The chocolate and salted caramel bread pudding at Pacifica. Photo: Zoë Frendin

Pacifica : The Napier restaurant quietly shaking up our food scene

Peter Malcouronne visits Pacifica restaurant in Napier, and finds himself in raptures over the five-course degustation.

For 13 years, Jeremy Rameka has been quietly building up a gastronomic heavyweight on Napier’s Marine Parade. Huddling in the shadow of the Six Sisters, the iconic row of two-storey villas beloved of Instagram influencers, Pacifica sits inside a weathered bright-blue bungalow.

It’s an avowedly Kiwi setting for a restaurant that arose out of Rameka’s frustration with a national food identity he considered derivative and, well, a bit boring. Of Tūwharetoa and Ngāpuhi descent, Rameka grew up in the tiny King Country town of Kākahi where food was part of the daily rhythm of life — foraging with his koro, trying stuff out, having a go.

Eleven years in Australia — in Vietnamese, Indian, Greek and Italian kitchens — honed his sense of what food could be. For a decade, Pacifica cruised along as one of those secrets the enlightened hold tight, but soon came critical recognition and, then, awards. By now, Pacifica had shifted to a five-course degustation menu — just two options, one mostly seafood, the other mixed, both changing daily.

Now, this may not be the best time to confess I’m fed up with the general wankery of degustation menus. Like a bad writer hammering the thesaurus, chefs flaunt their ingredients with little sense that less is more (except, of course, for their reliably pitiful portion sizes). And so you sit there, patronised, bit-players, until eventually something comes out that you like. That first mouthful sends you to Arcadia and then the second… actually, that was it. With this hefty caveat, what follows is total humbling of the critic, wrong from the moment we stepped inside.

Up first, an off-menu bonus. Fried bread — light, puffy, perfect — set off with divinely sweet butter. “Golden-syrup infused,” explained Natalie Bulman, sommelier, maitre d’ and Chef Rameka’s partner. I could eat two, three more: line them up please, I subliminally instructed her.

The official opening dish was lemonfish ceviche marinated in coconut cream, with cucumber mousse and wasabi roe. I’ve never cared for wasabi, not since making the classic schoolboy sushi error of swallowing a dollop, thinking it avocado. “Ah,” Natalie chided gently, her lilting voice revealing mid-Welsh origins. “But I think you’ll like it.” And she was right — this was a revelation, a whole club of ’90s ravers dancing inside my mouth.

Next was “Poached onion & mozzarella, brussels sprout puree”. That’s how it was listed, but it was much more: rice puffs on top, finely sliced courgettes on one side, cavolo nero on the other. This was a triumph of texture — the juicy slither of the onion, the crunch of the kale like a Ma’a Nonu head-on hit.

At this point readers may notice the jarring entrance of muddled sporting metaphors. So, a word about the wine. Napier’s Indian summer, which stretched into June, had ended the day before with a southerly snap and 44mm of rain. This was weather that demands a warm red, but the fish ruled that out. I realise this admission is another in the steady-civilising-of-the-barbarian route this review is taking, but good God these Pacificans were unleashing the best wine on earth. And it was beginning to work in devious ways.

I resolved to stop telling Nat “My favourite! The best yet!”, but failed thrice. In fairness, the fourth dish — gurnard with smoked warehou porridge — were the finest seven mouthfuls I’ve experienced this millennium. The gurnard in polenta and seaweed crumb; the porridge a kind of risotto, with oats instead of rice. This is the Richie McCaw of food, I intoned quietly. Perhaps the Dan Carter. Actually, neither: this was Peak Christian Cullen, circa 1998.

Onwards to the flounder fillet, burnt butter-braised cabbage and diamond shell clams, accompanied — my subliminal message had evidently got through — by another wee loaf of fried bread. “People use it to mop…” said Natalie. “Ah yes, like that.”

The last course — chocolate and salted caramel bread pudding, or Hohepa cheese, honey and fig bread. We had both. We'd share. Natalie pretended not to notice the squabbling over our respective halves.

It’s a slightly undignified way to end, but no one minded. The food was breathtakingly good, the wine matching inspired, the vibe warm and devoid of all degustation tosspottery. We lingered longer than we should: the great man’s apron had come off half an hour earlier and he was having a wine with his crew. “Thank you. Fabulous,” we said as we left. Then another subliminal message when we were outside. “Apologies for the Philistine preconceptions.”

Pacifica Restaurant

209 Marine Parade
Napier
64 (06) 833-6335

www.pacificarestaurant.co.nz

This piece originally appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "Off the Beaten Track".

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