Italian cuisine like you’ve never had before is on the menu at Sugo. Photo/Supplied
It was one of those gloriously sunny April afternoons when we wandered down Persimmon Lane in Te Puna, Tauranga and entered what felt like a scene from a trendy lifestyle magazine.
At the end of the driveway, set between acres of farmland and hidden by towering hedges was a large manicured lawn, glowing with 4pm light and abuzz with people in various types of linen and floral.
The stunning sight awaited guests at the ‘Hāngi with Kārena and Kasey’. Photo / Flavors of Plenty Festival
After a stop at the cocktail table, we drifted into the center of the garden and savored the scene; the bubbly chatter of conversation and gentle strum of a live guitarist, the dollhouse-like villa and the unmistakable smell of burning ash.
The latter led us to a large smoking hole in the ground, which, at any other garden party, would have been cause for alarm. At the Flavors of Plenty event “Hāngī with Kārena and Kasey” however, this patch of charred earth was the star of the show.
Kāsey Bird and her partner dig up dinner at their hāngi event. Photo/Supplied
As the name suggests, the evening was a hāngī-style dinner by celebrity chefs Kārena and Kasey Bird, hosted by pop-up restaurant company, Kitchen Takeover. It was also one of several events that took place as part of Tauranga’s brand new festival “Flavours of Plenty”.
The first of what will be an annual affair, the four-day food festival partners with the region’s talented food community to nurture and celebrate its reputation as a top gastronomic destination.
A reputation that could see it become one of Aotearoa’s best.
Bay of Plenty’s climate and geology make it the perfect location for premium produce. Photo / Brian Scantlebury
Considering how long places like Hawke’s Bay and Wellington have dominated our country’s “top foodie destination” stakes, the call is a bold one. However, if Flavors of Plenty is anything to go by, Tauranga is an underdog worth watching. But you don’t need to wait for next year’s festival before you go to experience it yourself. The Bay is full of flavour, whenever you decide to visit.
As a region, the Bay has always had many of the ingredients needed to become an A-class food region. High-quality soil, warm climate and proximity to the ocean primes it for premium produce and fresh kaimoana, while a 6000-person-strong food-and-beverage industry is ready to help plate it.
The final piece, according to Flavors of Plenty chairwoman and Kitchen Takeover founder Stacey Jones, was the “big city vibe”.
Stacey Jones, founder of Kitchen Takeover. Photo / Andrew Warner
Difficult to define yet unmistakable when encountered, the ever-evasive “vibe” is often what sets a destination above the rest, whether for food, arts, sport or fashion.
In the case of food, it’s about more than just nice dishes or fancy restaurants, but a crackling synergy between producers and consumers. For good vibes to happen, you need an industry willing to take risks and be innovative, as well as a community eager to get amongst and participate; to buy tickets, fill tables and post all the pictures as they go.
Qualities that were on full display at the pop-up hāngī and are at the heart of Kitchen Takeover’s previous events.
Founded in 2018 by Jones, the pop-up company was inspired by the famous supper clubs and Michelin star restaurants she had attended and loved back home in London. Running for 10 weeks, three times a year, the business has boomed, with 2000-ticket events selling out in days, if not hours.
From the menu to the music, every event is done according to an outlandish theme, such as Eat your Memories (Kiwi nostalgia), Food of the Gods (inspired by Māori deities) or, Truffle Hunting (which will take place in June). Although some things stay the same; Guests are always seated around large communal tables where they can bond over lovingly crafted menus of gorgeous food.
Conversation flowed easily between guests at the Kitchen Takeover event, which sat people together around large tables. Photo / Flavors of Plenty Festival
Kitchen Takeover isn’t the only sign of the foodie vibes in Tauranga, either.
After a deep, full-belly sleep, and full day of exploring, we spent the following evening at Isakai Bar and Eatery.
Sitting on the edge of Bayview shopping mall and serving up Māori-Japanese fusion, it was far from a rural garden pop-up but shared two key qualities; exquisite food and packed tables.
Opened in 2021, Isakai has its roots in Japanese cuisine and culture with nods to Māori decor and flavours. A combo that seems unusual, until you try their pāua gyoza and wonder why more eateries haven’t attempted this fusion before.
Slowly picking away at different plates, we basked in the warmth of the open kitchen, scored by the soft murmur of fellow diners. Through the window we watched several reservationless groups cluster outside at what felt like the trendiest spot in town.
Isakai’s creamed paua and prawn dumplings are not to be missed. Photo/Supplied
Third time’s the charm, and for Sunday lunch we found yet another eatery taking risks and being rewarded with a swell of eager patrons.
Plant-based, Italian and Michelin aren’t words often found together, unless you’re at Sugo. Opened in November 2020, the Italian-inspired eatery is headed by Ian Harrison, a Brit with more than 20 years’ experience with top UK chefs and at Michelin-star restaurants.
Sugo is a must-visit spot for plant-based and meat-eating foodies alike. Photo/Supplied
Italian cuisine isn’t novel in Aotearoa but what sets Sugo apart is that beyond the mouth-watering menu of bologna-style beef cheek lasagna and truffle bechamel pizza is another, totally plant-based menu.
As a five-year vegan who has eaten their fair share of side salads and marinara pizza sans-cheese, you can imagine my excitement. Not a plant-based eater himself, Harrison said he relished the challenge of creating traditional flavors and textures using unconventional ingredients. While the alternative menu is available year-round for vegan diners, for Flavors of Plenty, Harrison took it up a notch and hosted a 5-course plant-based feast.
Sugo’s plant-based feast was a delight for the eyes and tastebuds. Photo/Supplied
Cooked like a science project (think dehydrating and rehydrating, pickling and smoking), and plated like an artwork, these dishes weren’t just “good for plant-based” or “as good as meat opt”ons’ but easily in a league all of their own. It isn’t extravagant to say digging into their gnocchi with mushroom reduction was a somewhat spiritual experience.
Judging from the sold-out tables all around us, we weren’t the only ones to think so.
So, does Tauranga, have what it takes to rise through the ranks and become one of the renowned foodie cities of Aotearoa? If what they say is true, and the proof really is in the pudding, I have no doubt.
CHECKLIST: BAY OF PLENTY
For more things to see and do in the region, go to bayofplentynz.com
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
Check traffic light settings and Ministry of Health advice before travel at covid19.govt.nz