The chef is a Netflix star, the restaurant is booked out until January and eating there has been named among the Top 100 things to do in the world. Kim Knight gets a rare seat at Wellington's Hiakai, the hottest food ticket in town.
Hot. Hot like soup, like the inside of a stomach, like when your blood rises and your face flushes. The next thing that happens will either be very good or very bad. It might be cabbage.
Spoiler: It is cabbage. Fire-roasted with muttonbird xo and something about chicken skins and a sweet molasses that I think is made from the condensed sweat of brassicas. I'm writing fast but I don't catch it all. There is a veloute, soft and spoonable. A hint of hāngī smoke. Fishy, fatty tītī (muttonbird). The flavour, says the server, "reminds me a bit of two-minute noodles". The third course was cabbage - but not really.
Hiakai is elemental. The moss growing on the abandoned historic brick kilns at the ground floor entrance is nature, not nurture. You go up the stairs into that superheated dining room past a huge stack of split wood. Burn, baby, burn. Real flames in the kitchen, figurative sizzle in the headlines since opening. Time magazine named this restaurant in its Top 100 list of things to do in the world. Somebody needs to tell my cab driver, because he remains completely unconvinced there is a restaurant anywhere near this patch of Wellington suburbia.
People have told Monique Fiso she should put a sandwich board on the footpath. A menu in the window. New Zealand's hottest chef smiles quietly. When she turns off the light behind the sign on the roof, it's like she isn't even there. Hiakai is ephemeral. Right now, it's bricks and mortar. Sometimes it's a tent and a hāngī hole in the ground. Hiakai, I read on the menu, "began in 2016 as a pop-up series devoted to the exploration and development of Māori cooking techniques and ingredients". The curved leather couch I'm sitting on is the realisation of those efforts.
Brown, bronze and black. Hiakai surfaces are warm and burnished. The name is te reo for "hungry" and, these days, who isn't? Forgive my flippancy. The number of people who need more food is our national shame. But the number of people who have more food than they need and still want more is our national condition. Feed my soul, my ego, my curiosity. I am a middle-class foodie starving for status.
Full disclosure, Hiakai knew I was coming. You're reading this on the page where we normally print a restaurant review but Hiakai is booked out until January and, while we paid our own way ($240 for eight courses with alcohol matches), we enlisted some help from WellingtonNZ to get on the waiting list.
Last year, chef and owner Monique Fiso was one of just 24 internationals (and the only New Zealander) selected to compete in Netflix's The Final Table, filmed at a reported cost of $2 million per episode. When Gordon Ramsay came here to make his television show Uncharted, it was Fiso who took the British chef to Stewart Island to hunt goat, dive for pāua and forage root vegetables and berries.
"It's so, so hard to get the New Zealand food story out there," Fiso told the Herald back in November. "We're a small country at the bottom of the world and, quite frankly, people don't take us that seriously. But we can fricken cook down here."
The New Zealand food story? Once upon a time, there was a leg of lamb and three little vegetables ...
The Kiwi chef showing Gordon Ramsay how it's done
Fiso, of Māori and Samoan descent, is not the first chef to remind us we didn't always eat pavlova. But she might be the first to elevate Māori foods and cooking techniques to a $160 10-course degustation.
Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand notes that, late last century, there was a global resurgence of interest in traditional foods. It's a renaissance that manifests as kawakawa tea in our cafes and horopito salad dressing in our supermarkets. But why did it take so long? Why did we spend decades ordering "poulet" instead of chicken and definitely not tītī? Why did focaccia go mainstream before rēwana? As someone put it quite succinctly on Twitter recently: "Rude how the country that did the most colonising had the worst f***ing food." Hiakai is, perhaps, how so many more restaurants might have tasted at this point in the gastronomic history of Aotearoa - if we hadn't been so fixated on Sunday roasts and the perfect scone.
My dinner started with bread and butter. A slice of toasted rēwana and two pats of fat, one spruiked with wakame seaweed and the other cradling a puddle of tītī oil, which is an acquired taste - strong and salty; an Antipodean anchovy. A succession of "snacks" included cassava root steeped in a miro leaf tea, then sprinkled with dehydrated tomato water and an oyster with horopito foam, sea celery and citrus oil.
The "snacks" course (four plates plus the bread) arrived in dizzying succession. It's easy to get lost in a degustation. At Hiakai, you anchor yourself to the inspiration for any particular menu - right now, it is the travels of Kupe, the Hawaiki chief who features in Maori oral histories.
It's said that once, when Kupe was doing battle with the giant octopus, Te Wheke, he threw calabashes - or gourds - into the sea to imitate bodies, tricking his adversary to rise from the depths, whereupon Kupe killed him with a fatal blow to his head. And so my first course proper is butternut squash. It's a reference to those life-saving gourds and it sits on a pool of manono and yuba. The latter is soy milk skin; the former is the bright orange inner bark of a tree. My server knows this, because when you work here, you don't just wait tables.
Foraging is the restaurant trend that came after molecular gastronomy and before plant-based eating, but Fiso goes well beyond fad. Like she told Canvas in 2017:
"I'm really ... is the word 'strict'? I am all about that. It's fine to use different bits and pieces from other cultures, but if you're not doing it respectfully, then that's kind of insulting. You know, if you're going to make money off something - it's the equivalent of making money off some land but then completely destroying the land while you're at it. For me, it's about being creative but doing it with some respect. Borrow these techniques, use these ingredients, but still follow the codes or the mythology. I feel like if I don't ... yeah, maybe I am a superstitious Māori!"
That yuba and manono sauce is a shock. It slicks the roof of my mouth. I don't really like it but then it melts into a chestnutty duvet that wraps the pumpkin and enhances its own nutty essence. I google "manono" to find out more. A Landcare Research database that aggregates the precious few written resources on the Māori use of plants includes a 1941 reference: "Bark of manono and tips of kānuka boiled together and used externally for venereal disease." Good to know.
We're up the Whanganui river now, as Kupe searches for wild cabbage. A crew member drowns. "Death by cabbage," says the server, cheerfully setting down that plate that might have forever changed the way I think about this vegetable. So refined! But, also - I'm dining alone, and it's forcing introspection. The cabbage is referencing hāngī. I search for the flavour memory. A tinfoil-wrapped plastic container booked in advance and eaten in the work canteen for Māori Language Week? It's a long, long way back to wet hessian sacks and dangerously hot rocks and smoke in my eye.
There is fish and venison and then a kawakawa and granny smith apple refresher. A "mushroom essence" is a single, fingernail-sized dot on a plate. Kawakawa really will numb your tongue like sichuan pepper. Artichoke and deer are perfect partners. Butterfish, with tiny sparks of yuzu, is actual perfection.
In the kitchen, the flames are dying down and either I've acclimatised or the dining room has become mercifully cooler. Dessert comes with a little "trademark" symbol next to the word "Milo", because it was foraged from the supermarket. I can see the giant green can on the bench. I'm presented with a chocolate waka on a crunchy, chocolatey sea, served with a glass of Lewis Road Creamery A2 milk, smoked maple, hazelnut orgeat and Thomson's white malt. I can see from my notes that this dish also contains (in no particular order) sour pear, potato skin icecream, lemon and black olives.
There was, of course, more. An exquisite selection of petit fours that turn the forest into marshmallows, paté de fruits and chocolate. Tarata leaves, mamaku fern, lemon verbena and kawakawa berry. Those ethnographers and bushmen and women of old who made notes about boils, rashes and toothache cures would have had their minds blown.
Overall? It's astounding. Cerebral. Herbaceous and vegetal. Imagine you spent your whole life slurping an accessibly jammy shiraz and then someone handed you a flinty cabernet sauvignon. Both are excellent. One makes you think harder.