Address: 13 Saint Marys Rd, Ponsonby
Phone: (09) 360 0021
It's a joyous celebration of dazzlingly good design and exciting food. No, that's not a line from a PR company, it's what I couldn't help thinking as I looked around the newly transformed Soto in Saint Marys Bay Rd. After nine years of operation in the neighbourhood, owner Ricky Lee, also of Cocoro, decided it was time for a rebirth of this modest Japanese restaurant. He enlisted the design skills of Clark Pritchard and his team at Designworks to create a magical space that is "light, airy and modern" - words that do come from the PR, but I couldn't have described it better - and the space is barely recognisable from its former incarnation.
The style of dining has also been updated and now adopts the more relaxed izakaya approach of serving lively, tasty dishes that can constitute a full meal or as a snack to accompany sake.
As I savoured dish after dish of food that has its roots clearly in the clean, fresh flavours and techniques of Japanese cuisine, I marvelled at the menu that is unashamedly and effortlessly cross-cultural. Chef Michihiro Kadota executes with confidence and ease such dishes as beetroot carpaccio with a yuzu mustard, pork cheek wraps with a sweet sesame dressing and lamb cutlets with balsamic miso and root vegetables. Without exception, the flavours were expressive without once being unbalanced or heavy-handed.
The freshness of the decor is reflected in the food and there's a calmness that prevails even when the dining room is bustling. The staff are wholly engaged with their service, the diners are focused on relaxing and relishing their exquisitely presented plates of food. This is food not to be rushed. Textural components have been considered as much as the flavour profiles so that every aspect to the dish hums along delightfully. Take the crystal prawn, sweetcorn and avocado loose cluster fritters. Cooked kakiage-style where the ingredients are mixed in with a tempura-like batter, as compared with being coated in it, and fried to crispy this was a triumph of texture and flavour. The avocado, warmed more than truly cooked, lent softness to the fritter, where the corn kernels and prawn put up a firm fight to the bite. Or the lamb cutlets, lean and tender and smeared with a perfectly balanced balsamic miso sauce, served with slowly braised root vegetables and accompanied by a stocky savoury jelly. Carrot, lotus and bamboo shoots were joined by burdock - do you know it? I wasn't very familiar with it but now I'm in love so let me introduce you. Burdock; root vegetable, ugly on the eye, sweet on the mouth, robust and earthy, similar to lotus in texture and delicious.
Salmon sashimi is pepped up with minced jalapeno and a snappy ponzu; skewered cubes of tuna and leek could easily have been pedestrian, but it elicited squeals of delight from us with its juicy, velvet texture; the beetroot carpaccio has its earthiness emphasised beautifully by walnuts and mustard.
In a night of food highlights there remains one dish that I can't get out of my mind - the duck breast. Cooked pink, moistened with a delicate tosazu vinegar-based sauce and served on cold soba noodles, bound with a white sesame sauce. The contrast of the warm, rich duck and cool, austere noodles was immensely pleasurable and, as is so often the case with food that is not served piping hot, the flavours were deliciously pronounced.
When a meal has been so wonderful, by the time I get to dessert I'm often excited and nervous in equal measures. Should the desserts be disappointing, the night may well be ruined. On the other hand, if they continue to impress then the night can go down as one of those evenings where everything sparkled.
We ordered four desserts because we couldn't resist - a black sesame ice cream and also a green tea one. Both were sensational. A white sesame blancmange was so silky we swooned. And the plum wine sorbet refreshed in the same way a swim on a summer's day does.
Soto was so good it drove me to poetry. Here's a haiku:
Soto so scrumptious
You make macrame look cool
With your crafty food
I know when an eatery has truly impressed me - I wake up and all I can think of is when I can return.
From the menu: Salmon sashimi $8, tuna and leek negima $6, beetroot carpaccio $16, pork cheek wraps $14, prawn, sweetcorn and avocado kakiage $16, karaage chicken $15, lamb cutlets $16, duck breast and soba noodle $28, black sesame icecream $6, green tea icecream $6, white sesame blancmange $6, plum wine sorbet $6
Drinks: Fully licensed - comprehensive selection of sake
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