Or at least, not exclusively.
Mole and asiento might feature on the opening menu at Highgate Drink & Dine, but Mexican is only one of the cuisines the former El Publico chef is drawing inspiration from. Trinidad, for instance, is represented by sada roti; puffy, pikelet-sized flatbreads used to scoop up the thick Caribbean eggplant dip called choka. Picalilli, England’s famous turmeric-stained pickles, also gets a look-in, and the carte references Ward’s Kiwi heritage as he breaks down whole Avon Valley hogget, just as his sheep-farming uncle did in New Zealand.
In short, anyone trying to pigeonhole the food at the rebooted Ace Pizza is in for a tough time.
“It’s just tasty food based on good products,” Ward says. “Four ingredients, four flavours. Don’t mess around with them too much. I could use cheap crappy ingredients, but the food wouldn’t be the same.”
Although Ward has inherited Ace Pizza’s wood-fired oven, little of the pizzeria remains. Gone are Ace’s black walls and neon signage. In their place: wood panelling and coats of white paint. Banquettes, tables and bar stools constitute the seating options and guests now enter via the front door rather than through a side entry. It’s one of Beaufort Street’s lower-key fitouts, but the aesthetic suits owner Alex Cuccovia’s vision of a neighbourhood hangout.
Ward, meanwhile, is looking forward to getting back on the pans – and wood-burning oven and grill – to share his thoughts on good food and provenance. In anticipation of the restaurant’s late May opening, Ward talks Broadsheet through some of the dishes on the opening menu.
Fried batter, salt and vinegar “The best thing to me about fish and chips is the crispy batter. I’m a believer that something salty and acidic really livens your palate for the meal. I had this salt and vinegar powder a few years ago and thought it was just amazing. This is something fun and kind of silly but it’s extremely moreish. You have one of these with a beer and you’re ready to relax.”
Choka, flatbread and pickled chilli “When Indian labourers came to Trinidad in the 1840s, they brought their food with them, so you’ve got this Indian food but it’s been adapted. We couch-surfed in Trinidad with this guy and his mum made choka and roti for us. It was mind-blowing. This is delicious, and it’s just four ingredients: eggplants, tomatoes, onions and garlic.”
Raw fish, asiento, mandarin and radish “When they make chicharrón (fried pork skin) in Mexico, they make it in these big vats. Asiento is all the stuff that falls to the bottom of the vat and is very much like a butter. They spread it on everything. Our version is basically crackling that’s been pureed. We’re trying to stay away from certain words on the menu, so it’s not crudo or sashimi, but just raw fish. It helps with managing people’s expectations. People hear sashimi and think it’s going to be Asian, but it’s very much not Asian.”
Spiced carrots, tamarinds and dates “I’m all about local food but I can’t do better than Walkerswood jerk. I buy it online in four-kilo tubs. You can’t make better jerk. Every time I walk into the cool room, the smell reminds me of Jamaica. Jerk isn’t normally associated with vegetables but generally used for chicken, pork, lobster and fish.”
Jerked quail, quince and chestnut “This is the same jerk we use for the carrots. The quails are from Wagin and growers Marc and Leoni Brummelman do everything themselves. They hatch, raise, slaughter, process and deliver all the birds. Just the two of them and their farm hands. That sort of dedication is insane. You taste the quail and just don’t get flavour like that from a mass-produced farm. I always want to highlight those sorts of producers.”
Grilled mullet and piccalilli “We’re using sea mullet, a deep-sea fish from Shark Bay. Most people think of it as a bait fish but it’s delicious, really affordable and a species that isn’t overfished. By using mullet, garfish and these ‘second-rate’ fish, we can serve half a fish for less than $20. We split the fish down the middle and marinate it with recado verde, a Yucatán spice mix of parsley, allspice and bit of lemon.”
Half duck and sweet and sour beetroot “These ducks are also from Wagin. When they arrive, we dry them out to help the skin crisp, but it’s basically roasted duck. You’re paying good money for good product like the duck, so there’s no point ruining it by adding a bunch of stuff to it. There’s good fat on them. It’s delicious and very much like wagyu fat, and has a pleasant flavour. It’s like eating whole prawns. You suck the head out of a prawn: you’ve got to suck the fat off a duck leg, too.”
Baked banana, dulce de leche and praline “On our last night in Trinidad, we lit a fire on the main public beach and cooked jerk chicken, whole snappers and these bananas, just straight on the coals and with dulce de leche and praline. I looked at them straight away and knew I was going to do them somewhere.”
Highgate Drink & Dine opens on May 20.
Highgate Drink & Dine 448 Beaufort Street, Highgate