Let's Eat: Beautiful way to break the rules

By Peter Calder

Musashi
64 Waimarie St St Heliers
Ph: (09) 575 2827
www.musashirestaurant.co.nz
Stars: 4/5
Price: 1/3

The salmon came to the table on a spirit burner. Photo / Doug Sherring
The salmon came to the table on a spirit burner. Photo / Doug Sherring

A bloke who ran a restaurant in one of Auckland's southernmost suburbs wrote to me once to complain that reviewers never venture outside an area bounded by Pt Chevalier Rd, Mt Albert Rd, Manukau Rd and Parnell Rd.

He had forgotten the bays along Tamaki Drive, which have in recent years shrugged off their status as the Land that Food Forgot, but he had a point. Here's why. That area is where all the decent restaurants are (well, almost all; see below). The rest of the map should be emblazoned with some gastronomic equivalent of the legend that medieval cartographers used for terra incognita: "Here Be Dragons."

Once in a while, though, someone breaks the rules beautifully. Think the Maple Room, Mexican Specialties, Coco, a couple of places on the Shore. And Musashi.

This splendid little Japanese place, named after a famous samurai, is in a woebegone block of shops a few hundred metres on from where the road leaves the waterfront at St Heliers.

The night we were there, three of the seven premises were vacant and the window display in another, a sweet shop, consisted of a sign advertising a business in another part of the city.

The suburban shops, where there used to be a butcher, a greengrocer and a specialist such as a lawnmower repair, are closer to historical relics than reality these days. But someone forgot to tell the people at Musashi. On the Sunday evening we were there, when Auckland was still supposed to be at the beach, it was packed and they were turning people away. I was glad I'd booked.

The space doesn't exactly ooze old Kyoto. They have made a valiant attempt to draw the diner's eye away from the banal chocolate-coloured brickwork with light fixtures of rough-sawn creosoted pine, which reminded me of a letterbox or Ned Kelly's helmet. But if they are not big on paper lanterns and those lovely doorway half-curtains called noren, they do the business: chef and owner Satoru Aoki dishes up Japanese food that surprises and delights.

Fans of the sushi-sashimi-tempura-tonkatsu standards will find plenty to amuse them here. The online menu, which seems to have been composed for no other purpose than to irritate people using it, makes it seem like there is a practically endless list of possibilities, but in-house you get a large document usefully illustrated with colour photographs that give you a pretty good idea what you are in for.

The Professor and I were just back from a week at the beach in the Far North where I cooked each night the freshest of fish (hat tip to the good folks at Apatu Aqua in Coopers Beach). But we were ready for something that had more by way of seasoning than black pepper and lemon juice: we decided to steer in unfamiliar directions.

This meant choosing two dishes, called yaki, which were cooked on the table top. This is easier than it sounds, because we didn't do anything. The dishes, one of snapper and one of salmon, arrived on the table on a spirit burner which was duly set alight. We savoured the smells and tried (and failed) not to peep under the lid.

The minute attention to detail that is the hallmark of Japanese cuisine was on show: in one, slabs of snapper on a bamboo leaf were accompanied by roasted eggplant; in the slightly more wintry salmon dish, thickish slices bubbled in a delicate broth with prawns and julienned zucchini, the whole sitting on a leaf of the Japanese magnolia called hooba.

We filled in the waiting time with a variety of distractions familiar and unfamiliar: a Japanese lemonade that tasted just like 1950s bubblegum and came in a bottle stoppered with a glass marble; edamame beans, much younger and juicier than I've often encountered, and made more delicious with the addition of garlic; meltingly succulent eggplant baked with white miso; seared beef tenderloin sliced paper-thin in the tataki style, which we ate as if it were sashimi, with wasabi and soy sauce; agedashi (deep-fried) tofu that managed a crisp skin without being even slightly oily and an interior that melted on the tongue. I would urge avoiding the dessert menu, which is inspired by the icecream-sundae school, but in general this is an excellent, value-for-money suburban eatery. No wonder it's hard to get in.

Verdict: Suburban satisfaction

- Herald on Sunday

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