Spruced up, with refreshed menus and different faces at the helm, three of the town’s top restaurants offer a new look this season.

Aurelia at Murdoch James

“Think sun, spices and fresh herbs,” says Lisa Howard of her cooking style at Murdoch James’s new Aurelia restaurant.  After many years running catering businesses in the US and Australia, Lisa has come home to the Wairarapa with plenty of fresh ideas to put into practice.

Opening in May this year after a make-over (Aurelia replaces Bloom), the restaurant has already attracted a following. Lisa has an innovative take on the shared tasting platter, presenting cooked-to-order dishes with a Mediterranean or North African flavour.

The menu ranges from nibbles to go with wine tasting to more substantial platters for those who would like to linger over lunch and a glass or two. The Moroccan platter is one of the most popular, featuring plump little lamb chops that have been marinated in spices and herbs. These are served with roast tomatoes seasoned with sumac, and kumara cocettas, among other tempting morsels. The cocettas are Lisa’s Kiwi twist on a Spanish tapas - sweet, light mouthfuls with a crunch of toasty nuts served with a lemon dip.

The country setting at Murdoch James, overlooking the vines and the valley, makes it popular with bridal parties and corporate groups looking for a rural retreat. The light, airy restaurant can seat up to 80, and in warm weather there’s the option of the wide, sunny deck.

“We can be flexible about menus with bridal or corporate bookings. We are, for instance, having a relaxed barbecue for one wedding. We can cater for gluten-free, vegetarian and paleo diets, and work with any dietary requirements,” says Lisa.

Relaunching the restaurant at Murdoch James has been a round-the-clock labour of love for Lisa, combining the roles of chef, manager, accountant, marketing guru and hostess. That sounds like a very full life, but remarkably, she also runs The Hummingbird, a bakery producing a range of sweet and savoury biscuits sold nationwide.


Martinborough Restaurant & Bar

Sitting pretty on a corner of the town square, the Martinborough Hotel was designed to be a landmark since it was built in 1882. Fresh from a clever makeover, the bar and restaurant are now looking as eye-catching as the exterior.

“We see the Martinborough Hotel as one of the cornerstones of the community,” says co-owner Mark Green. He and Sarah Green bought the hotel three years ago, and have been steadily refurbishing the hotel ever since. Early this year, the couple took over the lease to the restaurant and bar, redecorating and relaunching in May as Martinborough Restaurant & Bar – From Paddock to Plate.

It’s been a dramatic makeover – Wellington interior designer Brett Coram has added a metropolitan edge to the elegant Victorian proportions, with deep blue-green paint and retro-style wallpaper. Welcoming on a chilly evening (there’s a fireplace and comfy chairs), it’s also a pleasant spot to while away a sunny afternoon.

The restaurant menu also shows flair, showcasing seasonal local produce including Longbush pork – slow-roasted and served with kumera ginger mash and wilted spinach.  Also regularly on the menu are Martinborough olive oils, Drunken Nanny goat cheese and Kingsmeade cheeses, and table grapes from nearby vineyards. “The walnuts in the lettuce heart and anchovy starter are from a walnut tree in the hotel garden,” says bar and restaurant manager Glen Schofer.

Both the dinner menu and the bar bites can be eaten in either the restaurant or bar so you can follow the sun around on the corner site. And most enticingly, the hotel will be opening up its ‘secret’ rose-filled garden to summer diners.

The hotel attracts everyone from corporate team builders, cyclists, bridal parties, winetasters from all corners of the globe, walkers who need a bit of R ’n’ R after the Tora Walk, to couples celebrating anniversaries – you name it they have stayed here.

Mark says that for the most part people park their worries on the summit of the Rimutaka Hill and come to have a good time – which makes for a happy working environment.

The team’s plans for the next year include running themed weekends. “People like to go on holiday to learn a new skill –  we have already had  20 guests stay for a yoga weekend which went really well.

We’re thinking people could stay and learn anything from photography or cooking to playing the ukelele,” he says.

And let’s not forget that for many locals – this is simply their local. Town meets country at the bar and restaurant, which are part of the fabric of Martinborough life. Midweek there’s a different vibe here, with events such as Thursday night’s alternating quiz and open mic nights drawing in the local community.


Pukemanu Bar and Eatery

Things are hotting up in Martinborough with award-winning chef Tennesse Liumaihetau in the kitchen of Martinborough’s Pukemanu Bar and Eatery. Recruited by bar owner, Trust House Limited, to raise culinary standards of the pub, Tennesse took over the helm earlier this year.

The restaurant relaunched in May, under a new name – E10, with refreshed decor, and a more innovative take on pub food. It’s well-flavoured country fare, cooked to high standards and presented with the fine dining flair that you’d expect of a good gastro-pub.

“You eat with your eyes first, so it’s important that food looks good on the plate,’ says Tennessee, who has worked in some of the Wellington region’s best kitchens including Logan Brown, the Martinborough Hotel and more recently Bloom.

Already his cooking style is drawing in the diners. “We have had people eat here that haven’t been in for years, and families are coming back to the restaurant. We’ve had a few compliments so it’s good for the staff here too,” he says.

Dishes on the seasonal menu include maple cider pork cutlet, five spice confit chicken with Parkvale mushroom, and the market catch with potato rosti, greens and pine nuts. Mains are priced from $27- $31 but there are also great daily specials, such as free dining for kids on Monday, curry night for $22 on Tuesday, lamb shanks for $22 on Wednesday and a roast dinner and dessert for $30 on Sunday night. And there are also bar snacks ranging from garlic bread to burgers and fish and chips.

Tennesse came to Martinborough from Wellington over nine years ago for what he thought would be a brief stint at the Martinborough Hotel. “I was supposed to go to the States, but I made lots of friends and started playing for the Martinborough Rugby Club,” he says. He also met his wife Moana, who now works front of house at The Pukemanu, and the couple has five children.

That sounds like a full life, but Tennesse says it’s also a very happy one. “It’s about doing work that you love, and striking a good balance between work and family,” he says.

He enjoys the friendly, collaborative atmosphere of Martinborough where restaurants try to complement each other,rather than compete. “We all try to offer something different for customers. We might look at each others’ menus and think, ‘OK, they’re doing that, so I’ll do something else,’” he says.

Like other chefs and restaurateurs in the town, he thinks that the more restaurants there are  the better. They simply draw more visitors into town, especially over the summer season. “I kept telling staff over winter, enjoy the quieter time now, it’s going to get really busy.”

Meanwhile, Tennesse has his sights set on taking out a Beef and Lamb Excellence Award in 2017. He has been working on some exciting entry dishes – a juicy-looking rib eye fillet served with black pudding, polenta and bok choi, and a lamb rump dish served with kumera, almonds and Turkish raisins. Watch out for these as specials on the menu.