A Hunger for Hiakai

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Wellington is known for 3 things: It’s wind, its’s locals who can’t get their head around wellington on a good day, and its vibrant food scene. Our coolest little capitals streets are all dedicated to a variety of establishments, all go-to’s for different occasions: You want cheap Asian food? You go to Cuba. You want high-end French cuisine? Head to Queens Wharf. You want greasy chips after a night out? Courtenay’s got you covered. Nearly all culinary bases have been covered – but what about the more daring side of food? The side where molecular gastronomy is the chef’s religion, they practice day in day out? Where in Wellington do you find this place? I’ll tell you where. Try opposite Massey University. No – not the dairy, a little further down. To Hiakai.
Hiakai is the baby one of New Zealand’s most accomplished chefs, Monique Fiso – who gained fame through a little Netflix show called ‘The Final’ table (you might’ve also binge-watched). Since witnessing her skill I’ve been following her adventures every day.

I didn’t know it existed, but when I found out about Hiakai, I knew I had to go and experience Chef Fiso’s fare at it’s very best. So last Thursday that’s exactly what I did (we had to book months in advance – but you’ll soon find out why). You’d agree that Mount Cook is a weird place to have a restaurant, but once you step inside the restored brick kiln, you don’t even care where you are – you’re too absorbed in the warm, cave-like ambiance of Hiakai. Trapezing up the stairs, we were met by waiters who excitedly took us to our corner booth, and as soon as our bums hit the smooth velvety seats, the degustation began.

Course 1: Snacks & Aperitif: Toasted Potato Bread & Horopito butter, Oysters, Snapper skewers, Potato and parsley crisp, Ceviche flatbreads. Once drinks were sorted and cutlery was down, the starters came out – and they didn’t stop! After all the snacks hit the table, there was no room left to move – so of course we had to get to eating! My favorite out of these were the snapper Skewers. Even though it was just one piece of snapper on a skewer, the flavour and texture it delivered when eating it was mind-blowing, and even once swallowed the delicate fishy flavour marinated on your tongue.

Course 2: Broccoli & Tuatua Clam. I was shocked that all the snacks were just ONE of the courses, but don’t worry, I had pre-prepared my tummy for enormous amounts of food. When this plate hit the table, I was taken back by just how beautiful a somebody could make broccoli look. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I knew this dish was going to taste just as gorgeous as it looked – and yep, I was right! Forget any blanched greens your mum used to feed you – this bright green puree was a whole new flavour of broccoli anybody would drool over. This dish was a sensation, and it got our palettes prepared for the food-finesse that was to come.

Course 3: Potato, Green-lipped mussel ice cream. This dish had me utterly speechless. I’ve watched plenty of Heston Blumenthal, and this was nothing short of one of his creations. Set in front of us were small cubes of Maori potato, topped with shoestring Maori fries, and then to pair with these? A dollop of green-lipped Mussel ice cream of course. The waiters also drooled a small pool of mussel sauce around the dish – and then it was time to tuck in. My mouth didn’t want to like it – surely the textures and temperatures couldn’t work – but it JUST DID! It then hit me – the taste combo matched that of dipping McDonalds fries into a sundae – but this time, I wasn’t drunk at 3am, and I definitely wanted to dip in for more, and more.

Course 4: Ika, kowhitiwhiti, parsnip, leek, bone broth, kawakawa. So, by now I gauged that Hiakai’s specialty was fish – and was I complaining? Absolutely not. And by this, I bet you could imagine my pure glee when, yet another stellar fish course was plated in front of me. And oh my god what a fish this was. The unimaginably delectable fish (or ika) paired with those melt-in-the-mouth vegetables, and a dunk of the bone broth created a mouthful of kai that was a true homage to the sea. That broth took my palette to places it’s never been, and I had to hold myself back from asking the waiter for the whole jug (though I think it would’ve been a compliment had I!).

Course 5: Sweet Potato Cappelletti, Truffle, butter sauce, sage. Okay, after 3 light fish dishes it was kinda’ nice to have something different – and for me, this heavy and decadent pasta dish was the ideal successor. When I took a bite of the cappelletti, butter sauce, sage and truffles all together – I had what you would call a ‘Ratatouille’ moment. I tasted something that took me back to a fond memory, but what was the flavour?? And then it hit me – a vegan mac and cheese I have made only once, but always crave. This made me love the meal even more, not because of how impeccable the depth of flavours were, it took me back to a memory I am forever fond of.

Course 6: Feijoa, Kiekie gin, apple, sorrel. 5 courses in, and we were finally hitting the sweet spot. To refine our palettes after all those strong and savoury dishes, we were given a palette cleanser crafted from the sourest & freshest of fruit. A spoonful of feijoa gel, sour sorbet, citrus marinated apple ribbons, and a gin meringue was enough to clear my mouth of any savoury flavour, and replace it with an explosion of sweet, sour, and citrus fireworks. It’s a hard call to made, but if I had to choose a favourite dish of the degustation – it would be this little lip-smacking snack.

Course 7: Hokey Pokey ice cream bar. What do Kiwi’s love most? Eskimo Bars. What do Kiwi’s also love? Crunchies. Put these two together, and holy. You’ve won over the nation – and Hiakai is doing just that with their Hokey Pokey Ice Cream bar. The crossover of these sweet treats creates a dessert that’s smooth, light, crunchy, sweet, bitter, and of course, very naughty. But hey, it was my night to splurge – so I ate the whole damn thing and loved every millisecond of the flavours melting on my tongue.

Course 8: Petit Fours: Horopito, mamakau delight, ’Shrewsbury’, and tarata harakeke truffles. The food baby was gestating, but the degustation wasn’t over yet. Oh no, we couldn’t leave our seats until we had tried what is seen all over Hiakai’s Instagram – the Petit Fours. A plate of handmade marshmallows landed in front of us, followed by a cloche of smoke-covered truffles, then a small box of dainty jellies, chocolates, and their famous ‘Shrewsbury’. The drama when the smoke spilled over all the sweets was intense, and the act of rubbing our hands in the native Horopito before devouring our treats was comical. The marshmallow was packed full of sugar and Horopito and tasted wonderfully like lemongrass. The truffle dark and Smokey, the jelly soft and sour, the chocolate rich and gooey – and of course, the Shrewsbury was homely and very retro – just the way I like it.

And that was it. After 8 stunning courses, my quest through the menu at Hiakai had come to an end. Sitting here now reminiscing on each ingredient and component of the dishes, I feel truly blessed to have tried some of the best food New Zealand has to offer, and some of the native ingredients so uncommon in our kitchens, yet so delicious in our meals. Hiakai was an experience like no other – the food was of course second to none, the wait staff were highly professional, but also warm and friendly, and the chefs – you can see they work non-stop in the kitchen to the nth degree, but after making my way through each course they’ve meticulously mastered, I can safely say their efforts have paid off. I don’t even know if this place can be compared to anywhere, I’ve ever been to – yet even if Hiakai had its own scale it would reach the top. So I’m just going to go and say this: No matter where you are, who you’re with, or how much money you have – an evening experience the artistry Hiakai has to offer is worth it. Please go and see what I’m banging on about – you won’t regret it.

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