Just four months after chef-owner Matt Lambert and his wife Barbara opened The Musket Room in 2013, a handsome New Zealand eatery in New York's Nolita neighborhood, the Kiwi talent accomplished the practically impossible: earning his young restaurant a Michelin star. With such positive attention garnered so quickly—which has been maintained ever since—it wouldn't be outlandish to credit Lambert with helping to usher in the newfound interest in Oceanic fare, both locally and abroad. While he may now call New York home, his native Auckland is the inspiration behind every bit of his beautifully executed dishes and carefully curated New Zealand wines. Here, Lambert tells us about his favorite hometown haunts, from the best street for coffee shops to the coolest local menswear store, to a perfect local excursion for oysters and wine.
What neighborhood in Auckland are you from? How long did you live in Auckland? How often do you go back to Auckland? I am originally from Henderson, a major suburb of Auckland, mostly working class, west of Auckland’s city center. The whole area used to be orchards and vineyards, and we still have some really nice orchard areas, along with a few great surf beaches. I grew up and lived there for 23 years, and I probably go back to visit Auckland and New Zealand about once a year.
Where would you put up friends visiting town? I would send them to stay in the Auckland neighborhood of Ponsonby, specifically at the Hotel DeBrett. The neighborhood has everything you need: good coffee, shopping, restaurants, and the hotel itself is a boutique luxury hotel right in the heart of the city. Recently redone, the space is beautiful and modern, but still maintains the classic look of the 1925 building. It’s also really intimate, they’ve only got 25 rooms and the attention from the staff is fantastic (2 High St.; 64-9/925-9000; hoteldebrett.com).
Where is the best place to find your hometown’s signature dish? When I fly home to New Zealand, usually my first move is to go pick up a mince and cheese pie. It is truly a classic dish in Auckland, something you can find almost anywhere, even a gas station. At its heart, it is not a fancy dish, just a delicious, classic comfort food. These days, you can find the best mince and cheese pie at The Fridge in Kingsland, because they take their pies a step further, really making their pies gourmet by using great, fresh ingredients (507 New North Rd.; 64-9/845-5321).
What is your favorite restaurant to take visitors? Meredith’s. For me, chef Michael Meredith is the best in New Zealand, and after all these years, Meredith’s is still the must-go recommendation for anyone visiting. The restaurant is tasting menu only, and always evolving, so when you go there, it’s really like getting a glimpse at what Michael’s doing right now, what ingredients are great, what he’s excited to serve—and it’s all done and executed at a high level. Basically, if I send someone to Meredith’s, I know they’re in for a fantastic experience (365 Dominion Rd.; 64-9/623-3140; merediths.co.nz).
Where can you find the best cocktails? A new bar in Ponsonby Central, called Bedford Soda & Liquor, a super unique spot to get a drink in New Zealand that isn’t either a pub or a club. The space is a really beautiful modern industrial combination of concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling windows that let you see outside—a lively neighborhood for people watching. I like a classic drink, so I usually stick to my go-to order, a Manhattan (4 Brown St.; 64-9/378-7362; bedfordsodaliquor.co.nz).
Beer list? Craft beer is really growing in New Zealand, and I’d recommend going anywhere you can find beers from Garage Project. I’d send you to their brewery, which is a fantastic visit, but it’s in Wellington. Luckily, you don’t have to hop on a flight to get them, you can find their beers around Auckland, for example at Golden Dawn in Ponsonby. Expect a really great glass of something completely different from your standard pours in the city. The Brewers kind of approach beer the same way I look at food: they’re looking at complexity, layering great flavors together for a really unexpected drink. It’s great (134 Ponsonby Rd.; 64-9/376-9929; goldendawn.co.nz).
Wine list? At The Musket Room we work with one of the best sommeliers, Cameron Douglass, who happens to be the only Master Sommelier from New Zealand. Cameron knows Kiwi wine inside and out, and it is a privilege to work with him on our wine list here. When in New Zealand, I’d send any visitor to one of the restaurants Cameron works with locally—most likely Meredith’s, where he has curated a fantastic list of some of the best wines in New Zealand. We have a great list of Kiwi wines at Musket Room, but Cameron’s got bottles on the list there that you just can’t get in the States. They’re definitely worth enjoying when you’re in town.
Where would you choose to splurge on a night out? The French Café. It’s just an Auckland institution: Open for around 20 years and they are still at the top of their game, with everything from spot on service to a delicious and perfectly executed menu. I love putting my dinging experience in the chef’s hands, so I’d recommend going all-in for the tasting menu and trust that you’re going to get a great meal. I still remember a confit duck egg I had there that was just sensational (210 Symonds St.; 64-9/377-1911; thefrenchcafe.co.nz).
What is your go-to after-hours bar? After work, I would usually head to a very small bar called The Elbow Room on Jervois. I was there all the time when I worked nearby, and it’s still a great, authentic local place to visit when I’m in town. Usually I opted for a bottle of Leffe Blonde and sat at the bar for a low-key night, unwinding after a busy service (198 Jervois Rd.; 64-9/376-2613; elbowroom.co.nz).
What’s the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon in town? Definitely heading out to Waiheke Island. Hop on a boat for about a half hour ride from Auckland, and spend the day walking around and relaxing. There are some great wineries to visit, and local oysters to be had with a glass of wine from one of New Zealand’s best wineries. I recommend going to Man O’ War—their Dreadnought Syrah is one of my favorites (725 Man O War Bay Rd.; 64-9/372-9678; manowarvineyards.co.nz). A great stop for local oysters is Te Whau Vineyard (218 Te Whau Dr.; 64-9/372-7191; tewhau.co.nz).
What is your Sunday morning routine in your neighborhood? Brunch on Ponsonby Road. There are a few places in the area where you can’t go wrong: Ponsonby Road Bistro (165 Ponsonby Rd.; 64-9/360-1611; ponsonbyroadbistro.co.nz), Prego (226 Ponsonby Rd.; 64-9/376-3095; prego.co.nz), SPQR (150 Ponsonby Rd.; 64-9/360-1710; spqrnz.co.nz). The area is also filled with great coffee shops like Dizengoff (256 Ponsonby Rd.; 64-9/360-0108) or Craft Kitchen (2 Ponsonby Rd.; 64-9/376-1962; craftkitchen.co.nz) or Kokako (537 Great North Rd.; 64-9/379-2868; kokako.co.nz). No Lattes here though: you are best off ordering a flat white like a real Kiwi. And don’t even try to order an iced coffee, the barista won’t know what to do with you. Of course, if you’re at someone’s home, skip the coffee and just have Milo, a chocolate malt drink New Zealand kids grow up on. It might be for kids, but it’s damned delicious and a truly authentic Kiwi drink.
What’s your favorite view in town (that tourists might not know about)? For the closest viewpoint, definitely a trip up Mount Eden, an extinct volcano in and overlooking the city. But my favorite place is actually not in the city, it’s in West Auckland: Scenic Drive. There are a number of lookouts just along the road, it’s a gorgeous drive and a beautiful view of Auckland that most tourists wouldn’t know about. And if you’re already there, you might as well go to the nearby beach, Piha. There’s also Sky City, a little less natural but another great view of the city and the 360 surroundings of Auckland from its center (88 Federal St.; 64-9/363-6070; skycityauckland.co.nz).
What’s your favorite path or trail to follow on a walk? Anything off Scenic Drive. The road takes you through the Waitakere Ranges, a chain of hills in the Auckland region. There are great views throughout, and tons of bush walks (trails) to take a break on. I also really like the walk at Mangawhai Heads, around an hour north of the city.
What are your favorite offbeat cultural attractions? For an authentic look at our culture in Auckland, I’m not sending you to a museum. You’re better off doing something the locals do all the time: fishing in the Waitemata harbor. There’s tons of snapper, and you really get a taste of what it’s like to live in the city. Other than that, the botanical gardens are pretty great (102 Hill Rd.; 64-9/267-1457; aucklandbotanicgardens.co.nz).
What’s your favorite shop or boutique? I love Rodd & Gunn. It’s a great New Zealand clothing brand. Our servers at The Musket Room actually wear their shirts. Also, if you want to spend some time shopping, just walk along Ponsonby Road.
What’s the ultimate souvenir from your town—something you can only get there? My wife Barbara always calls me I’m her best souvenir—she took me back to the states after we met in New Zealand. But if you can’t find a handsome chef, I’d recommend Greenstone, which is a green stone from New Zealand that is highly valued in Maori culture, and really authentic to the Kiwi experience. You can find jewelry and keepsakes made from it, which make for a great souvenir from the country in general. Also, anything made of Kauri wood. Where I’m from, there were tons of Dutch and Danish that settled the region back in the day. When they arrived, there they cut down and sold most of the Kauri trees, and exported a lot of it to places like San Francisco. But if you can find things made with it, they’re special. Another great souvenir is wine. New Zealand is producing some really fantastic wines that you can’t find in the U.S. (other than maybe on our list at The Musket Room) so pick out a few bottles and bring them home.
What’s the best-kept local secret? Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World. It’s a great aquarium and marine life center, it’s a pretty cool visit if you have the time (23 Tamaki Dr.; 64-9/531-5065; kellytarltons.co.nz).
In our Hometown Guides series, we're seeking the best restaurants, bars, vistas, and things to do in a given place from the people who know best—the artists, designers, chefs, and store-owners who live there. See more Hometown Guides »
Photo Credits: Courtesy Hotel DeBrett; Josh Griggs