Apr 13, 2021 Restaurants
Hillary Eaton reviews Ben Bayly’s new restaurant, which she finds needs more char, searing and smoke.
There are so many trends happening at once in Auckland dining right now: all of the things on sticks; American restaurant groups plugging their stateside concepts into the local scene; the uptake of dry-aged fish. But there’s no trend I find as intriguing as the wave of restaurant openings from some of New Zealand’s most renowned, old-guard chefs. From Josh Emett’s Onslow to the forthcoming Mr Morris by Michael Meredith or Homeland from Peter Gordon, 2020 is bringing a drove of the country’s most celebrated fine-dining chefs promising a side of themselves we’ve either never quite seen before or haven’t seen for some time.
This promise tends not to include fine dining. Diners are told to expect a relaxed-yet-refined environment; a stripping back; a strong focus on local ingredients and purveyors — chefs coming back to their roots after laboring under what are almost painted as the limiting shackles that fine dining places on both chef and diner. A prime example of all the above is Ben Bayly and his newest offering, Ahi.
You might know Bayly from his TV appearances or his overtly family-friendly offering in Henderson, The Grounds, but it was his nine white-table-clothed years at Auckland fine-dining institution The Grove where a deluge of awards and accolades set him up to be a chef to pay attention to. Ahi walks the line between his more accessible concepts and his technique-driven past, and promises to be a truly New Zealand restaurant where you can expect refined, modern New Zealand cuisine, using indigenous ingredients, in what Ahi’s website dubs “laidback sophistication”. Part of what laidback sophistication means in this context, it must be said, is a restaurant in a mall.
If you are an ex-fine dining chef who doesn’t want to get pulled into the category of fine dining while putting out elevated food, the smartest thing you could probably do is to open your restaurant in a mall. Is Ben Bayly actually a genius? Is this the food equivalent of saying you’re not good at bowling only to bowl strike after ‘lucky’ strike? Malls aren’t always contrary to an elevated dining experience (fine dining in malls has proven successful from Los Angeles to Singapore) but it’s the exception, not the rule.
Inside, Ahi is a stylish exploration of indigenous timbers interlaced with native stone — designed to be as much composed of New Zealand’s natural elements as the menu is. At the centre of the room is an open kitchen with a fire at its core. This is what the restaurant is named for; Ahi means ‘fire’ in te reo Māori. Diners can sit along the chef’s counter or in the main room where views sweep out onto the beautiful Hauraki Gulf. The only thing missing on the horizon are the cruise ships, with the passengers who you could imagine dotting the dining room, up from the boat to experience New Zealand cuisine, if it were a different time.
On most evenings, you’ll find co-owner Chris Martin gliding across the restaurant with an easy attentiveness, the sort of difficult-to-nail service that’s just pleasantly shy of making you feel awkwardly invaded by usefulness. The wine list has something for everyone, including thoughtfully sourced gems, in a city with overwhelming saturation of sameness when it comes to wine lists. This is the sort of place where you can get a cabernet blend by the glass with enough age and integration to actually warrant the price tag. I suggest you do. Like the wines, the cocktails are also thoughtful and to the point. If you happen to have a penchant for mezcal or tequila you’ll be especially in luck, as the bartender, Russ Wilcox — who has drifted over from La Fuente — does as well. The agave-based offerings are some of the best on the menu.
I could tell you that the menu is divided into snacks, entrees, and mains but what I really want to tell you is that if you tread further than the entrees, you do so at your own peril. The snacks are where Bayly’s dishes feel like the bites of the indigenous-leaning modern New Zealand cuisine that Ahi has set itself up to deliver. Plump Te Matuku oysters crowned in pear ice. Paua cooked in homage to the hangi, with kahawai and peppery kawakawa. A skewer of Auckland Island scampi imagined as a corndog. Here, the featherweight fried crust encapsulates perfectly tender flesh that you are meant to pull through a sauce dubbed “Brody sauce”, inspired by, and quite similar to, the secret sauce from California’s cult burger chain, In-N-Out. I could have eaten 10 of them.
While the scampi is one of my favourite bites of the evening, it is also an example of the fact that much of the menu at Ahi can feel formulaic. You have your clever plays on dressings and dips just as you do your uncountable use of powders and curls. A swathe of the menu, particularly the mains, is executed with the tiredness of the uninspired.
Dishes like the john dory (which came to the table overcooked) with a sauvignon blanc and wakame hollandaise, bites of asparagus, and crispy artichoke bhaji fit a template that check off all the components needed to make a dish theoretically pleasing, especially according to textbook old-school fine dining of the French school: protein, fat, texture and some vegetable for colour and balance. These dishes are plated with curls and purées in a way that feels like they would have been very much in vogue during Bayly’s reign at The Grove, years ago. While these dishes are on occasion good, anything can be popped into these templates. The result is a bit lacklustre for Auckland’s first real outpost of accessible modern New Zealand cuisine from one of the country’s top chefs.
What is perhaps most confusing is the absence of fire’s char, searing and smoke throughout the menu of a restaurant that has named itself for this primordial source of all cooking. This echos as a missed opportunity throughout, but makes itself painstakingly apparent with the Wagyu beef done three ways: a cloud of crunchy puffed beef tendon rests atop a slice of wonderfully fatty short rib; the third morsel of meat is a fillet which has been cooked sous vide within an inch of its identifiability, before getting a momentary touch on the grill, giving it a phantom kiss of the Miallard reaction responsible for beef’s satiating crust.
When this is followed by a clever and delicious dessert of pine and apple which involves a tiny marshmallow you are meant to cook over what appears to be a puck of fire starter, I find myself wondering if the only thing touched by real flame at Ahi is the beautifully stylish ebonised wood found throughout the restaurant.
While Ahi’s stylish interior does a wonderful job of removing the mall aspect from the equation of your experience, leaving the restaurant is a different story. It’s like leaving a dark bar after you’ve been in there for hours, only to push open the door into a smack of sunlight, bringing you quickly and unforgivingly to your senses. But in this case, the sunlight you forgot about is the grey noise of a food court.
As I walk to get an Uber, I ask myself: am I being too harsh on Ben Bayly? Am I being too harsh on Ahi?
Ahi is, by and large, a fine enough restaurant for a top chef in a mall and will likely continue to be popular. But there’s a responsibility in being one of the first arbiters of indigenous ingredient-focused modern New Zealand cuisine in New Zealand’s largest city at such a pivotal time in this burgeoning movement. While fine-dining establishments such as Amisfield and Hiakai have done tremendous work to move this facet of New Zealand cuisine forward, the price point attached to fine dining has largely left these restaurants inaccessible to New Zealanders outside of special occasions. This is an important gap Bayly has taken upon himself to try and fill, and it deserves more.
For now, Bayly has left me wanting. Wanting for something like Ahi’s crayfish soup. While it’s not really a soup and more a sort of tortellini en brodo, it’s truly lovely, the sort of dish you think about for days, after the other dishes have faded away into flavour obscurity: thumb-sized rounds of silky kumara-and-saffron-filled ravioli bob in a skillfully clarified and complex broth of crayfish. The flavour is clean and clear, like a broth clarified the traditional French way, using egg whites, with briny pops of ice plant and umami-rich bundles of tomato seed and charred leek. It does not eat like a template. Instead, it speaks to Bayly’s understanding of Italian ingredients and how they can beautifully interlace with New Zealand flavours to create something uniquely reflective of his personal story, and skill he has honed and developed at Aosta in Arrowtown, with the indigenous ingredients of Otago. It’s subtle, yet unabashedly New Zealand.
Commercial Bay, 7/21 Queen St, Central City
022 524 4255
Hours: Monday-Sunday, 12pm-12am
DINNER BILL Snacks $5-$14; Small plates $26-$65; large plates $39-$45; dessert $16-$18
This review was published in our Summer 2020/21 issue, which was released in November 2020.