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Phill and Nora Blackburne’s unobtrusive 30-seat restaurant is partly hidden by trees and set slightly back from the road, in a residential street just beyond downtown Taupō.
The interior décor is similarly low key; wooden floors and tables, dark green walls, subtle hints of copper brass and gold, as well as velvet and sheepskin and small vases of dried flowers. There are just two rooms, with Phill in charge of the mostly open-love kitchen and a graciously warm greeting from Nora out front.
There is serious professionalism behind that seemingly easy-going service, though, as well as glorious food with surprise elements that elicit “oh, it’s beautiful,” coos from diners.
The cheese course, for instance, might involve a crispy length of choux pastry in place of the expected crackers. A brandy-soaked cherry dessert could be dotted with elderflowers gathered from chef Phill’s mum’s garden. The duck liver parfait may be encased in a tiny, glossy red dome of cherry jelly, while the ravioli pasta might be streaked with gold leaf.
Embra Eatery, owned by Phill and Nora Blackburne, is a hidden culinary gem in Taupō, offering a delightful dining experience with surprising and beautifully presented dishes that showcase the couple's expertise and passion for quality ingredients.
Taupō-born chef Phill honed his trade in one of Scotland’s most exclusive eateries; the fine dining establishment Castle Terrace Restaurant was awarded a Michelin star.
That is also where he first encountered Latvian-raised Nora, who has also been immersed in the hospitality industry since her teens.
Phill was 12 when he first donned an apron in a commercial kitchen, helping at a local café after school and on weekends. He ticked off an apprenticeship at Taupō’s Millennium Hotel and has worked at the luxurious Poronui Lodge but spent much of his career mastering classic French and English cooking techniques overseas.
In Edinburgh, respected chef-proprietor Dominic Jack became both a mentor and a friend. A framed photo of the Scottish chef hangs inside Embra and versions of his spelt risotto are a staple on Phill’s menu. Sometimes the rich, slightly nutty risotto is served with game, sometimes with a mix of native and exotic mushrooms, or seafood.
The couple’s restaurant was born out of a global pandemic.
When Covid closed their shared workplace in Scotland, they opted to return to New Zealand with their young daughter. In Phill’s hometown, they found hospitality jobs and slowly refined the dream to open a restaurant of their own.
It would be small, they agreed, with impeccable but relaxed service and no more than five or six different dishes on offer each night. The menu would be reviewed monthly and each dish must be a beautifully-presented, great-tasting classic with a contemporary edge.
“We had a very clear vision,” Nora says.
“We put on paper what we’d like to achieve, how we pictured it, and it pretty well came to life just as we hoped.”Nora
By the time Embra opened on Rabbie Burns night, January 2022, they had decided on everything from the wall of glossy plants beside the front door to which tendrils of edible greenery would adorn a particular dish. They had found top quality, little-known New Zealand produce suppliers – including Taupō’s Misfit Gardens - and hunted down family-owned vineyards and boutique winemakers.
“Having just a few dishes on the menu at one time really helps us maintain quality and keeping the wine list small ensures quality over quantity. Also, presentation isn’t everything but it does add to your experience.
"The way Phill and I see it, you eat with your eyes first.”Nora
So each crusty sourdough loaf that emerges from the kitchen is stamped with a handsome flour design, even though most of the embellishment will be lost when the bread is sliced for the table. These slices are served warm, accompanied by butter that has been blended with a hint of honey from Phill’s parents’ orchard, and laid on a purpose-built wood and mesh trays that stop the bread from ‘sweating.’
These bread dishes even have an educational component. The base is scattered with whole spelt grains so diners can see the bread’s origin.
And the wine match with the gazpacho course? Of course, it hails from a lesser-known New Zealand vineyard and has been selected for its meal-enhancing bouquet and taste characteristics. However, the rosé and the chilled soup are also the same dusky shade of pink. Inside the bowl, a small pillar of bocconcini cheese cleverly elevates a parmesan wafer from the liquid and ensures the lotus-shaped cracker retains its satisfying crunch.
This is not a big plate-tiny portions kind of place. In fact, the earthy, crockery has been custom-made by esteemed local ceramic artist Didi Chapman, owner of Quirky Pottery, whose son Ben helps plate food in the Embra kitchen.
And no one leaves the restaurant hungry.
Embra’s logo features a stylised version of another local icon, the Kaimanawa range.
“Kaimanawa translates to ‘breath for food’ and that reflects our philosophy. For us, food sustains us in so many ways, it is not just to sate hunger .”Nora
She is the organised half of the duo, the one who manages finances and bookings and communicates with diners. He is the ideas man, be it in the kitchen or in relation to restaurant layout and service.
“We’ve worked in the same places together before. We understand each other’s working styles and strengths. Being a husband and wife team is not always easy, but we know it works because the response from our guests has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The move to Taupō has also been a positive one for the Blackburne family.
Nora admits to some trepidation after spending her life in bustling cities.
“We really love living here. It’s such a beautiful setting, having the lake and mountains around you, with the lifestyle and opportunities to let our little one loose in nature.
Everything’s close. The restaurant is minutes from home and we have everything we need here. It’s quite a peaceful existence and that’s sort of our life goal.”
In the meantime, with a busy restaurant to run, they have mastered the art of outward serenity. Even on the busiest night, with two staff away sick, the Blackburnes deliver the same stellar food and service with apparent calm.
“That’s the thrill of hospitality, every night is different. But whatever the evening throws at Phill and I, we are determined our guests will feel welcomed and nourished.”
We’ve got the cream of the crop, our top picks, for an après-golf dinner below. So, sit back and indulge on the sensational views and innovative cuisine that make Taupō a golfer’s paradise and a foodie favourite