Address: 56a Brown St
Phone: (09) 360 0927
Cuisine: New style Japanese cuisine
Rating: 8.5/10

There's a new neighbourhood restaurant in Ponsonby, and on entering you could be forgiven for thinking you were in one of the fabulously stylish restaurants in Kyoto that serve kaiseki - the traditional, multi-course degustation of immaculately presented food.

The interior of Cocoro reflects the best of Japanese design with clean, simple lines and minimal clutter. It has a bunker-like feel but is cosy rather than claustrophobic, with its concrete softened by the use of wooden slat walls, ceiling panels, and a long, broad wooden communal table in the centre of the dining room adding to the casual ambience of the space.

Cocoro is sister to Soto, at the other end of Ponsonby, with the head chef from there, Makoto Tokuyama, now in residence at the Brown St location.

Once we were seated the maitre d' informed us that Cocoro means "from the heart" and he recommended at least one of us tried the "omotenashi" - the six-course degustation. We decided on a combination of this and ordering off the tapas-style menu.

The food is a mix of traditional Japanese dishes combined with a more contemporary approach, and you might find some of the offerings more than a little surprising. What you can be assured of is that all dishes use the best of Japanese ingredients and are presented with painstaking attention to detail.

The first course of the degustation was a delicate chawanmushi served in petite white china cups. This savoury baked custard with West Coast whitebait and shitake mushrooms and topped with translucent spheres of caviar had my fellow degusteur in raptures. A huge fan of chawanmushi, she declared it one of the best she'd had given its fresh silky quality and the delicate flavours all marrying in a mouthful.

Salmon sashimi and tuna nigiri sushi further demonstrated the huge importance of presentation in Japanese cuisine. Delivered to our table in a jet black, glossy, stand-up lacquerware box, our waitress dramatically opened the doors to reveal layers of small plates of freshly prepared sashimi, sushi and Te Matuku Bay oysters in ponzu vinegar. The sheer freshness of the tuna and salmon meant with each mouthful the seafood melted, leaving behind the vibrant hit of the South Island fresh wasabi that Cocoro uses.

At this stage all of our food began arriving at once with the remaining dishes from the degustation colliding with those we'd ordered from the main menu. We were struggling to stay ahead and it seemed wrong to rush such beautifully prepared food.

Not only that, the flavours of the more delicate ingredients - steamed fish in citrus soy vinegar; tofu with vegetable tartar - were being swamped by the less traditional, big hitters like kransky sausage with mustard, lamb rack in salsa-miso sauce and wagyu scotch fillet. Luckily our waitress heeded our pleas for the kitchen to slow down so that we could catch up.

The kranskys are an interesting addition to the menu. They're quirky in that Japanese way but of such quality, served with Yuzu Kosho mustard, that we were fans immediately. The wagyu beef was divinely tender, served on a bed of sauteed mixed mushrooms. The teriyaki chicken thighs (yes, we had to try them, as unadventurous as that is) were sweet and sticky with just the right balance of mirin and soy sauce vying for attention in the teriyaki sauce.

The gratin of scallop, prawn and oyster with a miso sauce was fabulously creamy. The Paradise prawns served with spicy mayo were rich and tangy. One of our favourites in the whole line-up were the salmon and snapper fillets, entwined, and served with giant kelp pepper, shitake mushrooms and a light soy and citrus broth. They were clean and exciting.

Slightly disappointing was the chicken thigh, served with tofu and vegetables and topped with ginger foam. It failed to display the clean flavours of the other dishes and the foam was devoid of any flavour. In addition, with everything diced to within an inch of its life we, a dexterous duo, found the effort of eating this dish with the elegant, but thin, chopsticks frustrating compared with the reward for our tastebuds.

For dessert, the house-made icecream with fresh ginger packed a great punch. The dainty strawberry crepe roulade reminded me of the numerous cake shops in Japan that serve afternoon tea, complete with sweet, almost old-fashioned cakes and gateau, all beautifully decorated.

Eating at Cocoro is a gentle and wonderful experience. There's thoughtfulness and attention to detail in every aspect of this new eatery.

From the menu: Cocoro degustation $80, Wagyu steak toban $25, tofu tartar $13, teriyaki chicken 16.50, Kransky with mustard $12, strawberry crepe $9, icecream with ginger fragrance $6.

Drinks: Fully licensed.