The last time I was at number 196 Parnell Rd was when the building housed an Irish pub by the name of The Bog. It was dark and had a confusing multi-level layout separated by wooden hand rails. The latest visit left me as equally bemused; the building has been given a unlikely name, a hugely ambitious refit that appears to have tripled the floorspace, and a theme that mirrors something along the lines of a ski resort/ancient temple. It's kind of like being told a joke that you only sort of understand.
Let's get some facts out of the way. The restaurant is operated by Mark Wallbank and Che Barrington, the names that have already given us Ponsonby's MooChowChow, Blue Breeze Inn and Chop Chop Noodle House. This time, the pair have decided to tap into the other side of town with their successful fusion of East-meets-West, adding in a new element of American-style barbecue thanks to a gargantuan smoker in the kitchen.
Walking in, we're shown to our table by a gentleman who apparently goes by name 'Chief Woodpecker'. On route, we go past areas dubbed: Members Lounge, Grandstand, Turf Terrace, Watering Hole and Club House. You'll see things like a stonework feature wall likened to pile of neatly stacked wood, yellow plaid and sheep's wool seat coverings, eccentric clam-shell light shades, and an actual pile of neatly stacked wood. We found ourselves seated in the Millionaire's Row, the brightest and liveliest spot due to its position directly in front of the open kitchen; the heat of flames will every so often tickle your face.
The bar is bourbon-based and stocks close to 50 varieties of the spirit. The menu is led with a dedication to American moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, saluting him with their very own un-aged spirit, White Lightning. From then on cocktails are chiefly bourbon based - but not in your bogan, demolition derby kind of way. The Whiskery is a combination of vanilla-infused bourbon, guava juice, bitters, egg white, lemon and lime, and will be enjoyed whether you're sporting a rats tail or a top knot. The rest of their impeccably displayed drinks menu is made up of wine from the far reaches of Europe, America and New Zealand. It's worth noting that they helpfully mention the characteristics of each wine alongside the origin and price. Further in, you'll find the bar's own brand of house-made Waiheke Whiskey, house-made sodas and house-made ice tea, on this occasion it was tangerine with a price tag of $10.
To the food.
On trend, the plates are meant for sharing and come out when ready. You'll find hefty cuts of meat, like 14-hour smoked brisket, paired with the fragrant flavours of South East Asia. The kingfish comes tossed in a smoked chilli paste alongside refreshing segments of pomelo grapefruit and lemongrass. The dry red curry comes across as a salad in the outset, abundant with greens like mint, and what appeared to be Vietnamese coriander; a brilliant combination alongside the melt-in-your-mouth smoked duck. The generous helping of soft-shell crab and its sauce pool of turmeric, tamarind and crispy shallots was the richest of the lot, and will leave you reaching for the digestif list. Elsewhere, the menu is made of delights like: coconut-braised beef, spiced curry of burnt ends and Clevedon oysters with sweet pork and chilli.
There are three desserts on the menu: sticky black rice with coconut ice cream, honeycomb, dark chocolate and banana; banana and pineapple fritters; and mango pudding with coconut and bourbon palm sugar. If that doesn't sound sweet enough, the waitstaff may just sing your table a harmonised version of 'Happy Birthday' on your special day.
There's so much to take in at Woodpecker Hill, one visit won't suffice. Just make sure you give yourself plenty of time to make a reservation.