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Herald on Sunday Rating: 4.5/5
Address: 116-118 Quay Street, Britomart
Phone: (09) 300 5271
The Tyler St entrance to Ebisu is unobtrusive to say the least. A small illuminated sign bearing the name of a popular Japanese beer glows above a dark doorway. It looks like a back door because - as I discovered after I had used it - it is. But it's a nice way to come in: it gives the feeling of a slightly underground, very chic place, which is a fair description of Ebisu.
This Britomart restaurant, which offers "contemporary Japanese cuisine", was, in August, named the "people's choice" on the website biglittlecity.co.nz. Quite what that means I don't know. I had a testy exchange of views with a PR flack who couldn't see any problem with announcing the result on the site, as its readers simultaneously named their five favourite restaurants in town, none of which was Ebisu.
But like a handful of other places, it serves Japanese food that steps outside the well-trodden sushi-tempura-udon territory.
Ebisu (the name comes from the god of fishermen) doesn't take bookings, except for large groups, so I was relieved to see there were plenty of tables and alarmed when the waitress led me to a spot behind a glass screen near the front door.
It looked like the place to park a geriatric parent, which was perhaps what I looked like to her; I suppose I increased the average customer age by several years.
"It's warmer and quieter here," she explained and I resisted the temptation to cup a hand around my ear and bellow "What did you say, dear?"
The Professor was taking some time to park the car because, as it transpired, she had to negotiate an IMF loan to pay for it.
So by the time she arrived, I had taken in the surroundings of the former warehouse. The original kauri pillars and rough brick walls contrast nicely with the brown leather and dark wood of the fit-out.
The menu includes plenty of familiar dishes, right down to the salmon-and-avocado roll, though the only tempura dish is prawns that look to be the size of a baby's arm. But this is definitely a place to try something new.
Even though we're big fans of the straight-up sashimi platter, my eye was drawn to the bottom of the sushi/sashimi list where it mentioned "new-style mixed sashimi". This turned out to be a divine concoction in which the fish - generous slices of kingfish, salmon and silver-skinned snapper - was mixed with big cucumber ribbons, flying-fish roe and ginger, before being delicately drizzled with a sesame dressing and served with a line of wasabi mayo. It was a fabulously fresh treatment of raw fish, which may make it hard to return to standard sashimi.
I am not usually a fan of tofu but may have to rethink that after trying Ebisu's version: deep-fried then cooled, it arrives looking like cubes of coconut-ice and melts in the mouth like a toasted marshmallow. A crunchy topping of those sprout-like enokitake mushrooms, also deep-fried, makes a perfect contrast of texture.
By this time, dishes were landing thick and fast: scallops with mushrooms and a soy butter sauce were wickedly indulgent and big slices of grilled eggplant, glistening with a soy glaze, almost sparked fisticuffs at the table as the Professor - who's normally rather couth, despite coming from Dannevirke - tried to get more than her share.
Pride of place had to be awarded to a fabulous piece of scotch fillet, done perfectly medium-rare, sliced into chopstick-friendly slabs and served with three sauces: wasabi ponzu, sesame soy and one called wafu.
No one seemed to know what the third was, though later Googling tells me that it means "Japanese style", which is not terribly helpful, but it was damn fine.
We finished with a modest dessert selection including apple doughnuts that were more apple than doughnut, which was nice, and made a mental note to get down here more often.
The slightly intrusive service aside - clearing the table and offering dessert is not meant to be a speed test - this is like seeing an old friend in new threads, a most enjoyable experience.
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks.)
Tyler St Garage (09) 300 5279, next door to Ebisu, is hot.
For imaginative Japanese, try Gion, 197 Parnell Rd, (09) 379 3344.