MARTIN BOSLEY CONTINUES OUR SERIES WITH HIS FAVOURITE DISH FROM ANOTHER NOTABLE NEW ZEALAND RESTAURANT.
PLATO You will never be more cheerful than when you have a decent fish pie in front of you. For a start, it should be all about the fish. Dunedin’s Plato restaurant is my fish pie Shangri-La. Get comfortable while I tell you all about it. Think soft, creamy mashed potatoes, golden browned and cheese crusted (they use their own coldsmoked Edam), over a comforting layer of flaky, white fish melded with housesmoked mackerel, bound in a big, bold, creamy velouté sauce, enriched with bacon, leeks and mustard. It’s a match made in heaven: a mix of technique and generosity. You cannot make a great fish pie unless you have a genuine instinct to feed and nourish others.
Plato was set up by chef-owner Nigel Broad 17 years ago on Dunedin’s waterfront, in the old British Seafarers’ building tucked away under the Otago Peninsula Road overpass. Outside, the building looks like a Bauhausmeets- Mondrian–inspired mashup of 1960s poured concrete, yet inside it slowly reveals its secrets. Stairwells are a hoarder’s reminder of a golden age of Kiwiana, bookcases and shelves filled with a retro collection of the avant-garde and the gauche: retro coffee pots, Crown Lynn ceramics, McAlpine water jugs and cast-iron Dutch cookware. Tretchikoff prints provide the artwork and the tables and chairs have all been recycled. All wonderfully anti-fashion, it’s an absurd paradise of vintage treasures and curiosities that would strike fear deep into the heart of Marie Kondo. Not me though, I feel right at home. It’s remarkable how quickly you adjust to its bizarre aesthetic – it’s a music venue (Marlon Williams plays here, as do The Warratahs and Tami Neilson) and they even brew their own beer.
There is nothing absurd, however, about the cooking. They have seven varieties of spankingly fresh fish on the daily menu plus a specials board. They have grated swede sautéed with lemon and butter. The food arrives from an open kitchen, where Nigel Broad presides. This a good thing; he has made the restaurant feel like his home. His daughters work here, waiters are encouraged to have fun and Nigel walks the dining-room floor at the end of the night, talking with guests. It’s relaxing and unchallenging, the portions are decent and the prices reasonable.
Hand-minced paua fritters come with cucumber salsa and chilli yoghurt. Whole baby flounder is pan-fried in a pristine lemon and caper butter, the flesh coming away from the bone in a single pull of the knife. Sardines are seared on the grill until the skin is blackened and bubbled and there is a seafood platter that is messy but so, so good. At the end comes a light New York–style baked cream cheese and mascarpone cheesecake. It’s been on the menu since day one so that tells you everything. And, of course, there is that warmly comforting fish pie, a little bit of your own utopian paradise in the deep south.