Alex Kaihea has always dreamed of owning a restaurant in Australia. Last month he achieved that goal with the opening of Moana on Isle of Capri.
“I was 19 years old when I migrated from Tonga to New Zealand. I started my first restaurant without being able to speak English,” he tells us.
From dishwasher to head chef to owner of top Auckland restaurant ‘The Beach House’ and star of ‘Real Pasifik’ and TVNZ’s ‘Good Morning’, Alex Kaihea has never forgotten where he came from, once more bringing his Tongan-infused touch to European cuisine.
Making few changes to the former Cicchetti venue, Alex opened Moana barely a week after its predecessor left.
“I have named this restaurant ‘Moana’,” Alex says. “It’s the deepest part of the ocean. For me, the name doesn’t just refer to seafood. It symbolises the journey of my life from Tonga to New Zealand and now Australia. It’s also about the ties that bind us together, the depth of heart and soul.”
Always a champion of local cuisine and seafood, after coming to Australia late in 2015, Alex has spent this time as Head Chef of George’s Paragon, Sanctuary Cove. It opened his eyes to the Gold Coast’s demand for fresh, affordable seafood, giving him an insight into how to market in a new milieu.
“I’ve also formed relationships with local suppliers before opening my own restaurant,” he tells us, a clear advantage considering the amount of seafood on the menu.
“Australia enjoys a greater choice of seafood, particularly prawns, crab and crayfish,” he says, comparing the two countries’ seafood sources, “whereas New Zealand’s supplies are more seasonal. You need to have at least three different menus in a New Zealand restaurant just to cope with the seasons,” Alex notes.
While diners may enjoy the luxury of starched white tablecloths and napkins beneath a sparkling chandelier, Alex’s down-to-earth attitude is reflected in the menu he has developed for Moana. Driven by the daily catch of local suppliers, entry price points of mainstay items are very approachable, such as Seafood Chowder $10.50, Spaghetti Marinara $20, and Australian barramundi $21. Premium seafood, including BBQ Moreton Bay bugs, Lobster mornay or thermidor and fresh King prawns balance the menu at market price, culminating in the ‘pièce de resistance’, the Seafood Platter for Two ($220).
“My previous experience as a chef has been in degustation and fine dining,” Alex says, “but I want Moana to be a local place that is very supportive of the community.”
We dine at lunch amongst a bevy of local retirees and ladies lunching, the demographic morphing as the sun disappears below the horizon.
A beautifully presented Seafood Tasting Plate starter ($13.50) gives us a bit of everything: prawns, mussels, oyster and gravlax, with salad and a glass of ceviche taking pride of place on the mini platter.
We’ve seen precious few attempts at Pacific Rim cuisine on the coast, so we relish the chance to try the Tongan-inspired Ota Ika ($14), a Polynesian ceviche-type dish of snapper marinated in lime and coconut cream, from the chef who’s cooked as the personal chef to the King of Tonga!
“So, how Tongan is the dish?” I ask Alex.
“Tongans would actually just have fish without the vegetables,” he tells us, “but it’s Tongan-inspired because the method and flavours are the same.”
New Zealand Whole Sole ($22), falling off the bone in buttery goodness, is sheer delight. Our other main, a loin of Yellowfin tuna wrapped in calamari and served on a bed of squid ink fettucine laced with greens and flavours of sweet chilli, ginger tomato, roast peanuts and coriander aioli is inventive and eye-catching, the flavour combination working surprisingly well ($40). This generous maritime equivalent of a Beef Wellington is very suitable to share.
The menu draws from land as well as sea, offering dishes such as Eye fillet, Twice-cooked orange duck and Souvlaki lamb served on mash or rice with seasonal vegetables or salad.
With excellent service and a well-chosen wine and cocktail list offering beverages to accompany a menu of fresh classic dishes, Moana would make a great date night or indulgent celebration enjoying the high-end catch dishes – the Seafood Platter or dishes featured in the Moana Special Selection.
Just as easily, due to its keen ‘half-price’ specials, Moana could well become the weekly ritual for many locals. It’s prime territory for ‘ladies who lunch’. This is seafood fit for a king at a less than kingly price.
Specials: Lobster Mornay $45, Monday and Tuesday lunch and dinner.
15-21 Via Roma, Capri on Via Roma, Isle of Capri Ph: 07 5538 2306
Open: Mon – Sun 11am – late
NOTE: Good Food Gold Coast dined as a guest of Moana.