Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Memorable meal beyond sublime

By Peter Calder

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Masu
Address: SkyCityGrand Hotel, 90 Federal St, Auckland
Ph: (09) 363 6278
Web: www.masu.co.nz
Verdict: Sensational

Standouts on the Masu menu are Alaskan black cod and chocolate and hazelnut pudding. Photo / Natalie Slade
Standouts on the Masu menu are Alaskan black cod and chocolate and hazelnut pudding. Photo / Natalie Slade

Let's start with the beer. The list at Masu has all the names you expect in a Japanese restaurant but then I see four with the Hitachino Nest label. They're produced at a brewery in Japan that merges European beer-making technology with traditional sake-brewing technique.

The red rice ale has been matured in casks previously used to make shochu: as its name suggests, the polished rice normally associated with sake, has been used in its manufacture and it lends the beer a unique musky dryness with what a connoisseur (which I am not) would call top notes of cherry. It is beyond sublime.

The beer was a promising start to what turned out to be a fine evening at Auckland's newest restaurant. The extensive media coverage, including a television show, that it has received should mean it requires no introduction, but here's a brief summary: Masu is the creation of Australia-born, New Zealand-raised Nic Watt, whose role as chief operating officer of the Roka restaurants worldwide was the most recent in a stellar career that has included time at Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous eateries.

In short, he's a class act. He is joined in the new venture by head chef Darren Johnson, direct from the same job at Roka, and restaurant manager Matthew Aitchison, formerly of The French Cafe, and what they have come up with is magic.

Masu is named for the square wooden boxes that were once used to measure rice (the word also has auspicious connotations of prosperity). Some of them put in an appearance during the meal - a chocolate and hazelnut pudding arrived at the table in just such a box.

At Masu, Watt brings to Auckland the style of cooking that has made Roka rightly famous. It is called robatayaki (Japanese for "fireside cooking"; think charcoal barbecue in which marinades and dipping sauces are major characters) and it is possibly the most splendid example I've come across of how traditional cooking styles using ancient technology can be deployed in the service of very fine dining.

In short, when you sit down at Masu, you should forget every charcoal barbecue you've ever eaten; this is to Saturday snarlers what Beethoven's Ninth is to Chopsticks.

The robata pits are the centrepiece of the open kitchen at Masu but there is plenty more besides. We opened our account with a couple of choices from the sashimi menu - fatty tuna (sustainably fished southern bluefin) and freshwater eel. The tuna, matched with a glass of the house sake (there is a list of three dozen for the enthusiast), was what I would choose for my last meal and the eel, marinated to moist perfection, was so delicate that I could not bear to taint it with a trace of the very delicate wasabi.

In its command of other Japanese classics, the kitchen set new standards: tempura batter so light it seemed to dissolve at the tongue-touch; maku sushi (of crispy prawn), from which pepper and radish sprouted like tiny flowers.

Crisp-shelled crayfish tacos used a spicy miso, which miraculously did not overpower the delicate flesh. Peppery fried squid was lent extra zing by slivers of fresh jalapeno. The whole first part of the meal was a quiet riot of textures and tastes that danced on the tongue.

I assume the baby chicken had been poached before being grilled, because I can think of no other way to explain how ridiculously moist and succulent it was. But given what came off that charcoal grill, anything is possible.

Our choices, as it transpired, were two of Watt's signature dishes: the Alaskan black cod, marinated in sweet miso and yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), arrived mounted on a magnolia leaf curved to look like a sail full of wind and tasted more magnificent than it looked, falling at the touch of a fork into big juicy slabs. Tiny lamb cutlets, with a deep red chilli dipping sauce, were state of the art.

That chocolate and hazelnut pudding and an egg custard called a chawanmushi, studded with lychee and passionfruit, completed a meal that was among the most memorable of my life.

Masu, along with The Grill and The Sugar Club, completes a trio of big-name fine dining establishments that would do any city proud. I don't know who decided, about three years ago, to give the appalling dining in the SkyCity precinct a serious shake-up, but whoever it was deserves a raise.

- Herald on Sunday

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