Az­abu re­view: Pol­ished per­former,

A year af­ter open­ing, Az­abu’s still buzzing.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — ALICE HAR­BOURNE

Auck­land’s a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment to one of the waiters at Az­abu. A re­cent ar­rival from Eng­land, she re­veals her true feel­ings when I con­fess I also hated this place at first. I landed on a frosty morn­ing in July 2010 to an in­cred­i­bly sleepy Auck­land, and spent the next six months won­der­ing when it was go­ing to wake up.

You’ll grow to love it, I tell her, you just have to stop try­ing to fall in love with the cen­tre and con­cen­trate on the pe­riph­ery — that’s where most of the fun is. That she was os­ten­si­bly al­ready work­ing in the nexus of that fun — sleek Ja­panese- Peru­vian restau­rant Az­abu on Pon­sonby Rd, sib­ling to Brit­o­mart’s Ebisu and Ostro — ei­ther de­stroyed my ar­gu­ment or proved that ev­ery­one is im­mune to the charms of their own work­place.

It’s got to be the sec­ond. From the out­set, Paul Izzard De­sign’s fit-out se­duces. The frontage has a let­ter­box-shaped win­dow that in­vites passers-by to peer into an inky lit­tle world. In­side, a long, cat­walk-like row of ta­bles con­nects the main din­ing room with the bar, ac­cessed via Maid­stone Lane. Tan leather ban­quettes soften hard lines, as do mush­room-shaped lamps along a bar de­signed for solo din­ing. It’s the per­fect set­ting for a fun time, close-to­gether ta­bles en­cour­ag­ing a sense of com­mu­nal din­ing with­out you hav­ing to (god for­bid) talk to strangers. You can lis­ten, though.

The ser­vice is re­ally pol­ished. They’ll hang up your coat and ask if you need a GST re­ceipt, but will also perch on the bench next to your ta­ble to take your or­der — a move that can be di­vi­sive among ser­vice purists. I like it.

I also like the food. Nikkei is the Ja­panese/Peru­vian hy­brid cui­sine that loosely in­forms a menu di­vided into eight short sec­tions of shared plates. The tuna sashimi tostada il­lus­trates the mash-up: nose-hot wasabi tar­tar par­ties along­side mouth-hot jalapeño and fresh, cool fish on a tostada dance floor strewn with mi­cro-co­rian­der, sweet­corn and pick­led daikon. You eat piled-up slabs of it with your hands and it’s messy and en­gag­ing. Sig­na­ture Nikkei dish tira­dito is served here with creamy pieces of salmon glis­ten­ing with leche de ti­gre — a Peru­vian ce­viche mari­nade — and bathed in co­conut cream and pas­sion­fruit for smooth and tangy mouth­fuls. The per­fectly grilled oc­to­pus of­fers edi­ble com­fort on a bed of aji amar­illo-spiked potato mash which chop­sticks hin­der you from shov­el­ling.

There seems to be an un­spo­ken rule that restau­rants ven­tur­ing any kind of Asian fu­sion must serve dumplings and steamed buns. The spicy pork gy­oza and the chicken and shi­itake dumplings are good but not mind-blow­ing. On the other hand, I thought we’d reached peak bao, but Az­abu’s braised pork cheek ver­sion with tamarind sauce and cu­cum­ber is ir­re­sistible.

Ex­ec­u­tive chef Yukio Ozeki honed his sushi skills at Toyko’s iconic Tsuk­iji fish mar­ket, but it was a plate of Wakanui scotch with chimichurri and se­same soy dress­ing that left the strong­est im­pres­sion — pri­mor­dial cook­ing at its finest. I’d also re­turn for a dessert of tem­pura cus­tard with gin­ger jam and matcha: in­dul­gently greasy frit­ters that com­bined all the flavours of an English gin­ger sponge and cus­tard in silky, crunchy tex­tures.

Eat enough dishes and you be­gin to de­tect a for­mula: al­most ev­ery­thing is topped with mi­cro­herbs, or with some sort of sticky-sweet yuzu glaze. Some of the smok­ier dishes could do with a stronger acidic el­e­ment. But in con­text, Az­abu gets away with it. This isn’t the kind of food you need to cer­e­mo­ni­ously pause to ad­mire — it’s the kind that rapidly and qui­etly ap­pears be­fore you as con­ver­sa­tion flows, de­mand­ing only the oc­ca­sional in­ter­lude to com­ment on how tasty some­thing is. Cou­pled with Kula Watchara’s cock­tails (some of the best in the city), or a flask of sake or one of Az­abu’s rare Ja­panese whiskies, it’s hard to have a bad time here.

Az­abu’s still as good as it was when it opened a year ago, a rar­ity in new group restau­rants with launch bud­gets that dry up per­cep­ti­bly over time. It’s the mark of a place that opened ready, with an as­sured sense of per­son­al­ity cu­rated by an ex­pe­ri­enced team. Az­abu con­tin­ues to buzz. It’s a great place to spend your money.

Braised pork cheek bao.

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