Ika Seafood Bar and Grill
3 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden
Ph: (09) 309 3740
ikaseafoodandgrill.co.nz

Laila Harre seems an unlikely restaurateur. But the tireless leftie politician and trade unionist seems at ease among the tables at Ika, talking to the punters about the best way to cook fish.

Harre and her husband were minority shareholders in Ika's Neapolitan predecessor, O'Sarracino. But when the Italian owners and chef moved on she realised they didn't have "the genes from the region in the kitchen" any more. Ika was born.

If you don't know what the name means (and you should), you'll get the idea as soon as you walk in the door (which you also should). A dozen species of fish, fresh-killed and bright-eyed, are arranged on ice in a large open-topped case, much as they would be at a market. Almost all are whole - it's part of the restaurant's waste-minimisation philosophy - and you get to eyeball your dinner before they cook it.

A yellow coat of paint has warmed the place up and made it more welcoming, though the interior architecture still bears the traces of its past as a funeral parlour. But there's a homely and casual feel: a big blackboard menu dominates one wall; butcher's paper is spread on the checked tablecloths.

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It's not all kaimoana at Ika: there's a short selection of steaks and pork ribs for the carnivores. But it's mostly a fishy business and the full-on vegetarian is not well served. From a small-plate selection that included Cajun-style prawn tails, seafood chowder and squid tentacles, we settled on beautifully tender slow-cooked baby octopus done Spanish-style (think olive oil, stained red with capsicum, and crisp discs of fried potato). It was a dish of pure joy, the best of peasant food, though some bread to mop the juices up would have gone well.

A fat mackerel, its skin criss-crossed with black marks from the grill, was equally delightful, a reminder of the outdoor charcoal braziers in Istanbul and the Mediterranean. I wanted to try the stingray, but the Professor reminded me how eerily beautiful they had looked gliding beneath us in the clear water at Tawharanui this past summer. This was an odd display of sentimentalism from someone who had just, with some relish, bitten the heads off infant octopuses.

The main event was a whole blue cod, chargrilled and finished in the oven. Chef Brendon Petersen does fish five ways (Cajun, chermoula, Malay, tandoori and plain old garlic and lemon) and our waitress recommended the Malay sambal, one of the stronger approaches, with the cod. It was a great choice. The spicy fish arrived on a platter with bok choy and beans down one side and aromatic rice down the other and it made for sensational shared eating as we pulled juicy slabs off the bony carcass.

Ika, which opened at the end of January, is staging a monthly "salon" with fixed-price meals and guests (the first was a marine biologist) whose presentations are intended to be as much educational as entertaining. Harre also wants the place to be the venue for sessions of community engagement, which they've dubbed Table Talk: the first, last Tuesday, was titled "Making Sense of the Campbell Live Affair".

"Bringing people together around food is a great way to learn and engage," she says. It sounds like a welcome new spin on an age-old idea, when the local tavern was the community centre as well. But it's worth saying that Ika is also a bloody good place for a wholesome, moderately priced meal.

Small plates $7-$24; whole fish $35-$65; steaks $30-$36

Verdict: Old-school cooking and hospitality underpins a new idea.

Cheers

By Joelle Thomson, joellethomson.com

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Wine games

It's an oldie but a goodie. Take two different wines, conceal their identities, then ask friends to guess what's in each bottle. It works a treat, especially when the host is a winemaker. Talk about playing with your mind; or mine, as the case was at Mount Edward winery in Central Otago earlier this year. Both were red, so they had to be pinot noir, right? That was the easy part.

As anyone who likes wine knows, a small thing can make a big difference. So, what was different? Temperature of the wine? More oak in one? Same wine from different vintages?

None of the above. Winemaker Duncan Forsyth poured two 2008 Mt Edward pinot noirs: one sealed with a screwcap, the other with cork. They were identical when first bottled but different now; screwcaps guarantee uniformity whereas corks can impart a taste and can allow oxygen into the bottle. Both wines were good but, before we knew their identities, I preferred the screwcapped version because it was fresher. Another closure that is gaining ground is the wine keg. It is growing in use in bars and it saves space, saves on recycling and guarantees freshness for 19 litres at a time. Depot serves Mount Edward pinot noir this way. Check it out when the restaurant reopens.