Phone: (09) 849 7268
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 7, Value: 8, Ambience: 7
Our love affair with Japanese food is becoming ever more intense. A whole generation of Aucklanders is growing up with the idea that the only acceptable quick lunch is a box full of cold rice surrounding slivers of salmon and cucumber and wrapped in seaweed. Our local suburban centre has about nine outlets offering Japanese food - and more are scheduled to arrive.
As the $5 sushi shops proliferate, so do spectacularly accomplished offerings
at the top end of the market such as Ebisu, Cocoro, Masu and more. What is often a little harder to find is the Japanese establishment that offers something more than standard bargain-basement sushi without soaring into the fine-dining price range.
601 Sake Bar in Morningside is a cafe that comes into that welcome category. In terms of ambience I'm not sure quite what it is about. It is tiny and the decor is pretty stark but the artwork includes a picture of a Polynesian beauty. A surfboard rests against a wall, books on surfing sit on a windowsill and there are faded news clippings on surfing topics. The music is hip Western. But the cooking is demonstrably Japanese, with the chef plying his trade in full view in a kitchen that has a domestic rather than commercial look.
The menu has the expected standard dishes but there are more unusual examples. The specials on the night we visited included a hot tofu salad and pan-fried prawn and hoki.
We started conventionally with sashimi, unmistakably fresh fish with the customary salmon, tuna and snapper bursting with flavour and with the undervalued and slightly less common jack mackerel. The salad was simple and fresh with an excellent dressing although I remain baffled by the Japanese liking for daikon radish, which I find about as tempting as dishwater.
The vegetable tempura was as crisp and light as one would wish although, being winter, the selection of vegetables was not wide and there was a disproportionately high percentage of onion.
In most restaurants "fish of the day" means one species but here there was a range and an array of options as to how you wanted it prepared. We opted for tarakihi: simply grilled with oil and salt and it was really good, elegantly served with rice and pumpkin mash.
For the next dish we settled on one of the hotpots. The Nabeyaki seafood version was tempting but we had eaten a fair amount of fish and went for the beef instead, which came with a warm recommendation from the stylish young waiter.
This was a rich potpourri with slices of tender beef in a broth and surrounded by udon noodles, soft tofu, vegetables and poached egg. It was delicious and very filling; so much so we were defeated in our intention to try one of the desserts. The moffle - a concoction of sticky rice paste cooked like a waffle and served with accompaniments such as red bean paste - will remain a mystery for now as will the Fair Trade banana tempura.
But what we had eaten had been thoroughly enjoyable. We passed on the sake although there were seven varieties and a plum wine on offer, and the sensibly priced wine list was rather longer than might have been expected in such a small eatery. A BYO option is available on a couple of evenings.
The service was of that unfailingly courteous Japanese standard leavened with a touch of Kiwi informality and it's not in many places that the chef emerges to ask if you are enjoying his food.
It was easy to answer in the affirmative and our whole evening had been an unassuming little pleasure.
Our meal: $126 for four dishes to share, two sides and two desserts with three glasses of wine.
Wine List: A list with enough choice. We enjoyed a Waitaki Braids 2011 North Otago pinot gris and a Ma Maison 2011 Martinborough pinot noir.
Verdict: If you want comfortably priced Japanese food that's a little out of the ordinary served with personality in a cosy atmosphere, then this is the place.