A Sāmoan staple gets the fine-dining treatment at Michael Meredith’s new Auckland restaurant Metita, and for Madeleine Chapman, the result is as surprising as it is delicious.
This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.
Every food has a perceived ceiling. An agreed-upon limit to what can be achieved with any one ingredient. Some ceilings are high – a tomato can be eaten a thousand different ways, from the simplest of toasts to that fine-dining staple of tomato water. Others have been lifted in recent years – remember when brussels sprouts were considered universally bad because people kept boiling them? Now they’re everywhere. For meat, the ceiling lines up with freshness – a fresh chicken thigh has a lot more potential than, say, a rotisserie chicken. And the meat with arguably the lowest ceiling besides deli luncheon? Corned beef (canned).
I like corned beef (aka pisupo). I grew up eating it at home, cooked simply and served on rice, maybe with some mayonnaise on top if you were feeling fancy. Sometimes my mum would put leftovers in a sandwich for school and I hated the congealed bits of fat that would form as it cooled down. Much like luncheon or canned spaghetti, I’ve never seen corned beef on the menu of a sit-down restaurant.
It’s a symbol of gifting and generosity in fa’asamoa, and the cost and stress of giving or receiving a box of corned beef always outweighed what was ultimately a very basic ingredient that would be cooked in one of a few simple ways (fried, either alone or with vegetables and served with rice). Just last night while doing my weekly Pak’n’Save shop, I saw corned beef was on special – $6.99 a can, 120 limit. It’s an expensive product but one that will likely never diminish in popularity. But could salty corned beef ever be prepared in a way that matched its status?
There have been some relatively recent moves to raise the ceiling of corned beef. Central Auckland cafe Blue Rose serves a corned beef and palusami pie, a delicious and heavy pastry that’ll put you immediately to sleep. I’ve also experienced a few appetisers at functions that included corned beef on a cracker.
And now, at his new Pacific fusion restaurant Metita in the SkyCity precinct, Michael Meredith has sought to raise the ceiling as high as possible.
Enter: corned beef and caviar.
The corned beef bun was glazed with lardo – something I’d never heard of before but is “cured pork fat” – and topped with a generous dollop of caviar. Somehow it worked together. The bun was heavy, as any corned beef dish is, but the caviar’s seawater notes freshened it up without overpowering the beef taste. I ate two before we’d even sat down.
At Metita’s opening, Meredith acknowledged that he was doing something very different with Sāmoan cuisine staples (taro, coconut, raw fish, pineapple and, much to my delight, curry powder) but hoped that older Sāmoan diners would appreciate the innovation and the retention of those classic tastes. I was impressed by Meredith’s ability to keep the essence of traditional dishes, despite completely recreating the textures and presentation. When it comes to “Pacific fusion” cuisine, it’s often heavy on the fusion, with the Pacific elements relegated to garnishes, and Meredith’s take is certainly more fusion than Tala, the other Sāmoan fine-dining restaurant in Auckland. But as I dined, I was always tasting Sāmoa, even if didn’t look anything like what I ate at home.
Lu’au (also known as palusami), one of my favourite dishes, is incredibly basic: taro leaves, onion, coconut milk. Usually served with baked or boiled taro, it makes for a delightfully bland meal with a distinct coconut taste and green hue. To bring that to the fine-dining table, Meredith cooked a beef sirloin steak (to perfection, he does the best steaks in town IMO) and served it on a paste of blended lu’au. Keeping that distinct taste and hue while adding protein and the presentation of a high-end main. It was surprising and delicious.
I also have to give a special shout-out to the inclusion of curry powder on a fine-dining menu. You’ll be hard pressed to find any other spice in a Sāmoan dish, so it was amazing to taste the all-in-one curry flavour within such refined dishes.
Corned beef is not a universal food. Many New Zealanders, let alone tourists here, have never tasted or even heard of it. They won’t know how it is typically eaten or presented. I love the idea that for some, dining at Metita will plant the seed that pisupo is a fine-dining staple, an ingredient with the highest of ceilings.