From the moment you step into the large restaurant and bar space at Gao Asian Fusion Restaurant, you know this is a place that delivers on a number of levels. Huge Asian-style street art decorates the walls – and the ceiling – and you’re immediately transported to Saigon, Seoul, Bangkok….
But this is a restaurant that offers a feast for all your senses. A quick glance at the menu tells you that Gao is a heaven for curry lovers: hapuka yellow curry, chicken thigh red curry, beef cheek massaman curry, and green vege curry head the mouth-watering list of mains on a menu that features diverse Asian flavours.
The focus on curry stems from head chef Ben Choi’s love of curry and the years he has spent tasting, experimenting and perfecting curry dishes that take their inspiration from Thailand, and reflect his Korean background.
Ben arrived in New Zealand in 2012, after working for 11 years as a chef in Korea. In New Zealand he spent several years at Woodpecker Hill restaurant in Parnell. He later moved to the Engine Room, and last year was appointed inaugural head chef to develop the menu at Gao, which opened in Albany just before Christmas 2018.
Ben says he first tasted curry in Korea, where Korean and Japanese flavours were the norm, and Thai food flavours much less well-known. He was immediately hooked and made it his mission to taste as many curries as he could. “I fell in love with Thai food,” he confesses, and went on to develop his own recipes and flavours, refining and perfecting them since his arrival in New Zealand, and adapting them to the fresh ingredients available here.
He’s still experimenting – and nothing reaches the menu at Gao without his staff of five chefs and three kitchen hands acting as taste testers. He laughs as he tells of one experiment that may never reach public scrutiny – while the beetroot curry tasted great, he says, the colour was all wrong, and he can’t imagine how he could solve that issue.
Beetroot aside, he uses a wide variety of vegetables in his curries; the vegetable curry, for example, contains fresh locally sourced produce that could include eggplant, baby carrots, cauliflower, pumpkin or buttercup, depending on the season. He eschews the use of garlic cloves in his green curry paste, using instead garlic sprouts, with kaffir lime juice and leaves to add piquancy. “I’m always looking for unique flavours and tastes,” he says.
Ben is extolled as a curry master (or “curry geek” as one of his colleagues describes him). He attributes his success to the love and effort he puts into each dish, and to the time he’s spent over the years, working as a chef in a curry restaurant in Korea and visiting markets and curry places here and in Korea, constantly testing and refining his recipes.
He says his signature dish is the massaman curry, with the beef cheek slow-cooked until it is meltingly tender, and immersed in a curry that starts not with a paste, but by frying the spices to develop a rich flavour base. Other curries use a paste made to Ben’s own recipes, made with fresh ingredients. The chicken curry is a dry curry with the spices, vegetables (garlic sprouts, shallots, fig, aubergine...) and chicken stir-fried wok-style. The Gao chicken, a take on Korean fried chicken, uses a spicy curry powder, with a sweet chill sauce.
But Ben’s menu is about more than curry, as the smoked duck with tamarind sauce, papaya salad, mizore tofu, and a separate dumpling menu indicate.
Grace Wang who’s joined Gao as the dumpling chef, is an expert dumpling maker. Her specialty are xiao long bao dumplings, with a delicate dumpling casing enclosing rich juices, pork and vegetables, served with a Shanghai soup. Ben also recommends her pancakes with Peking duck, beansprouts, cucumber and plum sauce.
Whatever your selection, Ben recommends you start with entrees of dumplings and move through to the main menu, and that you share and explore the tastes of the dishes you and your companion(s) choose. Enjoy!
Gao Asian Fusian Restaurant
198-200 Dairy Flat High Way, Albany
09 218 2112 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Open 5pm – late, Monday to Sunday