Jul 26, 2015 Restaurants
Ika Seafood Bar & Grill
3 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden.
Ph 309-3740, ikaseafoodandgrill.co.nz
Hours: Dinner Monday-Saturday, from 6pm; lunch Wednesday to Friday, from 11.30am.
Dinner bill: Small plates $9-$24; larger plates $26-$36, whole fish poa.
By Simon Wilson. Photo by Ken Downie.
First published in the July/August 2015 issue of Metro.
Now I’ve eaten stingray. If you know your fish, you’re probably thinking that’s not such a big deal: call it skate and half the world will eat it. That’s as maybe. But call it stingray — as they proudly do in Ika, because they are a proper seafood restaurant — and most people find excuses, right?
I really admire Ika’s commitment: inviting us to like a thing for what it is and not by pretending it’s something else. And I really, really admire what they do with it. The stingray at Ika is brilliant.
It’s served as a flattish wedge. There’s cartilage instead of a skeleton separating top from bottom, and you scrape off the flesh with your fork, and chew. Lemon juice, and the sauce chef has poured over, and there you are. Big fish taste. Big fresh fish taste. It’s a very firm flesh, and the thing is not to think in terms of delicate fillety flakes, but more as if you’re eating a seafood version of pulled pork. I recommend it without reservation.
A real seafood restaurant in Auckland. Who would have thought. Yes, I know, it’s preposterous we haven’t had one for so long. And yes, you can eat good fish in several Auckland restaurants, but likely as not it’s going to be tarakihi, snapper or hapuku, right?
Ika (eeka, Maori for fish) lets you choose all that usual stuff, but depending on the season they’ve also got so much more. There are whole fish, many sorts, on display in a big chilled tray by the door, so you can choose your own if you want. And octopus tentacles, crayfish, herring, chowder, kina…
One of the waitstaff told me the kina had been described to her as “a bit like gooey oysters”, which is not something anyone who likes oysters would ever say, and isn’t true. The way they do it here, with lime and Japanese seaweed, it’s a little bit sea-tart and rather wonderful.
For the most part, the menu is set up so you choose your fish and then the sauce to go with it. I’m not a great fan — I like to think chef is in the kitchen dreaming up special ways to match a particular sauce to a particular fish — but I guess it does mean that if you love, say, snapper, you can go five times and have it a different way each time. And the fish is superbly cooked, which is the main thing.
The whole fish are mostly for sharing, but there are individual dishes too, including a very tasty Mediterranean fish stew. Servings are big and the menu is constantly evolving.
And if you don’t like fish? Turns out chef is also an expert with steak: the scotch fillet he served me had a delicious caramelised crust and tender insides, although he told me he wasn’t happy with it. Chefs grumbling about quality – it’s a good sign. He even does ribs, which seems almost like a surfeit of something.
It’s not all glorious. The waitstaff engage with the customers far more personably than you might find in a suburban bistro, but that ignorance over the kina extends through other dishes and the winelist. There’s no excuse not to know your stuff in a place like this.
The winelist itself is good. Short, but nicely curated and well priced, with a focus on Waiheke reds and some eminently drinkable European lines. There are checked tablecloths, bright colours and functional wooden furniture – comfort trumps coolness, and comfortable it certainly is.
Laila Harré (yes, that Laila Harré) runs the business and the floor. “Pull the other one,” it says by one of the doorhandles (with an arrow to another handle), and it sets just the right sly tone. At her instigation, the place hosts guests speakers and panel debates with dinner, usually on Tuesdays, and they’re popular, so make sure you book.
And the chef behind it all? Harré’s business partner, the enthusiastic Brendon Petersen. I hope he’s proud, but I also hope he’s just getting started. We deserve a really exciting seafood restaurant in this city, delighting us with an exploration of the possibilities, rewarding us with some classics we come to love. Petersen has the skills to turn Ika into that place.
How we review
Every restaurant is visited at least twice and rated for what it is trying to do: a superb bistro and superb fine-dining place both get 5 spoons. We pay for our meals and if possible do not declare our presence.
We’d eat here if we had to – 1 Spoon
Good, but it really should be better – 2 Spoons
Very good – 3 Spoons
Extremely good – 4 Spoons
Superb: among the very best of its kind – 5 Spoons