Review: Soto Restaurant, Ponsonby

By Peter Calder

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Address: 13 St Mary's Rd, Ponsonby
Ph: (09) 360 0021
Website: soto.co.nz
Herald on Sunday Rating: 4.5/5

Soto's degustation menu is the ideal way to approach the restaurant's food. Photo / Michael Craig
Soto's degustation menu is the ideal way to approach the restaurant's food. Photo / Michael Craig

Getting trolleyed seems to be a serious business in Japan. I've never been to the country, but from what I gather, drinking heavily is a major safety valve in a culture where the language has a specific word - karoshi - to describe dropping dead from overwork.

I suspect that a 100-hour-a-week Tokyo office slave on the verge of karoshi would not be necking Glorious Brocade by the cupful. He would be failing to savour what might be his last drink.

Glorious Brocade was among many sakes on a list that included such names as Lucky Lady, Devil Killer, Rich Old Man and Seven Laughs. It was the one recommended by our waitress when we said we liked our sake like our summer holidays - warm and dry - and one sip made me resolve never again to carelessly order the house drop at any sake bar.

It was dry yet deliciously unctuous, quite without a bite at the back of the throat, and yielding waves of flavour as it moved across the tongue. At $26 for a 300ml flask it wasn't cheap, but it was an unalloyed pleasure, and the perfect accompaniment for the treats to come.

Soto has had a serious refit since we were last here (hat-tip to the team at Designworks). The dark greens have given way to a bright and open room, with funky plywood panels (some referencing shaved lotus root) and bamboo-green tiles above the servery. There's also a huge hanging macrame which I didn't much care for, but the Professor said I should tell you I don't know what I'm talking about and it's a magnificent piece of rope sculpture.

When I first visited Soto, it was offering "new-style authentic Japanese cuisine", which seemed to me a potential contradiction in terms. They've dropped the "authentic" now, which is good, because, although there's nothing inauthentic about it at all, it has plenty to surprise and delight anyone whose experience of Japanese food is limited to sushi and sashimi.

The restaurant offers a $55-a-head degustation menu, which they call the Soto Signature Shared Selection, which would be the ideal way to approach the food, but you need a group of four at least, so the Professor and I were left to forage among the menu items ourselves.

This is a slightly arduous business since there is so much choice. The style of dining, called izakaya, is a Japanese take on tapas, and ranges from $8 (spring rolls) to around $30 (roast duck or sirloin steak or a seafood gratin with scallops, prawns and whitefish).

Resolving to avoid the obvious - which essentially meant not having anything we'd ever eaten at a Japanese restaurant before - we bypassed the sashimi, prawn tempura and nigiri sushi (that's the one not rolled in seaweed), but if what we did try is any guide it's a safe bet that they would all have been marvellous.

We had the "new-style" sashimi, a creation of the famous chef Nobu Matsuhisa, which livens the Japanese classic with the techniques of ceviche: sliced salmon has a sesame and (I think) garlic dressing, and is sprinkled with fresh jalapeno pepper. I'd been impressed by this divine concoction, close to what the Peruvians call tiradito, when I first tried it at Ebisu, and Soto's treatment was every bit as good.

Delicate spring rolls, filled with egg and white fish and served with a slightly sour plum dipping sauce, were as far as can be imagined from the grease-laden object found at Chinese takeaways.

Venison tataki was dressed with oil redolent of smoky mushrooms, and wasabi (better than any mustard for red meat).

Circular wraps, like tiny burrito shells, were topped with organic tofu grilled courgette and drizzled with a sweet mandarin miso, in striking a blend of New and Old Worlds, east and west. And beef tongue, which came two ways, smoked with a miso marinade and stewed in red wine, was sensational. Among the desserts (icecream choices are black sesame and green tea and there's a wonderful ginger and white miso creme brulee) the true revelation was small tomatoes soaked in mirin (sweet rice wine) and dipped in chocolate.

Served like tiny toffee-apples, they were an utter knockout, a genuine original that marks out the kitchen's adventurousness and inventiveness. If you haven't been to Soto for a while, a return visit is highly recommended.

Need to know

Value: $$$

$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks.)

Verdict

Inventive Japanese fusion food in sublime surroundings.

- Herald on Sunday

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