Growing up, I was never really that into food. I would eat because it was meal time or because I was hungry.
Then I met Daniel.
When we were dating, he would take me to all the fine dining restaurants in Wellington. That is when I really discovered food. I still wouldn’t describe myself as a foodie, but I enjoy eating beautifully presented meals, unique flavour combinations and anything with an element of surprise.
When a group of us at work participated in a fitness challenge, and won, we decided for our prize, we would dine at Haikai. To be honest, I had never heard of the place (see, I’m not a real foodie) but with a 7 course degustation dining experience on the table, I was certainly keen.
The restaurant, located in Mt Cook, has a casual, relaxed atmosphere with staff who are warm and inviting. I loved the interior too. Minimalist and contemporary interwoven with culture, tradition and history. The restaurant is small, seating only 30 people and let me tell you, this place is popular! If you are thinking you might like to dine here, be sure to book ahead! We made the booking in late August and we couldn’t get a reservation until early December. But hey, it is always great to have something nice to look forward to!
We are welcomed in and taken to our table. (We are seated in a round, booth like table.) I am intrigued to see a children’s book sitting on the table. I pick it up and flick through it. Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street, a story that seems vaguely familiar from my childhood. A magical tuna (tuna is the Maori word for eel I learn) bounces out of it’s pond, through places in the community and then into the homes of local children. Each child is presented with an ethnic gift based on music and dancing. Upon receiving the gift, the children begin to dance. And dance and dance. The story is a celebration of the different cultures and ethnicity in Aotearoa .
After taking our drinks order, we are presented with the menu and now things start to make sense. Each item on the menu is inspired by Watercress Tuna. Through the food, we are taken on a journey that explores Maori myth and legends while celebrating indigenous ingredients. Some I have never heard of or tried before.
Our journey begins with appetizers that remind us of fun childhood days, brightly coloured little ‘ice cream cones’ filled with whipped ricotta and dusted with beetroot are first on the menu. The texture is divine. Smooth, rich and creamy.
We then move onto a twist on the classic 80’s prawn cocktail (The story is written in the 80’s)
The next dish is one of my favourites. (Which is odd because it has mushrooms in it, something I can’t stand!) We are presented with gorgeous little tortellini filled with creamy cheese. It is accompanied with shitaki mushrooms, ginger, watercress and more. Broth is then poured over the top as our waiter explains how the meal represents Tuna’s home, the pond with the watercress growing on the surface. This is absolutely delicious! The smooth, rich creaminess of the filled tortellini is beautifully offset by the sharpness of the pickled ginger. This is served with some gorgeous little buttermilk and honey buns to mop up all the yummy broth.
Onto the main course. My friends are served pork belly, while I have jackfruit. I have only recently been introduced to jackfruit. I find it so hard to believe it’s not meat. It’s texture is very similar and the presentation of my main next to my friends is also identical. It blows my mind how chefs can create meat and vegetarian dishes that look so similar.
At course 5 we begin dessert. It’s a 7 course meal, so yes, it means we are getting 3 desserts! A parfait comes out and it’s presentation is stunning. It’s a party on a plate. I look at this one for a while, enjoying it’s presentation, before diving in with my spoon. Lime and coconut. Creamy, smooth and very refreshing.
A colourful arrangement of fruits, meringue and an incredible kawakawa sorbet is served up next. That sorbet, wow! Just wow! The flavour is outstanding. This plate is a rainbow of delights, representing and celebrating the uniqueness and diversity of New Zealanders, just like in the book.
Our final course (I’m feeling rather full now, but it’s dessert so I’ll make room) is a selection of petite fours of classic kiwi treats using some indigenous ingredients I have never heard of before. The ‘pixie caramel’ is a most wonderful way to finish the evening.
This is a culinary journey everyone should experience at least once.