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Ada — Native Hearth

Ada’s new menu is blessed by the shades of nuns and visiting kēhua.

Ada — Native Hearth

Jan 30, 2024 Restaurants

I vividly remember Grey Lynn’s Convent Hotel from my flatting days, as the boarding house that people crossed the road to avoid. Even then, it was its history as a former priory, more so than the ‘undesirables’ living within, that gave it a deliciously sinister air. Drugs! Crime! Nuns!

Since 2020, the renovated Spanish Mission-style building has housed a boutique hotel and Ada restaurant, which until recently offered very good fresh pasta and pizza fritta via chef Hayden Phiskie (ex- Cotto ) who has packed up his burrata and moved on to Daphnes Taverna. Now we get Ada in its hot-girl era under new head chef Kia Kanuta ( Prego , Cafe Hanoi , Mudbrick, Pici ), whose Māori-inspired menu is stacked with good, local produce having a grand old time with classic French sauces.

It’s tempting to ask what a Māori menu, or Māori cuisine, really consists of. Call me difficult, but this isn’t a question I feel like answering. In my humble opinion, people outside the metaphorical pā don’t get to be titillated by discussions of the relative merits of our staple dishes, which have been shaped, for better and worse, by 150 years of restriction and scarcity. As we’ve not yet arrived at a post-any-of-that phase, we’ll continue to evolve at our own pace, thanks, which forms part of my excitement for Ada’s new direction. It doesn’t have to be any more than what it is, which is a chance for an excellent new name to make his mark simply by drawing on the thing that sets him apart from his peers.

Instead of ‘what is Māori cuisine?’, a far better provocation might be to ask: with every relaxed fine-dining joint in Tāmaki Makaurau worshipping at the altar of native ingredients, how will an actual native show up?

On a drizzly, unromantic Tuesday night, my companion and I opt for an early seating. The stone walls and high stucco arches of Ada’s dining room are striking, but for me the best feature is Chef Kanuta’s beautiful tā moko mataora peeking above the counter as we enter. 

We settle in with the menu and a martini sporco spiked with olive oil and oregano — it’s deliciously savoury, though not nearly cold enough. 

It really is a menu with no wrong answers. I pride myself on my ordering skills, but it’s been a while since I was plagued with such indecision. There’s nothing intimidating, though. We’ve found ourselves in a beautifully tended māra kai with access to the bay and a pātaka of good meats. At least in its written form, the menu’s robust simplicity honours the essential nature of the kai. 

Our server helps us arrange our order into rounds rather than courses — three dishes followed by two. My inclination was to stay away from both dishes with ‘hāngī’ in the name: one a pork dish with potato mousse, crispy onions and cured egg yolk, and the other a potato dish with chèvre and porcini soil. I’ve been very disappointed in the past by ‘elevated’ hāngī offerings — the pork belly at Homeland comes to mind — so if it hasn’t been yanked from a hole by barrel-shaped men in short shorts, I don’t want to know. Hāngī is an almost impossible thing to capture in a kitchen, I think because it’s as much a sum of experiences as ingredients. How do you capture the rich satisfaction of a last-day-of-tangihanga hāngī, with sleeplessness aching in your brow and a scorched tongue from 500 cups of tea? Or 21st-birthday hāngī, with everyone’s hair still reeking of smoke and the lingering sweetness of RTDs coating your teeth?

However, I was reluctantly talked into ordering the pork and I’m incredibly glad of it. Well-acquainted with smoke, meltingly good without being too fatty, and with the sweet allium of a chive dressing paring down the richness (which got me questioning if I could get away with suggesting we add it to our repertoire back home). The beautifully sharp, pickled winter veg on creamy kūmara puree was an essential companion. 

On the side, there were adorable little pillows of rēwana fried bread with a thicker crust and a deeper crunch than their family-table counterpart. We ordered them simply with duck fat, spreadable at first and then a molten pool for dipping after multiple interventions of warm bread. With fat, greasy smiles plastered across our faces, we happily used the bread-pillows to mop up the creamy potato and pickle juices. They provided the perfect little shoe for the sauces to follow, too. I could have filled my pockets.

Just as we were nearing the end of round one, and not long after I had confidently told my dining companion that the Convent was haunted as hell, one of the laden candles in the alcove above us melted apart like a collapsing ice shelf and slid on to our table. There’s nothing like sharing a meal with rambunctious kēhua. I’m nothing if not attracted to the drama of the supernatural, so I said a karakia. 

As it turns out, a prayer was also needed to finish the next two dishes, which turned out to be the richest on the menu. 

First we tucked into gothy squid ink spaghetti with cream pāua, cockles and vivid tangerine splashes of spicy ’nduja oil. The perfectly al dente spaghetti and lightly tender cockles came in an unctuous sauce that I wanted to slurp with a straw, although I could have done with more pāua. We all know that trick of drowning it in cream to make it go further. Perhaps it’s to be expected with the way pāua prices and shrinking catch limits are going, and I can’t be mad at measures aimed at protecting our taonga species, but of course I wanted more.

Then the star of the night: the boneless whole market fish with Marmite Isigny. Beurre d’Isigny, a butter from the Normandy region of France, had a viral TikTok moment recently when Americans discovered that butter should have actual flavour. Here, Kanuta has turned it into the beurre blanc of your childhood dreams, as well as being a clever play on Marmite Dieppoise, a cream-based fish stew from the same region (named after the casserole dish it’s cooked in, not the yeast extract spread). From the first mouthful we were wide-eyed and grinning idiots, giddy with the joy evoked by the sauce no less than the perfectly succulent snapper underneath. Think about the perfect ratio of too much butter and a light smear of Marmite on a really good piece of Vogel’s, as it pools in the crevices. 

When we ran out of bread for the sauce, we used our fingers.

And can I just take a second to appreciate the Matariki miracle that is a fully-boned whole fish? Seriously, how do they get the whole skeleton out? I will be pondering this until the day I die.

Although we had stuffed ourselves, the hand-dipped chocolate bar created with Ao Cacao chocolatier Thomas Netana Wright (Ngāpuhi, Te Whakatōhea) based on the chef’s “childhood memories” sounded too good to pass up. I’ve been lucky enough to try Wright’s chocolate a few times, and I’m always blown away by its perfect balance of rich, earthy and acidic tones. This dessert didn’t immediately remind me of any specific childhood sweetie, so perhaps the memories attached to it are personal to the chef, but I enjoyed the smooth coconut and soft fireworks of dried honey and pop rocks on the back of the tongue.

It was a playful way to finish what was ultimately a joyful meal. The portions were generous (pāua aside), the service welcoming (notwithstanding the ghosts) and when I could no longer contain my overflowing whanaungatanga, Chef Kanuta received my mihi warmly. 

With such an excellent CV, I never feared Kanuta’s food wouldn’t be great, only that a rigid, formal dining experience might dampen the spirit of manaaki that defines the excellence Māori bring to a table. I needn’t have worried. 

 

Ada ****
454 Great North Rd, Grey Lynn
09 883 4454

Hours
Tue — Wed 5 — 10pm
Thu — Fri 12 — 2pm, 5 — 1opm
Sat 5 — 1opm
Sun 11am — 4pm

Dinner Bill
Dishes $14 — $38
Desserts $12 — $16
Cocktails $22

This review was published in Metro N°440.
Available here.

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