The team at Whau pay respect to the mountain by imbuing the history, geography and cultural significance of the restaurant in the establishment. And while the food pays homage to the past and makes you feel connected to your environment, it is also incredibly good.
Now that Whau has sat atop Maungawhau, or Mount Eden for more than half a year, it feels part of the mountain. From the name - whau, meaning cork tree, the tree that grows prolifically on the maunga (mountain) to the tables, inlaid with maps of Auckland's 14 Tūpuna Maunga (ancestral mountains), to the kai; modernised versions of the food that was eaten by the Māori tribe that made the mountain their home centuries ago.
Managing Director Jacqui Perillo explains that has been done very consciously. Whau is in a special place and deserves care - so she's made sure that all the staff understand the Māori values and respect for the maunga she wants for the cafe. Chef Chino Salazar does understand that - and you can see it on the menu.
The view from Whau
At Whau, each dish shows careful reverence to the historically significant location with traditional tecniques and ingredients. But you'll also find that with each item, flavour is top of mind. The hāngī hash that comes with the Winter Salad (or as a side) is a nod to Māori tradtion as well as a stroke of genius. The Smoked Fish Pâté comes atop stuffing cakes: roasted root vegetables in a little flat circle. The eponymous ingredient in the Smoked Mussel Salad are offset with zingy citrus and pickled purple kūmara. If you're a fan of kūmara, we recommend the Korengo Chicken (pictured at the top): not only does the crispy crumbed chicken sit silkily upon a bed of butter, there is also pickled kūmara, smoky roasted kūmara (that melts in your mouth) and kūmara puree. It's decadent. And we haven't even mentioned the fry bread yet.
Be warned, once you have this fry bread, you'll want more. It's light, puffed up and covered in a slightly cinnamon and sugar coating and is served with roasted pears, dark chocolate creameaux and light-as-air banana cream. Plus plenty of maple syrup. The elements of banana, chocolate, and the slightly caramelised puff of bread each add a piece of perfection.
Fry Bread / Parāroa Parai with pear, maple, banana cream and chocolate
Look closer at these dishes, and you'll find the thought that has gone into them: walk further up the mountain and you'll see pits in which the local Māori people once grew kūmara. Look out the window and see the ocean that the mussels came from. Fry bread was once a staple in Māori households and love of extra stuffing in Aotearoa goes way back. The menu has dishes written in English and Māori - there's a karakia (Māori prayer) on the back. Even the citrus and the pear are a connection to Tupuārangi - a star of Matariki connected to everything that grows in the trees.
Smoked Mussel Salad / Kūtai Mina Auahi with fennel, citrus, salad greens and in house dressing
Tupuārangi is in fact one of the four stars Whau have chosen to focus on for their Matariki breakfast - along with Tupuānuku (everything that grows in the soil); Waitī (the fresh water bodies and the food that grows in them) and Waitā (the ocean and food sources within it). You'll have to be up before the sun to see those dishes - they go with the Matariki star viewing tour where you can hear stories of the occasion, marking the Māori new year (email them at [email protected] to book).
In fact, the owners of Whau, Dane Tumahai and his cousin Paora Puru, the owners also run Te Manu Taupua, the tour group that runs those tours also runs day time tours teaching the history and cultural significance of the mountain. Those tours end at Whau - which is appropriate because the discovery centre there has a 3D model of the mountain with an interactive display from the eruption that formed it to present day as well as a movie showing the history. The cafe is really jam packed in every way you can think of with information and connections to the maunga. They are the perfect people to run Whau because they are direct descendants of the Māori chiefs who were living on Maungawhau before New Zealand was settled. They opened the cafe after winning the support of Tūpuna Maunga o Tāmaki Makaurau (the legislating body of the 13 iwi and hapū of the Tāmaki Collective) with their vision of a cafe that pays homage to the maunga.
And it really shows because when Food Editor Claire Aldous and I went up the mountain this morning to see how Whau is going, wind, rain and fog were blowing in over the city. It was cold and wet and blustery: you can see each sheet of weather before it hits from so high on the hill (Mount Eden is the highest mountain in Auckland but for Rangitoto). Yet, under the brand new heaters, with the newly re-vamped winter menu we felt an honest to goodness connection to the location through the story and the food of the maunga, so the rain just added to our feeling of cosy contentment.
So that you can look out over the city and harbour (rain, shine or gale), we recommend a window seat.
Puhi Huia Road, Mount Eden, Auckland