Old Hippo, new tricks: The executive chef making a splash at QT’s Hippopotamus

How Executive Chef Sylvester Nair is redefining fine dining at iconic restaurant, Hippopotamus.

As the old adage goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But old dogs are no match for the graceful, giant aquatic ballerina –immortalised in bronze – that sits atop the roof of QT Wellington’s first floor. The iconic hippopotamus and its namesake restaurant have carved legendary status into the memories of Wellingtonians over the past fourteen years. Now, a new Executive Chef is shaking things up. 

Enter: Sylvester Nair. Under Executive Chef Sylvester’s lead, the award-winning harbourside Hippopotamus is exploring a bold new culinary direction, undergoing a metamorphosis from fine dining darling to upscale-yet-approachable eatery. The new menu is an à la carte offering that dabbles in French technique, adding unexpected twists in the form of native ingredients and Cape-Malay spices.

Fusing flavours from his South African heritage, many dishes from Sylvester’s new menu are finished on the fire. Think coal-roasted fish, salt-baked beetroot and a curious crudo that’s been kissed by smoke. Continuing a longstanding partnership of Hippopotamus’, Sylvester has chosen Ōra King salmon for the latter. Known as the ‘Wagyu of salmon’ for its naturally high marbled fat content, the sustainably-bred fish has been developed for the world’s best chefs, even featuring on the menu at the 94th Academy Awards. The crudo showcases finely sliced salmon that is cured, flash smoked and immediately chilled to impart a light smoky flavour. Served with chilli, capers, a house made ponzu sauce and nasturtium koji, the deceptively simple dish allows the premium salmon to shine. 

Amidst a sea of change, a few defining features remain untouched – the award-winning wine list, for one. The restaurant is one of only two in Aotearoa to receive a coveted ‘Best Award of Excellence’ by Wine Spectator Magazine, regarded as a global authority on perfect plonks. 

Hippopotamus’ famed High Tea programme is also here to stay. Featuring an ever-evolving rotation of themed afternoon teas, from patisserie inspired by works from World of Wearable Art, to candy forest creations that celebrate the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s season of Hansel and Gretel. Set amongst plush velvet furnishings, floral carpet and a bevy of chandeliers, Hippopotamus is rather a civilised spot for a cuppa. Working with his protégé and pastry chef, Paige Simons, Sylvester has big ambitions to further elevate their popular petit fours. 

Located on level three of the art-filled QT hotel, Hippopotamus harbours elevated elegance, where Parisian chic and Wellington cheek are twirled together. Stepping up to the pass at this storied dining institution is a challenge for expert chefs with even the sharpest of knives, but Sylvester has just the sort of audacious vision required to redefine and revitalise. A dazzling new chapter awaits for our majestic harbourside mascot.

Find out more about Hippopotamus and QT hotels here.

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