The first meal of a trip needs to set the tone. It’s a necessary jumping off point, and a task I did not take lightly. And while technically a quiche shared four ways and a long espresso at the BACH in the Auckland Airport was the first meal – we can just let that slide out of desperation after a 20+ hours of travel.

I wanted a restaurant that highlighted uniquely New Zealand cuisine. Although, as I would soon discover, many of the delicacies across the country are in fact better versions of dishes often passed off as “American” in the states. 

Kika — located one block from the water’s edge in the small town of Lake Wanaka — features a rotating menu showcasing seasonal ingredients. And we’re not just talking when it comes to the food. Cocktails change with the season, and my sister sipped a whiskey based drink that had been smoked in house that morning. (The bartender stopped by to see how she was enjoying the batch). 

In the spirit of vacation, the meal began with locally sourced Bluff oysters. Three of us chose to have them served au natural, while my dad opted for pickled pears and black pepper on top.

Now I’ve never had New Zealand oysters before. It’s a big deal if I splurge during oyster happy hour for the west coast variety — which I admittedly prefer. The Bluff oysters were the largest variety I’d seen, filling the whole seemingly circular shell. And they tasted meaty and briny, causing my sister to exclaim “that was the best oyster I’ve ever had.”

If the first meal sets the tone of the trip, the first oyster of sets the tone of the meal.

From there, the dishes continued uphill. Fried Brussel sprouts with lemon aioli — note: aioli is in everything, and I can’t love a fact more. We devoured fried chicken that tasted nothing like the southern delicacy served at home. This one had a light batter that actually complimented the chicken rather than hide the taste. Seared polenta was topped with eggplant capentata, goat cheese and crispy capers for that burst of saltiness and contrast in texture.

For the main course, lamb shoulder so trendy that it fell off the bone with the gentle touch of the knife was complimented by preserved lemon, rosemary and chilis. Even before seeing the sheep dominating the countryside, you could tell that this meat tasted radically different then the lamb we were used to at home. And of course, like all good meals, potatoes are a great side. But if you can get duck fat fries served with, you guessed it, aioli (balsamic aioli), then you’re golden.

We were too full to even tempt ourselves with the dessert menu, despite having shared all of the dishes. The portions here are not skimpy. Which is slightly surprising considering the reputation given to Americans associated with movies like “Super Size Me” of our overflowing, oversized plates. Here everything is the right size, but so delicate and deliberate in nature. It’s not decadent for the sake of being over the top. There’s a restrained beauty to the dishes — and a place like Kika proves its possible to achieve that balance without leaving your customers hungry.

So if you find yourself in the Lake Wanaka area for dinner, Kika is a perfect place to start. But if you’re there for a breakfast, that’s an entirely different story. (See: Federal Diner). 

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