Over the bridge, up the hill, turn left and follow the gravel road. Under the boughs’ leafy canopy, you’ll find the glade. All you’ll hear is the sounds of birds and cicadas, maybe the running water or the air rustling the leaves. Muffled by the trees, State Highway 2 is out of sight and mind.
Hidden away in the Karangahake Gorge, near Waihi at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, The Falls Retreat Bistro has been a community secret for the past few years, but word is quickly spreading. The casual barn-style bistro is becoming known for its excellent food and relaxed atmosphere. While they dine, visitors watch the chefs circulating the outdoor kitchen, tending to the wood-fired oven, or scurrying out to grab fresh produce from the garden, while kids play in the on-site playground and cyclists mosey by on the Karangahake trail.
Executive chef Brad King and his wife Emma Walters have been running the retreat – which also offers beds for weary heads to lay – for seven years, and they endeavour to do so as sustainably as possible. That means the menu changes on a regular basis, although the favourites always seem to stay. King uses whatever’s in season from the garden.
The ever-evolving sharing platter is a menu highlight, comprising three seasonal tasters – think beetroot-cured salmon gravlax with smoked salmon and shrimp rillette and an edamame bean salsa; duck liver parfait with confit duck leg, rhubarb and brioche hazelnut crumb; and roasted portobello mushroom stuffed with pumpkin and goat’s cheese with truffled carrots and currant salad.
Like many of the miners’ cottages in the area, the restaurant surrounds the hearth – a wood-fired oven employed in many of their dishes, particularly the pizzas, with offerings highlighting the daily catch and seasonal produce. Their kids’ menu is also elevated, but not too far, from hot dogs and fish and chips – helped by the intentional absence of a deep-fryer.
In the early days, many questioned their choice of the hidden-away location, King says, but they’ve found a formula that works. “After the first two years we thought, heck, we’re able to make a go of this.” He says it’s astounding to see how far they’ve come.
The couple recently raised a Hereford cow, which came from a local farmer, on their land, then went through the butchery process. “We know the quality of the meat and wanted to go through the process ourselves,” Walters says. Now, every part of the beast is making its way on to the menu, whether it’s a steak or jus.
The couple, who have two young children, Jacob and Molly, run gardening and food programmes with local schools. They also host “Barter at the Bistro” days, where people are invited to bring in their excess vegetables to trade for a meal.
“Community is a big part of who we are,” Walters says.
STUFFED PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS
Recipe by Brad King
These mushrooms stuffed with a flavoursome mix of pumpkin and goat’s cheese star on the Bistro’s ever-popular sharing platter. Recipe by
10 medium portobello mushrooms (about 500g), woody stems removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
500g pumpkin, peeled, diced 1.5cm
generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
½ tablespoon butter
1 small onion or ½ large onion, diced
130g button mushrooms, diced
handful of parsley, finely chopped
½ cup thinly sliced spring onions
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
½ cup grated parmesan
110g goat’s cheese or feta
green salad & relish or chutney to serve
Preheat the oven to 180C. Put the portobello mushrooms on a baking tray, drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until tender. Remove and set aside (leave the oven on).
Toss the pumpkin cubes with tablespoon of olive oil, the nutmeg and some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Put on a medium oven tray and cook for 20 minutes or until the cubes are cooked through but still holding their shape. Cool.
Heat the butter and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and gently fry the onion and button mushrooms for 10 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated but the vegetables haven’t coloured. Season well and set aside to cool.
Put the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, add the pumpkin, onion and button mushrooms and gently mix together.
Divide the stuffing among the portobello mushrooms and press down gently. Put in a 180C oven to gently heat through until hot.
Serve with a side salad and your favourite accompaniments. We use feijoa chutney, but this could be replaced with any relish or chutney of your choice.