RESTAU­RANT

Pa­cific de­li­cious­ness comes with a side or­der of in­tegrity

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - Kim Knight

Kai Pasi­fika

Vir­gin or­ganic co­conut oil on the whole roasted fish. Just “co­conut” with the salmon poke.

The steamed mus­sels came with white wine and lolo. “What’s lolo?” I asked the wait­per­son. “Co­conut,” she smiled. It has been called the tree of life. Writ­ing in

Mea’ai Samoa, chef Robert Oliver notes the juice of the green co­conut has, on oc­ca­sion, been used by doc­tors as an emer­gency in­tra­venous fluid. In the Pa­cific re­gion, re­searchers have counted 125 dif­fer­ent uses for the co­conut palm. At Kai Pasi­fika, I counted nine and I did not eat one that I did not love.

Oliver (chef, au­thor, tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity) has set up this show­case of Pa­cific food in the space that was, most re­cently, Ika. Many it­er­a­tions ago it was a fu­neral chapel. This hardly seems worth men­tion­ing ex­cept the new restau­rant re­tains a serene, church-like feel.

Ap­par­ently there is art­work com­ing, but when we vis­ited it was all white walls, and ta­bles in an or­derly row. Brown might be the new black — wit­ness

Moana, et al — but this was no just-add-hi­bis­cus nod to pop cul­ture trends. Or­der the taro ($7). It tastes like in­tegrity.

We started with two ver­sions of raw trevally. The less-adorned Cook Is­land ika mata with its pour-on sauce ($17), slightly edged out the Fi­jian kokoda ($16). The lat­ter came with chunks of ap­ple — un­ex­pected but not un­pleas­ant. Both could have used a de­cent whack of chilli.

Kai Pasi­fika does a rea­son­able fried cala­mari ($16) but the mus­sels ($16), with grated fresh co­conut, were more sumptuous.

If the starters are mostly from the sea, the sec­ond course draws heav­ily from the land. Pua’a Samoa ($28) is belly pork, boiled, then cold-smoked, then roasted to or­der. It’s soft and sticky with bit­ter-choco­lately koko Samoa and it re­ally does melt in the mouth.

You will also want the sipi ($29). Mut­ton flaps are a con­tro­ver­sial ex­port from New Zealand to the Pa­cific, fre­quently cited in news sto­ries about obe­sity rates and di­a­betes. Sipi are lamb ribs, cut a few cen­time­tres higher from the stom­ach than the flap, but un­de­ni­ably fatty.

I phoned Oliver with a raised eye­brow. He said: “I’m not a sci­en­tist or a nu­tri­tion­ist but I know that if you have a bal­anced diet and you eat a lot of veg­eta­bles and whole car­bo­hy­drates and you have a bit of fat — big deal.”

And O.M.G are they de­li­cious. Cooked hard to ren­der that fat, with a Fi­jian tamarind chut­ney for acid cut-through, they were the crispy bits from the bot­tom of the child­hood roast­ing dish made even bet­ter.

A mild goat curry ($30) did not wow me, but a $7 side of mush­room sapa­sui was an ab­so­lute rev­e­la­tion. I’ve al­ways been deeply sus­pi­cious of Samoan chop suey, with its glis­ten­ing, soy sauce-stained ver­mi­celli noo­dles and blobs of minced meat. This one did not look any pret­tier, but it was veg­e­tar­ian and sang with fresh gin­ger. (The house coleslaw, thick with — sur­prise — grated co­conut, was also good.)

Kai Pasi­fika is not like any other restau­rant in Auck­land. I can’t think of any­where else this close to the city that serves ba­nana cake in a tin mug, or taro cooked in co­conut cream.

That co­conut cream, says Oliver, is ac­tu­ally Kara, sourced from In­done­sia. There’s a sin­gle Samoan brand avail­able for use here, he says, but it’s a small-scale op­er­a­tion and the prices are cur­rently too high for a restau­rant with over­heads that in­clude a com­mit­ment to pay­ing the liv­ing wage.

“We wish it could be a Pa­cific one, but the scale is not just there,” says Oliver. “We’d love to be the ones that open that door.”

Make a book­ing. Help give that door a nudge.

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