A Taste of NAVO
It wasn’t an auspicious start. It was hard to appreciate the awesome surroundings of the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa with tropical rain chundering down. Then I dropped my notebook in a puddle. To be fair, it had seeped in under our table, but none of us felt like shifting because we were already well away with chat of flavours, textures and food generally and beginning to feel downright peckish. On most nights, Chef Leon Hawkins Hatton-Jones told us, most people would be sitting outside where there were wonderful water features including lagoon views, Natadola Bay, a water wall and surrounding pool, just not rain. That was okay, we were fine with it and in any case, it dried up later. Chef Leon is top man of a 110 member chef team, 19 of them in the Navo signature specialty dining restaurant, six of whom were busy behind a glass walled kitchen tonight. Chef Leon is from South Africa, from a family that has produced three chefs, and he’s been around – Kenya, Namibia, then selected to go to Prague, then Istanbul for further exposure to international cuisines. He’s been in Fiji for only a few months, but I sensed he was already making a difference. He has been sourcing locally many of the sort of spices and tastes he discovered in other parts of the world, as well as new Fiji flavours. His chefs on show are encouraged to leave their glass enclosure and chat with guests about their meals. “We find our guests unbelievably receptive to trying Fiji foods and new flavours, it makes us proud to get so many comments in so many different accents.”
Amongst the innovations and new equipment that have come in with Chef Leon is the sous-vide method in which meats or vegetables are vacuum sealed in a plastic pouch and put in a circulating water bath of 41 degrees for several hours. I’d never heard of it but my dining companion who had recently been to Paris reckoned she knew all about it. Anyway, the point is the slow cooked food retains moisture and becomes amazingly tender. A plate with a medallion of beef cooked to an exquisite rightness and slightly seared on the outside, appeared before us to try. I was glad I had restrained myself over the chili and herb butters with the resort’s own gluten free, low GI bread, in our case sourdough, that had already appeared on the table. They make their own pasta also. On the bread plate I came across the highly rated Maldon salt, which is flaky rather than coarse crystals, melts in the mouth and apparently doesn’t clog arteries. Our entrée orders arrived – seared scallops with broccoli puree and black pepper-palm sugar sauce as recommended by the chef for our hotel guide, Florence Law, and an absolute winner for my companion – Fiji pork belly with chili pineapple chutney and white radish. I insisted on the lobster kokoda, because I had never had lobster that way before. It was served in a small lali drum that contained a surprisingly large amount, with small pieces of nama in the coconut cream that gave it a delightful lift. Chef Leon is really keen on nama, sea grapes, and its fresh crunch turns up in surprising places. The Chef’s own favourite fancy runs to curry, particularly Malaysian style with lots of ginger and cumin, lemon grass, chilli and perhaps paprika, and coriander (but no curry powder). Don’t scorn it, he won a competition with his curry. His enthusiasm for using new and interesting combinations of ingredients is catching on. He gives his chefs a weekly ‘mystery basket’ of ingredients as seen on television, and challenges them to be inventive. “I don’t believe in the old fashioned way of shouting at chefs and making jump to your demands. I’m about having an open mind, open to new cultures, saying thankyou and please. I encourage them to try exciting new food combinations. They love it.” Another innovation is the weekly special, which features an ingredient that is of especially good quality or has just become available or in season. This week it was mahi mahi fish, fresh off the boat. Some of the ways it was being served were on display behind the glass at the entry. After a delightfully cleansing coconut sorbet we were ready for the mains. I hadn’t take much persuading to try the pastrami dusted mahi mahi, served with blocks of layered potato done in the way I think do it, but obviously don’t achieve. I was first to start and last to finish, savouring every delicious mouthful of flaky, flavoursome fish. Others opted for the mahi mahi, but Fijian style to see how well it was done (gold star, apparently). InterContinental is obviously the place to take advantage of the seafood. Guest favourites include Vakalolo Hot Pot, with fish drizzled in garlic infused olive oil, nama, and coconut; seared yellofin tuna with glazed turnip, crispy polenta and parsley puree (but on the menu only if the fish is good), and grilled Yasawa island lobster, served simply.
There is a classy vegetarian menu also that includes Pumpkin Cream Cheese Tortellini, Grilled Polenta and Haloumi, and Green Peas with Shiitake Mushrooms. This sparked a lively discussion about new local produce including mushrooms and asparagus. Some Suva-ites were sceptical, but people swore to seeing beetroot and a range of herbs that would flavour dishes from French to island style. As ever, the kitchen concern is a regular supply maintaining quality while the farmer’s concern is for a reliable marketing system. Although already replete, when Chef Leon asked if we would like him to whip us up a dessert we could only say “absolutely”. What to say about a mud pudding with an interior of liquid chocolate at one end of the plate and an amazing home made icecream (icecream machines another innovation) at the other, linked by a noodle and what the Chef likes to call ‘rubble’. This one had crumbled macaroon, dried raspberry and chocolate amongst other flavours, while other combinations lift the excitement level from entrees to afters. If nothing on the menu suits, Chef Leon’s team are ready to dish off-menu requests. If Navo restaurant doesn’t do it for you, despite their adults only dinner hours and jazz brunch on Sundays, there is buffet dining at Sanasana where they feature themed dining nights including a Fijian feast, or Toba Bar and Grill that has wood-fired pizzas and healthy salads. And if there is romance on the menu, bespoke dining can deliver in a private dining room or under the stars in a beachside cabana. So many options, only one stomach. Also the resort is a 35 acre site and I was beginning to wonder how we would waddle back to our rooms when an electric buggy arrived quietly to pick us up. A good night’s sleep and we would be ready for the recommended mud crab omelette for breakfast.