The question of what constitutes New Zealand cuisine has been widely explored in recent years by those responsible for creating it on a commercial scale. Ahi, co-owned by recognised local chef Ben Bayly, general manager Chris Martin and beverage director Lucile Fortuna, has been sharing its version of what it calls the “New Zealand food story” since opening in late 2020.
Find the restaurant in a supremely urban setting – a corner site within downtown Auckland shopping precinct Commercial Bay. Large glass windows flood the space with light and look out towards the ferry building and Waitematā Harbour. You certainly don’t feel like you’re inside a mall.
The heart of the space is a large open kitchen, and there’s a striking emphasis on both reclaimed native timber and non-indigenous wood throughout. The ceiling is overlaid with latticed New Zealand-grown oak to represent a Māori kete, or woven bag, and there are textures of leather and jewel-green fabric on both the banquettes and standalone seats.
The menu celebrates Aotearoa’s suppliers and ingredients, including Ahi’s own kitchen garden in Patumahoe, south of Auckland. The garden is a particular source of pride for its owners.
To start with, there are playful, bite-sized twists on familiar dishes, such as the Auckland Island scampi corndog with burger sauce, or the milk-fed lamb lasagne “topper” with horseradish ketchup.
Ahi’s dishes, while not labelled as fine dining, are artfully arranged on the plate, and influences vary. Some make use of Māori cooking techniques such as hāngi, or riff on traditional dishes like boil up. Or there are aromatic dishes like hot-smoked Japanese quail, served with Raglan coconut yoghurt, tomatillo kasundi and carrot garum.
The wine list takes an international approach, spanning New Zealand, Australian, French and Italian drops, and there are even a couple of Spanish sherries and a Japanese sake, along with signature cocktails.