The Thrill Of A Great Niuean Restaurant Isn’t Just The Food. It’s The View

By Julia Gessler
Looking for the best sandwich or tacos on this stunning coral atoll? Read on.

The slow-paced Pacific island, one of the world’s smallest countries and loved for its pristine waters, has food and a view worth travelling for.

Some of the best food I have eaten in the gamut of my travels as a journalist has come from recommendations in interminably long airport queues. People on holiday sometimes have a way of seizing on weirdly specific things, and I am hot, harried and taking my suitcase through security when the man in front of me, in a baseball cap and a backpack, tells me I should eat a sandwich.

“She didn’t come here for the paninis,” says another man, his friend, also in a baseball cap and backpack. We’re in Niue, one of the world’s smallest countries, that’s east of Tonga, south of Samoa, and a three-and-a-half-hour flight from New Zealand — or will be once we wend our way through Customs.

I didn’t come here for the paninis.

But if there is something I love more than the vibrant, improbable feeling of serendipity that occurs next to an x-ray machine the size of a Ford Fiat, it is food self-selected by some sort of anecdotal kinship.

Just about everyone during my week on the Pacific island would go on to mention the carbs at this corner cafe called Fana, run by Roz Price and Chris Skinner, a husband-and-wife duo who previously lived in Perth. Located in a nondescript shopping precinct five minutes from the tarmac, it’s named after Chris’ mum, Fanamoka Ikinofo, a former hula dancer who is immortalised in the business’ logo, and announces its intentions with a traditional wooden vaka, or outrigger canoe, that hangs above the kitchen.

Chef Chris Skinner of cafe Fana, located at the Swanson complex at Fonuakula.
Chef Chris Skinner of cafe Fana, located at the Swanson complex at Fonuakula.

The menu matches the decor in its approach: Local produce, which sometimes arrives via growers holding kato (woven baskets) is the real font of inspiration here. Two hulking, toasted slabs of foccacia, is filled with ribbons of umu-cooked pulled pork, house pickles, mayo and takihi — layers of baked pawpaw, taro and coconut cream that’s so good that you know someone in the kitchen really cares. The three-egg omelette comes with pulled puaka (wild boar), kaluka (an earthy Niuean green), tomato kasundi and cheese, while the banana French toast features a baguette baked in Niuean vanilla and drizzled in Niuean honey that is, not insignificantly, endorsed by New Zealand chef Peter Gordon.

Niue is a large coral atoll by coral atoll standards, but small by island ones — it takes roughly two hours to drive its full circumference. With a population of about 1700, its culinary landscape is equally diminutive, one inoculated against Instagram bait and predicated as much on what is brought in through its port as it is on what is brought in through its bush gardens.

The influences of these conditions on its restaurants are unmistakable: among the tropical beauty, between the rock and thin layer of topsoil that characterises the island’s topography, a tight pool of produce flourishes — passionfruit, limes, taro, cassava, pumpkins, coconut. Where it falters, hydroponic farms step in with things like lettuce and cucumbers.

Manuiz, like Fana, is a reliable stage for discovering what gets spun through these native ingredients and cooking methods. This is because Wednesday nights are buffet nights for the family-run restaurant in the capital of Alofi, where you’ll find most of the country’s dining outposts. Bookings need to be made by 12pm the day before and are essential for what is a champion of terroir.

While it’s impossible to know what will be served on any one evening, you might find lupe (Pacific pigeon) rendered into a risotto, a salad featuring more octopus than roughage, or tuna lightly seared and scattered with sesame seeds. Raw seafood loves coconut cream, and on the night I eat here, ‘ota ika, a fish dish that’s diced and marinating in a citrusy, milky bath somewhat similar to ceviche, is spooned into a paper cup. All of this is a tradition of sustenance distinguished by the Tomailuga family, Lynda, Dawannisha and Tifi, who help keep the establishment from melting under the pressure of the forks of yachties.

Uga, a land-dwelling coconut crab, served with chilli, lime and herbs at Vaiolama Cafe.
Uga, a land-dwelling coconut crab, served with chilli, lime and herbs at Vaiolama Cafe.

If you’re lucky, Manuiz will have uga, a large land-living coconut crab that is not for the timid. There is a hunter’s cunning — a coconut, hacked enough to reveal the meat but not so much as to make it easy to access, left as a lure — needed to catch the prized crustacean, which skitters through Niue’s forests in shades of bright blue and red, and a foodie’s ego needed to eat it — to crack and extract from an exoskeleton.

My fortune was better at Vaiolama Cafe, also in Alofi, whose version of uga was self-assured and simple, cooked like crayfish and tossed in a slick of chilli and herbs and lime, the shell helpfully fissured, courtesy of the chef, and the white, unctuous flesh yielding enough to pry out of a limb with a spoon. This family business is run and owned by the Rex family, including BJ, Milla and Pauline, and has built its reputation on other things: a happy hour that starts at 5pm, and cakes and sultana scones that could have been made by your nana. The space, outfitted with a DJ, empty milk bottles full of fairy lights and a rhythm meant for slow, long days nursing an oversized latte, has been created around its container hub, which sits on the foundation of a home that was destroyed in a devastating cyclone in 1990.

Containers are an itinerant playbook that several of Niue’s cafes have borrowed from, a seeming necessity when the island has been subject to repeated widespread damage. (The way locals tell it, Cyclone Heta, which reached the island in 2004, caused waves so high that they broke over the 30-metre-high cliffs, sweeping away the museum, the hospital and countless dwellings across the western coast like crumbs off a table.)

Hio Cafe looks out over Hio Beach, one of Niue’s few sandy beaches.
Hio Cafe looks out over Hio Beach, one of Niue’s few sandy beaches.

The best of these steel boxes is Hio Cafe, the only restaurant on the northern side of the island in Tuapa. Owner Victoria Posimani Kalauni, a registered nurse, and her husband Tony, a diesel mechanic, had always planned to return to Niue after Victoria turned 45, so after stints in Australia and Abu Dhabi, they did. “It was marvellous,” she told me about living overseas, over a trestle table at her business that looks out to pristine ocean waters, “but it’s not your reality.”

More than anything, they wanted to sell coconuts and beer and talk to tourists, to open a place that serviced the neighbourhood. The result is a menu that is appreciably its own and global in its breath. Fish tacos, a balance of comfort and tension, are served in Indian flatbreads — warm, tanned, with a satisfying chew — alongside breadfruit, taro or papaya and a chilli sauce made from the bird’s eye variety grown at the back of their house. To these, you might add vegetarian nachos; the signature smoothie, which arrives with a flourish in a coconut; or the waffles, crispened just so beneath a scrim of berries and dressed up with squiggles of chocolate sauce.

One of only two eateries open in Niue on Sunday (the other, Washaway Cafe, in Avatele, boasts an honesty bar and burgers), Hio fills up to a comfortable fullness, but it’s a world away from the toniest suburban brunch that the idea of waffles and a heaving dining floor conjures. Here, from July to September, during whale season, a humpback will breach just beyond the balcony. I’d come back for that.

Julia Gessler travelled to Niue courtesy of Air New Zealand and Niue Tourism.

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