Earthy and esoteric elements meld in a pan-Asian menu where authenticity frames every dish, as the food stories of chef-proprietor Ming Poon’s journey from China to Spain to New Zealand are portrayed in flavour and form; a plated travelogue presented with passion and precision.
American diner-style burgundy vinyl chairs and tubular-steel tables sprawl through this repurposed army barracks that emerges as Māha from the Wharepuke tropical and sculpture gardens – the exotic framing the pragmatic. Outdoors, a frond-fringed deck provides a naturally cooled alfresco setting.
Exposed roof trusses and a greydappled herringbone timber roof make it feel like a very large potting shed. Evening drama is added with floorlength blue drapes and a central orangeshaded lamp casts warmth. At one end, the kitchen operates swiftly but silently, adding zen to zoom, chef Ming and his sous finding time to drift in and out to tables to answer diners’ questions.
The menu leans east with yakatori (today including swordfish), sashimi, wagyu and hibachi-grilled fish. As a plus, children’s meals are created to order. The drinks list includes delightful homegrown herb teas and sodas, sake and plum wine, while its reasonable wine section favours local and covers the options credibly.
Sharing the day’s sashimi selection to accompany some imaginative cocktails, we questioned Di Langman, co-owner and front-of-house manager, on an onion-flame-shaped garnish around which the spiralled fish pivoted. She informed us it was the chef’s (gently) pickled treatment of some small ginger flowers brought in by a local. Already we were liking the local link.
‘Try-out Thursday’ coincided with our visit, and the irresistibly fresh-sounding ‘grain-fed beef tataki with fresh ginger, spring onion, ponzu jelly and rim of fire’ did not disappoint; the seared, sliced crimson beef was melting, and the presentation artistic with harmonious flavours sweet, citric, fresh and perky.
Chaoshan-style pork rib soup with white pepper, garlic and star anise was a workers’ soup with chunks of rib on the bone that required a bit of handling; they were tender and napped in a flavoursome meat broth with vegetable garnish, the lot presented in a generous, attractive ochre and charcoal-glazed bowl. The steamed bun alongside was as light as a feather pillow.
From the try-out menu, the chef’s Spanish sojourn crêped into view. Folded like napkins, the delicate herbed crêpes were finished with squeaky wood-ear mushroom and a crisp parmesan, fungus and cress salad, covering the texture spectrum.
Catalonia-style wagyu beef ragout, spiced with paprika and herbed with oregano, was served with slices of chorizo and topped with crunchy blanched green beans and, perhaps the tiny mistake of the evening, roast potato chunks that would have been happier and crisper not placed in a broth. The generous slices of wagyu were simply out of this world; how they held together but then dissolved at the merest nudge of the tongue was sensual.
At the pragmatic end, the menu dips to meet the more conservative Kerikeri market: fish and chips, albeit with “Japanese mayo”, the inescapable pork belly, and the ubiquitous affogato. A subtle touch was demonstrated in a mousse of dark chocolate and Northland red wine, quite a tricky combination in the amount of reduction needed for the wine to just shine through. Simply plated as an airy, bittersweet quenelle, with sweet adzuki bean under a jaunty wafer hat, it was complemented by spoonfuls of saffron and orange jelly, the flavours of which were ethereal. A mouthful of all components delivered the state of Māha (to be satisfied and contented) that the menu’s introduction promised – balanced flavours that resonate on the palate and in the mind, leaving the diner ‘gratified and rejuvenated’.
In a clearing within that exotic forest at Wharepuke breathes a spirit of inspired simplicity.