Date Night: Kiwiana, New Zealander Cooking from 'Top Chef's' Marc Simmons
Being on TV is a little like being in prison. Do either, and for the rest of your life people will find a way to work it into any bio. Kiwiana's chef-owner Marc Simmons appeared on season 4 of Top Chef in 2008 as the goofy guy who took a semi-clothed bath with one of his housemates. That Marc may be gone, but even as he's grown up, the food at his New Zealand restaurant in Park Slope shows a determined tendency toward the sweet earnestness of youth.
After tomatoes, corn is perhaps the sluttiest of all summer vegetables. And in the chilled sweet corn soup ($9), it really, really gets around. In addition to the soup's velvety blended base, corn appears as kernels, both whole and popped. Its warm yellowness—the color of an idyllic childhood—is adorned with cilantro shreds and a few drops of chili oil, which break up the corn's monopoly and obviate the need for a few cracks of pepper.
Calling meat "fall off the bone" tender is perhaps the hoariest of food clichés, and yet the meat on our manuka and marmite braised baby back ribs ($19) literally fell off the bone—and landed smack in the center of our squash purée. The earthiness of the manuka honey lessened the impact of the stinky, savory spread, which tastes like home to many New Zealanders and like rotting tree sap to most everyone else. (Don't believe us? Marmite's slogan is "love it or hate it.")
We ordered the Stewart Island salmon ceviche ($11) appetizer as our second entree. Mixed with onions and herbs, the salmon formed a loose cylinder that couldn't wait to spread out, on the plate and in our mouths, the plump pieces breaking like bubbles on the tongue. Rounding out the dish were endive leaves and translucent salmon roe. Its particular genius, though, rested in the top layer, a purée of avocado and wasabi, green on green, fat on fat, bringing the bubbles back to the earth.
The cauliflower and bacon ragout ($5) offered gently seared cauliflower, cauliflower purée, and bacon chunks. It reminded us of chunky mashed potatoes. Next time we'll opt for the yucca tots.
Chef Simmons brought out our dessert himself, a nice, thoughtful touch. The taste of New Zealand ($9) included a mini berry-filled pavlova, hokey pokey ice cream (chunks of toffee candy enveloped in vanilla), and a raspberry lamington, a coconut-covered sponge cake. Everything was whimsical, everything was good. The meringue pavlova wasn't chalky, as sometimes happens, and the lamington stayed moist, beneath its coconut coat. Yes, we sipped the dregs of the buttery ice cream from the tiny cup. We felt like Alice in Wonderland, minus the rabbit.
Kiwiana has heart. The 40-seat dining room was designed to resemble Simmons' grandmother's house in New Zealand. Swirly wallpaper hangs above perfect white wainscotting; candles and fresh flowers decorate each table. Plants separate the inside from the traffic on Union Street. A few framed photos and posters from New Zealand hang slightly askew, an impersonal touch in a very personal place. Or perhaps they're meant to remind us that the chef has traveled a long way to get here. As we ate the last bite of our pavlova, we saw Simmons peer around the corner, checking to make sure we were satisfied. Kiwiana is best for: a date with maturity.
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.