The sunlight that filtered through the leaves of tall bamboo and other exotic foliage landed in splashes on the fern-fringed verandah of Māha engendering a feeling of calm. This restaurant, set in the grounds of the lovely Wharepuke Subtropical Garden and Sculpture Park in Kerikeri, was originally fashioned from converted army barracks, which gives the building a character perfectly fitted to its surroundings.
It has recently changed hands. That it has also changed direction is immediately apparent in the artful simplicity of its furnishings and décor. On the deck, black Chinese candle lanterns lend an Oriental touch to the ruby-coloured vinyl chairs and steel-framed tables.
Inside, understated artworks add interest to the walls. One table blooming with cherry blossom and another supporting a glowing orange lamp are the only highlights. This minimalist interior is somehow soothing and lively at the same time. The tables are blessedly well-spaced.
There’s little chance of tripping over fellow diners’ feet or drowning in their conversation. At one end, is the kitchen where chef and proprietor Ming Poon and his sous quietly work their culinary magic, still finding time to glide among their guests to chat and explain the menu.
Twice before I have been to this leafy restaurant on the road to the well-known Kerikeri Inlet. Then it was under different ownership. I can’t remember what it used to be called, but it is now Māha, a Māori noun that, spelt without the macron, loosely translates as ‘many’ and may relate to the number of times patrons are liable to go back there after their first encounter. I will be one of them.
Ming also informed me that the word (macron added to the ‘a’) also means ‘being satisfied and contented’. This, too, was to prove appropriate. Escaping from Wellington, chef and proprietor, Ming, and his wife Di Langman, bought the place about 10 months ago. Ming’s presence is a big win for the town.
He brings to the table his long experience, several accolades (he was Wellington’s chef of the year in 2000 and the head chef of Ancestral Restaurant), and the melded cuisine of the places in which he has worked - from Shanghai, Sydney and Spain to the illustrious Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. At Māha, each dish comes with his authentic touch and is presented with meticulous care.
“This is a wonderful locality,” he says, “and I wanted to turn the restaurant into a place where the food is not just of high standard but also varied and exciting. My food philosophy is if something’s edible, anything is possible and so my dishes are unique and never quite what you might expect.” The ingredients are seasonal, honest, and locally sourced whenever possible.
The unexpected way they are prepared, cooked and combined is the Māha experience. And so, I found myself with a dilemma. On the lunch menu, there were five items. Should I have Chaoshan-style pork ribs with garlic and star anise and grilled steam bun, or kimchi and kūmara pancake with spring onion served with a sesame, apple and lotus root salad? Ming was on hand to explain what they were.
On the dinner menu, I spotted edamame, avocado, pickled bamboo shoot and wakame salad with ponzu. That took some explaining. In the end, I chose for my lunch Shanghai-style pork, shrimp wontons and Chinese sausage in chicken broth and soy milk.
It came in an attractive ochre-coloured bowl and was intriguing and delicious. The menu changes regularly depending on seasonal produce and the chef’s inspiration. In the introduction to the dinner menu is the promise that the flavours will be balanced and that patrons will leave the table feeling gratified and rejuvenated. Gratified worked for me.
I’m not sure about the other. The food was exceptional; the whole encounter relaxed, pleasant and companionable. But after a postprandial stroll through the sculpture gardens, any rejuvenation I might have gained seemed to have departed. It was time for a nap.
Dine in style
Māha is located at 190 Kerikeri Road, Kerikeri. It is open from 11am to 9pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and closed Sunday and Monday. The dinner menu is also available at lunch.
Win a voucher for two at Māha cafe
Be in to win lunch for two, to the value of $100, at Māha.
Click here to enter before 15th November 2019.