"Have your tried the cheese rolls? You have to try them – they're delicious and they're our southern sushi!"
It's not often that the humble cheese roll gets elevated to the role of cultural icon, but in Dunedin, this simple treat is a point of pride.
I'm sitting inside Larnach Castle – former home of eccentric Australian banker William Larnach turned museum and public attraction – when I'm given the local recommendation. Roughly grated cheese and a packet of onion soup mix is slathered on white bread, rolled up and toasted until it's light brown and served with a generous smear of butter. It's the sort of simple but bone-warming comfort food that will find a happy audience in both picky eaters and gourmands alike.
"What do you think – it's good, isn't it?"
I would have answered, but my mouth was full of cheese, so I simply nodded in agreement.
"Southern sushi" can be found at dozens of cafes across Dunedin, but there's something quite sumptuous about eating one within the highly decorative walls of the castle.
Dunedin (population 127,000) may not be as familiar as Auckland or Christchurch, but it's quietly carving out a niche for itself with its ever-evolving food scene. Dunedin is located at the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island, and while its location may technically be isolated from most of the world, its flavours are a fantastic mix of international and local.
Restaurant and historic garden Glenfalloch, whose name harks back to Dunedin's settling by Scots in 1848 – Glenfalloch is Gaelic for "hidden valley" – illustrates this melding of cultures perfectly. It was given a sharp culinary makeover in August 2016, when new owners Hannes Bareiter and Melanie Hartmann shook up its generic cafe menu and turned Glenfalloch into a culinary destination.
The couple (Bareiter is the chef and Hartmann runs the front-of-house) began their careers in their German homeland and have brought their European finesse to the Otago Peninsula.
The restaurant, with its high ceilings, bright white walls and relaxed atmosphere, is somewhat of a contrast with the experimental, highly detailed dishes that change so often that at times not even the wait staff know what's coming up next on the Trust the Chef degustation menu.
First course might be a mouthful of delicate choux pastry filled with goat's cheese and apple gel, which adds a jolt of tartness. I've gobbled it up in seconds, which is its only disappointing feature. To follow are crab and skate rissoles with very finely shaved vegetables and a presentation so divine that I almost hesitate to eat it. Almost.
Glenfalloch is surrounded by 30 hectares of carefully tended gardens, which double as a pantry for Bareiter, who has become adept at foraging for mushrooms, herbs and greens to use in his dishes. This include the delightfully named Happy Hen dish featuring an egg cooked at 64 degrees, and served on a bed of kale, mushrooms from Glenfalloch's gardens, artichoke chips and truffle hollandaise sauce. The umami is so intense, that months later, I still think about it.
Dunedin is dotted with historic buildings that blend with the street art, a combination that gives off more than a few urban vibes. One of those buildings, Dunedin's former grand post office, was transformed into the four-and-a-half star Distinction Hotel. It's home to The Vaults, opulent 1930s-style private dining rooms housed in what were until recently disused bank vaults. There are four to choose from, each decorated differently, with canapes or full menu available from the hotel's restaurant, Parcels, which leans strongly Italian. Petite bites of vermouth-infused scallops with green olive tapenade don't last long on the plate; neither do thin tiles of Red Tullock venison carpaccio, topped with bitey parmesan and little beads of caviar.
A restaurant that very much speaks to how Dunedin's food scene has developed in recent years – and where it is headed – is Moiety, regularly hailed as one of the city's best. With a clean architectural design mixed with original exposed brick walls, its sparse menu focuses on quality over quantity. Usually, there is only a five-course set menu available, plus a couple of sides. Lack of choice means that you're likely to experiment with something you've never tried before, something that chef Sam Gasson is keen to encourage.
Gasson's dishes fuse local, fresh produce such as fish with Japanese influences including the citrus fruit yuzu, nori and miso.
Watching Gasson prepare each part of the first plate, salmon belly, is like watching an old master paint; he's not pedantic but so measured and precise that it's quite mesmerising to watch. The salmon has been delicately grilled and sits on a bed of nori paste and is covered with thinly shaved radish that mimics a fish's scales.
Dunedin is a sprawling city, covering 3314.8 square kilometres, about the size of Adelaide. However, 90 per cent remains rural and almost all of the town is contained around the peninsula, which divides the town between the university side and the "city" side of things. It doesn't take long to reach the outskirts of town, which is dotted with farms, many of which have tiny roadside stalls selling their goods, such as crisp apples, fresh eggs, carrots and homemade preserves, paid for via an honesty system.
Given its location in the deep south of New Zealand, the cold in Dunedin can be, well, bracing. Scarves and gloves are not simply an option but a necessity. Given the climate, it's little wonder that Dunedin has its fair share of craft breweries and quirky bars, and Inch Bar – at just 1.8 metres wide – holds the title of smallest bar in Dunedin. Despite its cosy size and eccentric collection of posters, books and guitars that adorn the walls, it actually doesn't feel all that small. It's not the sort of place you go to to eat (you can order food from nearby restaurants to be delivered) but do go for its strong selection of craft and international beers, including IPAs and hard cider, plus some local drops, plus its popular live music nights.
Dunedin is a brewer's town, and the biggest of these local breweries is Emerson's, started by Richard Emerson in 1992 with just a handful of bottles. Its new flagship bar and restaurant is a slick, modern ode to pub culture, with a dedicated taproom and relaxed dining area. I order a beer sampler, which includes a low-hops, Chinese-inspired Gaitan Dragon, which has a subtle spice flavour and is absolutely delicious.
Where Emerson is comforting, New New Brewery is more like a Japanese spacecraft. This small operation likes to brew with big, bold flavours and combinations, including an eel-flavoured beer when I visit. It's not just a head-turning name, but is made with actual eels, and so, in an act of journalistic bravery, I take a swig. Surprisingly, it doesn't taste like the slithery sea creature, but is salty, with a hint of smokiness that's actually quite nice. It's worth trying for the story alone.
Larnach Castle, larnachcastle.co.nz
The Vaults, distinctionhotels.co.nz
New New Brewery, newnewnew.nz