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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

Ahi – Auckland, New Zealand

I spent two weeks wandering around New Zealand finding myself gobsmacked not just by the natural beauty, but also the quality of the country's culinary universe.

Like many of the mostly-white outposts of the former British empire, New Zealand's food scene doesn't exactly have a reputation for a culture-wide excellent food universe the same way that countries like, say, France or Thailand might. Many of the Kiwis I spoke with, when I mentioned how impressed I was by the food, would reply, "really? In New Zealand?"

But it's the ingredient quality, and the pride in these local ingredients, that is the hallmark of the very best food in the country. Indeed, some New Zealand ingredients, like venison and salmon, are among the most prized in kitchens all over the world. There's a fierce commitment, too, to sustainability and environmental protection that permeates the country, so the ways that food is grown or raised tend to eschew commercial farming techniques that strip ingredients of their nutrient and flavor potential.

Many of the higher-end restaurants in the country celebrate the glory of these Kiwi ingredients, and of course these types of places preaching the gospel of sustainability and ethical, local sourcing draw most of my attention. That's how I came to be spending my first hours in Auckland experiencing the "New Zealand Food Story" menu at Ahi.

In Maori, Ahi means "fire," and Chef Benjamin Bayly has spent much of his life committed to telling Aotearoa's "food story"––he even has a mini series where he goes all around the archipelago sampling local delicacies and drawing inspiration for his Auckland menus. His work has elevated Ahi to the pinnacle of the dining scene in the capitol and, hence, the country writ-large. Sourcing from locales as nearby as the restaurant's garden and as far away as the rugged Auckland Islands, Chef Bayly's menu offers a snapshot of the bespoke ingredients from all over the country that make New Zealand cuisine so unique and special.

I landed late from Wellington and made it to the hotel on the waterfront with just ten minutes to spare before my dinner booking. Fortunately, Ahi is also on the waterfront, so a quick walk was all it took to find the second floor food hall where Ahi makes its home––even if it took me a few minutes to locate it among all the casual food stalls!

Overlooking the picturesque waterfront and the less-than-picturesque leviathan cruise ships, the open-air dining room was filled with light and a gentle sea breeze, just begging to be paired with a refreshing cocktail. A garden gimlet with local kaffir lime gin and herbs from the garden was my choice, a bright, refreshing summer tipple to unwind after the travel.

The menu format is one I'd come to recognize at many fine dining spots in the country––a la carte dishes organized by appetizers and mains or the option of a very reasonably-priced tasting menu selecting from the a la carte options, called "A New Zealand Food Story." The menu even tells you where in the country each main ingredient is sourced and how many kilometers it traveled to get to Auckland. I went, of course, with the tasting menu.

The wine pairings, too, curated by a thoughtful Colombian sommelier, reflected the diverse offerings of Aotearoa. To pair with the little "snack"-sized bites, I was welcomed with a splash of rosé bubbly from Clos Marguerite, a producer in Marlborough, made in the traditional style. Delicious.

An oyster from Waiheke Island, one of the largest islands in the Hauraki Gulf and about an hour's ferry ride from Auckland, was the first snack, served with a granita made from a local cider called Morningcider and apple marigold, an herb that grants a zesty combination of slightly bitter citrus and peppermint.

Next was something brand new to me––wallaby! Despite my initial "awww nooo!" moment, which the server seemed to anticipate, I learned that, much like a whole host of species introduced to the archipelago in the last couple of centuries, wallaby are tremendous problems for indigenous fauna in New Zealand, and their penchant for promiscuous procreation makes them particularly pesky pests. Consuming wallaby, then, is an exercise in protecting the remarkable biodiversity of Aotearoa.

The tartare was dressed in a fermented hot sauce and served atop a beef tendon cracker. Green onions and beautiful blue allium flowers decorated the top.

There's an element of whimsy to the atmosphere here, and a perfectly preserved skeleton of an eel head, given a name by the waitstaff that I can't remember, accompanies a BBQ cut of longfin river eel from a locale just 100km south of Auckland. The buttery-soft eel was garnished with cucumber and sat atop a nasturtium leaf. The most fascinating and successful component, however, was an onion "dip" made with kiwi fruit––distinctly New Zealand, cheeky, and wildly inventive.

Last among the snacks was one of their most celebrated––a corndog of scampi, or better known in our part of the world as langoustine, served on the expected stick with some "American-style burger sauce." As much as I was looking forward to this given its reputation, I found this course a letdown, as the scampi was overcooked and the fried component overwhelmed the delicate sweetness of the flesh, while the "burger sauce" did little to elevate the flavor.

Since we'd graduated from the snacks, it was time to move to the next wine. Fiano is a wonderful southern Italian white varietal with some lovely texture and body. From producer Sam Harrop, this lovely fiano from Hawkes Bay had a heft that would pair beautifully with the fattier elements of the salmon course to come. One of my favorite wines I had in New Zealand!

If you don't eat king salmon in New Zealand, you're doing it wrong, and some of the best salmon in the country (and the world!) comes from the inlet in the peculiar volcanic Akaroa Peninsula south of Christchurch. Two cuts of raw salmon were cured in vodka and served atop a confit of green tomatoes and a "bloody Mary" dressing, finished with dill crème fraîche and salmon roe. Phenomenal.

As I've spent more time in serious corners of the wine industry and come to understand more about the nitty gritty of how excellent wine is made, my views on the natural wine craze have shifted a bit, but I am happy to see something interesting and unique on a tasting slate, and New Zealand has no shortage of such wines.

Indeed, this wine was called "Atípico," a testament to the style of production. With a subtitle "under the plum tree," this field blend of pinot noir, pinot blanc, and pinot gris is made "vinsitu," a word invented by the producer to indicate fermentation in vats in the vineyard under the shade of––you guessed it––a plum tree. When I asked the somm about the reason for this technique and suggested it might be to lower the tannin of the red grapes by speeding up fermentation with the heat of day, he shrugged and said instead that as far as he knew it was just an element of the overall natural "vibe" of the wine––a great example of why I'm increasingly suspicious of much of the natural wine scene. With a chill, the part white-part red wine was juicy, tasty, and, indeed, atypical, but nowhere near the work of winemaking art of so many of the other wines I had in New Zealand.

It was easy to get discombobulated knowing it was January and that I was in for some peak summer produce with this next course––tomatoes, melons, and basil. A sun-dried tomato in a tomato broth with cubes of melon was dressed with crispy cured pork, straciatella, and basil for a vibrant, if disjunct, helping of summer veg. Not my favorite course, but certainly an interesting exercise in northern v. southern hemisphere seasonal mindfuckery.

The itty-bitty Clevedon region just a half hour south of central Auckland is one of the youngest wine growing areas in the country and also one of the best places for Bordeaux varietals. Puriri Hills is an acclaimed producer of Bordeaux blends from this area, and the merlot-dominant "Harmonie du Soir" from the 2015 vintage was at its peak––velvety, nuanced, and food-friendly, and among the more fascinating red wines you can find from the North Island.

The course of the night would be the main course, a brilliantly cooked cut of venison from wild red deer on the South Island. A venison blood pudding accompanied, far better than my first try of blood pudding in Christchurch some weeks earlier, as well as witloof (kiwi for endive), charred leeks, pickled onion, and a frond that very much resembled the New Zealand fern seen in so many of the country's ingisnias. I had a lot of venison in New Zealand, and this was easily the best example of the protein of the trip.

Churton is a name I'd seen frequently when discussing excellent wineries in the country, and I was happy to sample one of their offerings with the dessert course. The Jura varietal petit manseng produces fascinating wines, and this rather rare sweet example of the varietal played up both the fuller body granted by the residual sugar and the natural acidity of the grape.

Papaya isn't the first fruit you think of when you think of New Zealand, but the first commercial papaya operation was planted on the north island just two years ago. Celebrating the newfound cultivation of the fruit on the island, Ahi's pastry team makes a pavlova with charred meringue, papaya and papaya ice cream, olive oil, and milk crumble. I am not usually a fan of papaya, but found the dessert to be refreshing and oh-so-summery.

To close the meal, I was provided with a lovely house-made "citrus-cello," a take on limoncello made with all manner of citrus sourced from around the island.

I enjoyed a plethora of glorious food in New Zealand, but Ahi certainly stands out as one of the most enjoyable meals of the trip. And that's saying something considering the number of incredibly successful dinners I experienced during my two weeks exploring this wonderful country. Ahi is certainly a special place––a celebration of the bounty of Aotearoa's magnficent ingredients in which kiwis take serious pride, where locals and visitors alike can rejoice in Chef Bayly's interpretation of the food story of the country.

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