Scampi on a stick and boil-up in a toast epitomise the celebral whimsy reviewer Kim Knight encounters when she eats at Ahi.
New Zealand on a plate starts with the plate.
Specifically, a Kelston Ceramics Honeyglow D857. It will be different for everyone who visits Ahi but for me, the touchstone moment was a hunk of sourdough served on mustard-yellow china. It was circa simpler times - Sunday lunch at my grandparents when the bread was white and the butter was probably margarine.
Now we are all grown up and searching for The Great Aotearoa Food Story. We want our seafood sustainable and our protein provenanced. We also want an Auckland Island scampi corn dog with JoBro's sauce, because while we're serious about food, we haven't lost our sense of humour.
The corn dog ($13 apiece) is succulent and sweet, a riff on a Speedway sausage, but in this case trashy batter amplifies an absurdly luxe filling. The sauce is from two fine-dining chefs who sling burgers from a food truck and work with a mental health awareness not-for-profit. It's a safe bet the mānuka skewers also have a backstory because, in this restaurant, attention to detail is paramount.
Chef Ben Bayly must have thought he'd never get into the kitchen. Ahi, in the downtown Auckland Commercial Bay development, has been subject to construction delays, lockdowns and a socially distanced level 2.5 opening. The swamp kauri timber for the tables sat in Bayly's driveway for months and the menu is a lifetime in the making. Back in 2018, he told Canvas he wanted to create a restaurant that reflected - and respected - Aotearoa and its first people: "I'm not trying to be a Māori restaurant but I am inspired by our country and I'm inspired by the techniques of Māori cooking and Māori food and what the sea, most of all and the land here provides."
So the pāua ($14 per snack-size serve) has had an assist from hāngī master Rewi Spraggon. It sits on confit kahawai, a splodge of sour cream and there's a definite pepperiness that might be the kawakawa. A refined tease of a dish that has launched dozens of social media posts since opening, it didn't entirely win me over. When I was a kid, Dad tenderised pāua by bashing it with a beer bottle and then we sliced it into fat strips, fried it with garlic butter and ate until we were full. I think I may be ruined for any refined restaurant version.
For my money, you should get the tahr tartare ($8 a serve), in which the lean alpine-dwelling animal pest is chopped to chunky paste and mixed with an addictive chilli ferment. Deeply flavoursome.
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The absolute don't-miss dish from the snack menu? Steak and cheese savouries, made with Te Mana lamb and mozzarella. They're gentlemanly joie de vivre, made manifest; a perfect homage to that old-school, rugby club room descriptor, "savouries". Imagine an entire roast dinner (including the fat cap) on a petite square of flaky pastry. It might be $7 a bite but it's also a total winner.
Ahi translates as "fire". It's there in the wood and smoke but also the passion - food that works intellectually (locally sourced, superbly cooked) while embracing the irreverent. Witness the Berkshire pork boil-up toast ($27): Salty shredded meat encased in crunchy crumbs, it is literally a laugh-out-loud piece of toast; fry-bread for the fine diner. Make it even fancier with a plate of pretty sauces including an applaudably thick puddle of watercress that tastes (there is no other way I can describe this) exactly and necessarily as it looks: bright green.
Circumstances meant Ahi opened without the cushion of a soft-launch. The menu is still evolving and a pounamu-like bull kelp enclosed fish that was there on week one, was already gone by the time we visited in week two. Bayly's vision for a modern beach house is realised with stunning views, beautiful timbers and zero sense that, on the floor below, it's retail central. How much more palatable is a mall when it serves crayfish soup?
A plate of Japanese-via-Pukekohe quail ($42) was textbook contemporary - fine-dining flavour meets gory origin story (don't look now, that is an actual quail foot on your plate). It comes with sweet pinot-soaked raisins, weighty, smoky celeriac and is an instant classic, a dish I'll be back to eat when I don't have to share. The john dory ($38) was a touch overcooked for our table's liking (but it came with the very first of the season's asparagus, which is an excellent consolation prize).
I'm writing this and re-reading the menu and realising there are so many more things I want to try. Gisborne pumpkin with harakeke and māhoe, Marlborough venison with a molasses made from the dried husks of the coffee fruit. The food invites questions, and the waitstaff are there to answer them cheerfully and promptly - no dreary degustation-length lectures here, thanks.
Stay for dessert, because they epitomise the menu's cerebral whimsy. A custard square, listed as a maths problem, is an absolute silken delight ($18) and the boysenberry trumpet ($16) arrives on a "plate" that is nothing like the ones you start with - but also sings, uniquely and intrinsically, of the New Zealand food story.
Ahi Restaurant, Commercial Bay, 7/21 Queen St, Auckland, ph 022 524 4255.
We spent: $364 for three.