They take it seriously when it’s time to eat,” says Luis Cabrera. He’s talking about his admiration for the Italian attitude to life and food, but he might well be describing the happy group whooping it up on Friday lunchtime at his Wynyard Quarter restaurant, Ceviche Bar by Besos Latinos. Or perhaps they are showing their appreciation of the margaritas.

Mexican-born Luis gained much of his food education in Italy where he developed huge respect for the way that Italians enjoy time at the table, their care in selecting ingredients and their almost jealous admiration of those who make things in the right way. He draws parallels with the way of life in Mexico City where it’s common to take a couple of hours to socialise over lunch. “Recharging the energy through food is very important to me. The purpose is to take proper care of yourself and your mood. I don’t like the idea of having lunch in 20 minutes then leaving. There’s a lot of love and passion in every dish – it warms my heart to see people appreciating it, letting the food talk to them from the inside. Then they take away a different sort of energy.”

Ten years ago Luis and his wife Cecilia Lara opened Besos Latinos in Auckland’s Elliott Stables. Back then, Luis says, Kiwis weren’t familiar with authentic Mexican food and had to be persuaded out of their comfort zone: Luis’ bold tactic to entice customers to try his food was the promise ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t pay.’

Recognising today’s more adventurous dining tastes, Luis and Cecilia Lara believed it was time for another restaurant: a Latin-American seafood restaurant, Ceviche Bar by Besos Latinos.

“Ceviche is a way of cooking, not a fixed recipe,” Luis says. While it’s the signature dish of Peru, there are thousands of variations, using different fish and different flavours. Luis reflects this on his menu where at any one time there will be a classic ceviche, something spicy, a coconutty variation, maybe a ceviche with a fruity flavour. The Auckland Fish Market, just around the corner, is a source of inspiration. Trevally and tarakihi often feature, with staff able to nip over to the market during service to pick up the very freshest catch. Then it’s into the kitchen where the best Kiwi produce melds with thousands of years of Latin and South American techniques from the Maya, Aztec and Inca cultures, then influences from Europe such as Spanish, Italian and German, giving very rich traditions and plenty of variety.

An appreciation of authenticity and integrity flow throughout. Cecilia Lara was clear about her vision for the restaurant: to find a different way to perceive the Latin American culture, moving away from the clichés of cactus and sombreros, while still being fun and colourful and capturing the spirit of Mexico and Latin America. Engaging Mexican design firm Taller Lu’um – who specialise in working with makers in indigenous communities and champion fair and sustainable trade practices – she has conceived a restaurant showcasing unique artisan pieces such as basketweave lightfittings, rustic clay platters, hand- blown glass and carved, multi-coloured masks. Fun and colourful it is, but make no mistake, they take their margaritas seriously. “Nobody does better margaritas than us – they are the real deal. We don’t fake margaritas.” Luis proudly shows me a bottle of single- barrel limited-edition Patrón tequila with his name printed on the label. Yep, the real deal. TRACY WHITMEY

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