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Hiakai: A celebration of nature, culture and Maori cuisine

Hiakai: A celebration of nature, culture and Maori cuisine

Cameron Douglas takes us behind the scenes at Hiakai, Monique Fiso’s Wellington restaurant.

Hiakai: A celebration of nature, culture and Maori cuisine

Hiakai in Te Reo translates to ‘hungry’. It also headlines the name of Monique Fiso’s restaurant in Wellington, with a menu showcasing unique flavour and texture combinations, specific beverage and food pairings and an opportunity to be taken on an aromatic and textural journey with Fiso’s interpretation of Maori cooking, culture and nature woven through every dish.  

Hiakai opened its doors in 2018, quickly becoming a destination for not only connoisseurs of food, but also diners looking for an experience that incorporates indigenous themes of New Zealand through a fine food menu. A waiting list of three months is typical.  

The menu weaves Maori legend through story-telling to introduce each dish – delivered on the printed menu and by the front of house staff. The current menu, for example,  tells of the Battle of the Mountains – ‘In a time long ago, eight personified mountains were born from the landscape. There lived seven males – Tongariro, Taranaki, Ruapehu, Ngāruahoe, Tarawera, Tauhara and Pūtauaki – and one female, Pīhanga. The mountains fought a great battle for the hand of Pīhanga, a mountain to the south of Tūrangi, and after a long battle Tongariro emerged the winner’.

I first met Monique Fiso when she was about a year into her cooking role at Matin Bosley’s Wellington Restaurant. We began to catchup more regularly after she moved to New York where I was consulting on The Musket Room’s winelist. I always brought with me from New Zealand a taste of Kiwiana – pineapple lumps and jet planes were especially well received, and Monique’s favourites were spearmint candy leaves and Whittakers peanut slabs. When Fiso returned to New Zealand, we became connected once more. One of the first Hiakai pop-ups was at Meredith’s where she asked me to be in charge of the wine selection. 

Fiso’s section in the kitchen at the Musket Room was tiny, yet she managed to execute every dish to a consistently high quality. Her dedication and focus to her craft was – and remains – seamless.  

Before it went to bricks and mortar, Hiakai was conceptualised as a pop-up series, Monique exploring Maori cooking ingredients and techniques – including the use of earth ovens and steam cooking. Dishes such as hapuka tartare with horopito and boil-ups proved a hit at the pop-ups, and became features on the menu. 

Hiakai has undoubtably provided the perfect platform for Monique to showcase her food vision. The flavours and many of the ingredients sourced for the dishes (and some of the beverages) are foraged locally. These include Kamokamo – like a squash with an intense sweet flavour; Wakame – an edible seaweed; Kiokio – edible fern shoots, Kawakawa – edible yellow berries, Horopito – peppery herb , Tarata – edible resin from a type of lemon-wood plant and Harakeke – a flax like plant with edible seeds. 

The menu is offered as a choice of eight or ten courses, and a wine (and other beverage) pairing is available (you can select directly from the winelist). Both menus offer ‘snacks’ to begin with, immediately showcasing the depth of Fiso’s vision – with multiple flavours and textures through several dishes delivered in quick succession. Each subsequent course arrives at your table with staff providing an explanation of the dish, and its connection to the story of Pīhanga.

Must-try dishes include the Tauhara – eel, heirloom tomato and wakame with an al dente texture, hint of smoke, a gentle oil texture and nuttiness. The Taranaki is a beef and bone marrow dish with a succulent with melt in the mouth texture, a green puree with a mousse-like texture linking the marrow sauce with its own earthy almost marmite-like flavours.

Staff at Hiakai are hand-picked for their attention to detail, interest in and understanding of food, ingredients and philosophy of the dining experience. Every member of staff must attend the pre-service briefing – also an opportunity to remind them of specific guests coming to dine, dietary needs, ingredient changes, service flow and, most importantly, to come together as a team. 

Hiakai offers a true dining experience with excellent food, detailed service, fine beverages and a wonderful setting. I was privileged to create the wine list for Monique when she opened her space, and these days I return to update the selections as the menu evolves, as well as working with the staff to ensure they understand the relevance of each wine to the menu.

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