Tuitui is taking museum dining to a new level – but those seeking a taste of nostalgia will be pleased to know the bistro has one eye fixed firmly on the past. By Anna King Shahab.
I have such fond childhood memories of Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum. They include dripping umbrellas piled into stands by the entrance (museum visits often happened on rainy days); gazing up at Rajah, dusty and dimly lit yet majestic, the hushed thrill of exploring the creepy/fascinating Centennial Street and – a rare treat – a sandwich or lamington and a small carton of juice at the museum cafe.
A pleasant eating experience, I think, makes the places and experience around it "stick" better in one's memory – food as a thread that gathers the fabric around it. Appropriate, then, that Tuitui, the name chosen for the new bistro and cafe in Te Ao Marama – the revitalised South Atrium - means to bind together, to sew.
Jack McKinney's architecture extends the weaving metaphor, gently – cedar panels, carefully fluted from top to bottom to create a vision that echoes the building's Doric columns, have been trimmed at the top to perfectly meet the original bolted steel beams that have been left subtly exposed, white-painted. It would have been easier - and offered a more streamlined look - to run them flush against the ceiling but that would be to bury the past, rather than to acknowledge it. The bar area graduates into a generous length of counter dining – long, artfully curved to match the building's exterior, deep-green Greek marble slabs which, if you look closely, you will see have been carefully arranged together so the striations are mirroring, like butterflies.
The leather bar stools have comfy padded backs (no awkward perching here) and the dining chairs are generously sized and comfortable. Tuitui has been purposely designed as a space diners will want to linger in, whether as part of a visit to the museum's collections and special exhibitions or as a destination on its own.
On the menu, chef and owner Brian Sewell has woven together elements of past and present, of Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika and other cultural influences, including those from his own background. Sewell was born in Aotearoa but raised in Belfast and sees some synergies between Irish and Māori kai – a love of root vegetables being one example. Sewell and front-of-house manager Jade Barber (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) keep an ear to the ground to hear about any likely produce sources among staff and their whānau – in this way they've sewn barrels of asparagus from an auntie and karengo from Barber's whānau into the offering.
The menu reads simply and although that belies the research and sophisticated touches behind each dish, it conveys what the impetus us here – haere mai ki te kai - dig in, enjoy and get your hands involved. A pot of mussels comes with a torn-off hunk of baguette to dip into the moreish cider-cream broth – and staff certainly won't bat an eyelid if, once all the deep-green shells are spent, you're inclined to lift the dish to your lips to polish off the broth.
The snapper paté, which the chefs make by poaching the fillets in milk with peppercorn and lemon, is dainty yet silky rich and I scoop it on to triangles of toasted, buttered white bread – it hits the elegantly retro note with aplomb. The paté is one of the dishes served in Tuitui's high tea, along with other treats like club sandwiches, lolly cake and devilled eggs. At $24 per head, with $10 glasses of Prosecco an optional add-on, the high tea sounds like a tidy way to graze away an afternoon.
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Duck-fat potato skins, the best balance of crisp skin with enough fluffy agria interior, are wearing flecks of parmigiano-reggiano and are dunked into Sewell's Kiwi onion dip – he's proud of this creation: he has avoided the usual graininess by cooking down the soup element first. I could (and did) eat it by the spoonful. An elegant ika mata – here, a generous amount of diced snapper fillet in a delicate coconut and lime dressing with papaya, red onion, spring onion, cucumber, green pepper, coriander leaves and black sesame seeds, calls on Māori, Pasifika and Asian influences.
The cup 'o soup is served in an enamelled tin mug – but there's nothing packet about it. Sewell has roasted tomatoes and red peppers and cooked them down, long and slow, with a bazaar's worth of spices. It comes with Southland cheese rolls, oozing with both cheese and Tuitui's brilliant take on Kiwi onion dip – I tear them up and dunk them into the piping hot soup and it tastes like a glorious rainy-museum-day in 1980-something.
P.S. If anyone reading this is asking, "What about those ham and mustard sandwiches?" Sewell says when the museum's marketing team posted a sneak peek of Tuitui's menu on social media, a flurry of comments inquired as to whether that particular sandwich of yesteryear would make a return. It wasn't part of the game plan but Sewell is now working on getting the right kind of mustard, the right kind of bread – weaving together the elements to craft a new memory-maker.