There’s an eclectic mix of wooden, laminate and plastic furniture; some tables are covered with plastic tablecloths and some chairs with sheepskin covers. The white expanse of roof and exposed trusses is broken by lots of hanging plants and black-and-white photos and reproductions of 19th-century ocean charts decorate the walls. The HP and chilli sauce on the tables adds to the casual, slightly shabby ambience.
But the aromas wafting from the kitchen are appetising rather than the off-putting smell of stale frying oil I associate with some of the less salubrious fish-and-chip shops I’ve come across in my time.
Hunger Monger serves fish and chips to take away as well as to eat in house with tartare sauce and lemon but, classy as they may be, you’d be selling yourself short if you didn’t try some of chef Fraser Slack’s other dishes. He is a dab hand with flavours as is clear in the perfectly balanced coconut cream ceviche, where citrus, chilli, coriander, shallot and lime leaf match with the light crunch of crisp, paper-thin rounds of radish.
Less successful were the bland snapper and water chestnut gyoza which were dominated by a pungent oniony aroma of garlic chives – but that was my only quibble in the whole meal.
One of the most popular dishes, according to the charming young waitress, is the grilled fish with kumara miso mash, broccolini & kimchi-style bean sprouts. Perhaps it’s something about the comforting warmth of mashed kumara with a hint of the exotic contrasting with the sharp pungency of the pickled bean sprouts that seamlessly complements the perfectly cooked, thick fillet of grouper.
My bouillabaisse was delicious with tomato, fennel and a subtle hint of saffron in the broth. It was filled with fishy morsels – two large, succulent tuatua replacing the clams today, a couple of large Australian prawns, some half-shell mussels topped with squiggles of aioli, and a fat, grilled fillet on top.
Desserts no less impressively demonstrated Slack’s skill with flavours. The reimagined tiramisu was a deliciously rich espresso custard topped by a dark, smooth, densely flavoured chocolate mousse with a crisp langue de chat straddling the bowl.
On a fresher, lighter note, an apricot panacotta was infused with apricots poached in a subtle lavender syrup.
While fish is Hunger Monger’s game, there are a couple of vegetarian dishes on the menu, both featuring local cheesemaker Origin Earth’s haloumi, one fried and the other smoked.
The menu, the same for both lunch and dinner, is divided into three sections: “snacks and bites” which offers croquettes, fries, gyoza and the highly recommended ceviche; “classics” which includes fish tacos and burgers, fish and chips and grilled fish and salad; and “morsels” which are mains, from sashimi to linguini and bouillabaisse. The fish may vary depending on what is available.
The wine list is small, mostly local and changes regularly. Not surprisingly in a restaurant specialising in fish, there is an emphasis on whites and roses, but there is a handful of reds as well. Most are available by the glass, but a special list of “Hawke’s Bay Icons” with luminaries such as Te Mata Elston Chardonnay, Tony Bish Heartwood Chardonnay, Sacred Hill Helmsman Cabernet Merlot, and Esk Valley The Terraces Malbec Merlot is tempting if you feel like splashing out on a bottle.
However, matching wine with the food is not a priority here. The young waitress poured a taste of several wines that might go with the bouillabaisse and finally came back in triumph with a Collaboration Aurulent Chardonnay that she said the new young chef had recommended to go with the dish. Indeed, with its lovely textural palate and crisp finish it was a fine accompaniment.
Open for just over a year, Hunger Monger is deservedly popular. Its dining area is small although in fine weather it spills out onto the pavement. We had booked early and as we dined, people kept arriving, tables were reset, and a few who had neglected to book could be seen enviously waiting for a table to become vacant.