In Food + Drink

The Wellington Restaurant With A Months-Long Waiting List

Wellington may be New Zealand’s capital city with the iconic Beehive building as the parliamentary base, but it has long held a reputation as being the country’s foodie capital as well.

Now, a newcomer to the culinary scene, Hiakai, has taken windy Wellington by storm and upped the gastronomic game to a whole new level – so much, that it’s often fully-booked for months at a time.

No sooner had chef Monique Fiso stepped off the plane after returning to New Zealand from sleepless New York City – where she made a name for herself working in Michelin-star restaurants – and her attention had switched from the Big Apple to grass roots.

Born in Wellington and of Maori and Samoan heritage, the 32-year-old came home in 2016 to launch Hiakai as a series of pop-up restaurants and experiences across the country devoted to the exploration and development of Maori (native New Zealand) cooking techniques and ingredients.

Her mission was so well received that in 2018, the creations she describes as “not just an exploration of indigenous and local ingredients but of well known Maori myths, legends and contemporary stories”, became more permanent in a bricks-and-mortar restaurant with the same name.

Hiakai translates to ‘hungry’ and ‘a desire, need, and craving for food’. Its ethos is to celebrate the indigenous cuisine and challenge the status quo of Maori food in New Zealand while playing a leading role in keeping it alive.

The popular restaurant offers fine dining with a twist; guests can choose between six, eight or ten courses. Wood-fired kareao (a native vine) and asparagus with salted buffalo curd, pine dust and a pine needle vinaigrette; kina panna cotta with smoked kahawai fish, green-lipped mussels, caviar and kawakawa oil; Kaipara oysters with horopito mignonette granita and koromiko flowers are just a taste of what’s featured on Haikai’s ever-changing seasonal menu.

Hiakai

Fiso and her team regularly circle around the Hiakai Chef Counter to discuss new menus and the story behind each dish that will engage guests in not just the food of Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, but the history and culture of the land that makes the country so unique.

Ascend the stairs edged in more than two kilometres of threaded wire wall panels that run from the restaurant’s first floor down to ground level – a task completed in the dead of night in time for opening. Sitting proudly at the top and inside a historic building in the southern city-fringe suburb of Mount Cook is the 30-seated dining area.

It’s complete with beautifully curved wooden wall panelling, which follows the gentle arc of chocolate-brown leather seated booths. Cast in the warm glow of hanging pendant lights are the well sought-after tables edged in gold detailing.

The regularly fully booked room hums with excited chatter of guests, thrilled to have secured a spot in the establishment named by TIME Magazine as one of its 100 Greatest Places of 2019 and Forbes Magazine’s 10 Coolest Places to Eat in 2020.

Each dish is thoughtfully paired with a ‘beverage programme’ that is given almost the same amount of attention to detail as the food. There’s a prerequisite on Fiso’s drinks list: each wine and spirit whether local and international must have the ability to tell a story about where it comes from, the people who produce it, and its respect for the land.

There’s non-alcoholic pairing available too, where each ice cube has been hand-cut with precision from the huge slabs at the bar.

Maori people have always held great respect for the land and historically, prepared food underground in a process called hangi. Ever the great innovators of food and land, they successfully adapted plants and vegetables – many used for medicinal purposes as well – bought with them on their voyage from Hawaiki to the much cooler environment of New Zealand.

Over many centuries, the methods have been passed down and refined throughout generations. Good food is the centre-point to any whanau, or family, occasion.

Hiakai

Fiso celebrates her ancestors’ way with food by cooking in a similar style to the hangi using a wood-fired oven and transforming traditional ingredients – like the huhu grub, the larvae of a native beetle found in the bush – into dishes that resemble art. Although she admits, it was initially difficult to source such leftfield ingredients.

While a dish with the word ‘grub’ in the description mightn’t sound overly enticing or of five-star quality, Fiso’s magic touch leaves guests coming back for more. You just need to visit the Hiakai website and read that staff aren’t taking bookings until the New Year to realise the mark it’s made not just on the local food scene, but globally.

It goes to show the sheer power of native plants and vegetables, especially when in the hands of someone who cares so deeply about both where it’s come from historically and its potential in the modern world.

(All images: Hiakai / supplied)

Published 17 December, 2019