasting menu stretching through an exquisite yellowfin tuna tartare and a salad of heritage beets before moving on to scorpion fish, served with pearl barley and brown butter.
It’s fancy, yes: beautifully plated in a way that would be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in a Michelin-starred restaurant. And yet, it is still rooted in a strong tradition of simple, ingredient-driven food and there is nothing here that is not seasonal, because New Zealand’s very isolation means even the best chefs must rely on what the country is able to grow and make. “There’s an authenticity to it, from the wine to the food,” Canlis says. “It doesn’t surprise me, because that’s how the people are – so it stands to reason that they would cook in that way.”
“I think some of the isolation is an asset,” he adds. “I don’t know if New Zealanders know how good they’ve got it – the kindness, the hospitality, the amazing ingredients. Maybe they take it for granted. What a wonderful surprise that is.”
For more information visit www.newzealand.com/luxury