Tried & Tested: Hiakai, Wellington

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, winter 2019, issue 111

At her new restaurant, chef Monique Fiso taps into the best of Aotearoa’s heritage.

Foodies visiting New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington should add Hiakai, a new fine-dining hotspot in the inner-city suburb of Mount Cook, to their culinary bucket list.

Translating to hungry in the indigenous language of te reo Māori, the restaurant is the concept of chef Monique Fiso, who is making waves on the national stage for her innovative use of Māori cooking techniques, and for using Aotearoa’s (New Zealand’s) plentiful native ingredients in her Michelin-worthy creations.

Tried & Tested: Hiakai, Wellington
Monique Fiso

Fiso trained under celebrated New Zealand chef Martin Bosley before honing her skills in some of New York’s most esteemed kitchens. Following a well-received series of pop-up restaurants in 2016, a permanent Hiakai opened in November 2018. Fiso is recognisable from the Netflix series The Final Table, a dramatic cooking competition in which she goes head-to-head with an international lineup of esteemed chefs – among them are Australia’s Mark Best and Shane Osborn.

It’s apparent why the restaurant – and Fiso – are creating a significant buzz in New Zealand’s dining circles, with every aspect of the experience deliberately crafted and impressively executed. The ambience is sophisticated, yet unpretentious, owing to its intimacy (30 seats) and the team’s genuine dedication to delivering something exceptional. Our waiters, Oliver and Jennifer, flawlessly recited each dish; including the featured native ingredients, their origins, and the techniques used to enhance their flavours. The food is beautifully presented, with equal attention given to every component of the plate.

Some highlights of our six-course degustation included the signature rewena bread (so delicious, I was tempted to request a loaf to take home with me), served with butter topped with fat from the elusive Tītī (mutton bird) from Stewart Island. A tomato dish with XO, coconut curd and rewena crisps packed a tangy punch; while a potato chowder featuring green-lipped mussel ice cream artfully fused crunchy with cold. Tarakihi fish was served with avocado, snap peas and a dressing made using kawakawa, a peppery tree that’s popular in the Māori cooking tradition.

Dessert featured Milo, a powdered chocolate malt that is a staple of the Kiwi cupboard. It was combined with milk chocolate in a spherical pavé, which sat atop crunchy Milo crumbs and was flanked by roasted potato skin ice cream and nectarine compote. While the flavour was possibly made more magical by my sense of childhood nostalgia, I’m confident that most diners will find themselves scraping every last bit off the plate (like I did).  

Fiso has created something truly special by tapping into Aotearoa’s rich cultural heritage, bringing her considerable expertise to the table (so to speak), and reshaping perceptions of Māori food in New Zealand. Hiakai creates an experience that happily lingers on more than just the palate.

Hiakai offers six, eight and ten-course degustations with optional drink pairings. Bookings are essential (currently up to three months’ in advance) and dietary requirements can be catered for when booking, with the exception of vegan.

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