There is a silky, moreish perfection of squid ink risotto sliding over my tongue and giving way between my teeth. I always have to start with the rice when eating risotto. The glistening, crispy morsels of squid sitting in that dark bed are patiently waiting their turn to shine, which they do – salty, sweet and tender.
Five courses later, the risotto is still forefront of mind and Fraser Shenton, head chef at FISH explains casually that his supplier let him know the arrow squid had come in on the catch. “So I ordered three kilos of it,” he says. Suppliers are in fact, the crucial third of the holy trifecta when it comes to the hospitality business, so this passing comment is testament to how important suppliers are to the menu here.
There’s no need to labour over details of each dish for the sake of critique. Between Shenton and Gareth Stewart, executive chef for Nourish Group, over a couple of visits, I’m unable to fault quality of the cooking or presentation coming out of the kitchen. Besides, no restaurant should ever be judged on the quality of a single dish but rather the consistency of the experience and the integrity to what they are trying to do. Which is why I’m here, eating lunch overlooking Auckland’s harbour on a day where the grey-blue Waitemata is moody. Between kitchen tasks and meetings, Fraser comes out to join us and we talk about what he is trying to do at FISH.
Here in New Zealand, we seem to have a funny attitude to hotel restaurants – viewing them as overpriced or novelty-based experiences. It’s true, dinner at Sky City’s Orbit will send you spinning around the city and The Langham’s Eight is in the crudest sense, an oversized buffet. FISH could not be more opposite than this. The dining room windows frame the changing sea and sky vistas with warm and natural tones that feel welcoming and comfortable. The relationship between the décor and the environment makes sense, as does the relationship between the ingredients on each plate. Everything is dressed with a tone of subtlety and a very organic, understated New Zealand.
Now it’s worth talking about the details of each dish we are greeted with. Naturally, squid belongs with squid ink, with traditional Italian staples such as pasta or risotto being the sensible vessel for that dark, salty flavour of the sea.
“I want people to understand the food easily, the relationships between what’s on the plate should make sense,” Fraser says. We muse on what this means briefly and he addresses the monkfish dish with crispy potato and a vibrant green saagwala sauce, a slighty off-menu variation. “New Zealand is multi-cultural but creating a menu that reflects that shouldn’t mean having a Japanese dish, an Indian dish and a Thai dish on the menu. Elements of each of those cuisines should make sense in the context of the dish being primarily about great New Zealand produce.”
The monkfish by the way, is delicious. The suppliers are credited again with that. “That was probably swimming in the deep yesterday, at most the day before.” Monkfish is hard to maintain on a menu, supply can sometimes be inconsistent depending on catch and demand. “We’re lucky to be part of a group in that respect, we can be assured of consistent supply. There’s only once we haven’t had it delivered and even then, we were able to serve another deep-sea fish in it’s place.”
And what of the Argentinian red shrimp, dressed with garlic and lardo di colonnata? It’s an example of another core principle behind Shenton’s menu development. “Well it’s just so good, it’s such a good product and there’s nothing like it here in New Zealand, so it’s worth bringing it in,” he says with a relaxed grin. He goes on to explain it’s about the best product available in the peak of season. This has an immediate effect on menu development. Seasonal changes are fairly standard, meaning restaurants often base dishes around the longest stretch of a season.
“I’m really interested in when the product is at it’s very best,” Fraser says. Consequently, the kitchen is almost constantly in development with new dishes coming on to the menu quickly and always at peak of season. He’s currently working with hay in the kitchen three different ways as part of dish development for a new cut of beef he’s introducing. Fraser admits it may not make it to the final menu, but that is the unseen hard graft of creativity – you work through a range of ideas, develop some and discard others. The result that customers enjoy in the dining room is usually the product of a sometimes ecstatic, sometimes less ecstatic creative process in the kitchen.
Speaking of ecstatic, the pork cheek with fermented cabbage and crackling arrives. Still a relatively unusual cut to see on a menu, the acidic and punchy kimchi variation cuts through the fatty and tender pork harmoniously. It’s good to have the chef on hand to explain the best technique to enjoy it is to slice through the cheek and stir it through the vegetable. Only a fork is required. This dish screams of Asian influence but again, it’s restrained enough that it feels at place overlooking the harbour in downtown Auckland. The five-day process to create the perfect crackling is explained as well, which I won’t share but will experiment with in my own kitchen at some point soon. There have to be some benefits to having lunch with the chef.
Fraser admits there are pressures created by this very responsive approach to seasonal food, offset by a well-balanced and established relationship between himself and Stewart. The process of ‘re-launching’ FISH over the last few months has obviously built a strong rapport between the executive and head chef, not to mention the relationship with the Hilton. At a party to celebrate the re-opening just the week before, Roger Brantsma smiled widely, visibly and outspoken about the pride the Hilton Group have in the offering. Reciprocally, Fraser says Brantsma and the Hilton team couldn’t have been more supportive, which combined with Nourish Group’s experience and resource is a really positive environment for what they are trying to achieve.
“What is that, exactly?” I ask. Dessert is a difficult choice between chocolate tart and the exquisite cheese selection. Chef decides on the chocolate tart which is indulgent. Thankfully I’m good at indulgence.
“Well, it’s about being honest,” he says, at which I almost want to challenge him on a relatively cliché description. However, the evidence is on the plate.
“Yes, but you haven’t branded the restaurant as being about local and sustainable produce, organics or any of those ideas we traditionally associate with ‘honest’ food.”
“No, but we are doing our best to be. We’ve chosen a partnership with Yealand wines because they run a carbon-zero winery and because they have the best New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the world.” Fraser goes on to explain that it’s both and Yealands have just moved (their office) into the same building on Princes Wharf, so the ideal of being local has more meaning than simply running a 100 kilometre menu.
It’s that same understated Kiwi attitude that demands a certain sort of integrity from the marketing talk chefs are sometimes expected to do. While it would be easy to create a thread of a story that starts with a young Shenton growing up in Whangarei, working the wood-fired pizza ovens at Leigh Sawmill influencing his menu at FISH, the truer story is less historical, more present day.
“We were on a road trip around the country recently and it really did bring me back to how much we have here on offer in New Zealand and what our food stories really are. Hence the hay I’m working with right now. It’s what we saw as we drove through the country and it’s what the cattle are eating right now, at this time of year. So it makes sense to bring that relationship through to the plate.”
There’s that honesty and approachability. The food is faultless, because at no point does the technique overwhelm or detract from how the ingredients work together on the plate. Everything makes sense and is delicious. In addition, it’s also approachable. Let’s put one more of those hotel restaurant myths to bed. The wine list is exceptional, as is the menu and it’s all affordable, despite million dollar views across the harbour.
I’ve been regretful that with the close of The Food Store in Viaduct Harbour (it’s now Oyster & Chop, which is fairly self-explanatory), there has been an absence of a distinctly New Zealand restaurant in Auckland. Certainly, there are plenty that use great produce but there is a clear character present at FISH that subtly but strongly resonates the best of what New Zealand cuisine can be and that alone makes it worth the walk down the wharf.