When Dish first heard mention of Nikkei cuisine and its description of being Japanese with a Peruvian influence, it was difficult to wrap our heads around what that might be like on the palate. Having now visited Azabu, a Nikkei restaurant at the K' Road end of Ponsonby, we can safely say it works… and beautifully.
It has all the delicacy and umami magic of Japanese food with some exciting injections of South American flair. The menu at Azabu, like so many places these days, is designed to share and our first dish, from the Small Plates section – grilled octopus with yuzu pepper, purple potato and chive – had us playing chopstick wars over the last piece. The tentacles were beautifully tender and the yuzu and potato flavours deliciously complementary.
We ordered two of the “Tostada” options – heirloom tomato with jalapeno mayo, mint, basil, crushed almond and coriander, and the tuna sashimi with corn wasabi tartar, pickled daikon, chopped jalapeno and red onion, with each crunchy mouthful a fresh flavoursome dance on the tongue. The temptation when food is this good is to just keep ordering, and so we did. The batter of the tiger prawn tempura was light with a lovely satisfying crunch and the sauce, a paste made of jalapeno and aji amarillo (a type of Peruvian chilli pepper) was creamy and full of chilli flavour but without the heat. Another lovely addition to the table was the pile of eggplant tempura, which came with a hatcho miso sauce and spring onion.
Our choice from the Main Plates wasn’t a misstep, per say, but the perfectly cooked crispy pork belly served with pancakes and thick, sweet hoisin sauce just felt out of place – although perhaps not when sat alongside dishes like the chicken katsu bun with fried onion, tonkatsu sauce and karashi mustard. Denser, sweeter flavours. So too was our side of hakusai cabbage which came as whole leaves wrapped around each other, nestled in a warm sesame mustard dressing (there was mention of parmesan cheese in its description but it was subtle enough not to stand out).
We ventured back to fresh and fun with the cucumber salad served with lightly pickled daikon in a dashi vinaigrette – a lovely cleansing dish. While the service from our waiter was uber attentive, beware: don’t ask a question of the wrong person – there appear to be a number of floating staff whose sole purpose is just to put plates in front of people and take them away. We got the attention of someone standing idle to ask a simple question but she looked startled and grabbed our waiter who was in the middle of serving someone else. The dimly lit interior of the dark and narrow space does invite thoughts of cosy nights but with spring looming, there’s also a lighter airier section down the back with an outdoor option. Switch the hot sake to cold and load up on the raw and lighter options and this exciting wee spot is a year-round winner.
26 Ponsonby Rd, Grey Lynn
Thursday and Friday: 12pm–late
Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday: 5pm–late