Phone: (09) 360 0021
Rating out of 10: Food: 8, Service: 8, Value: 8, Ambience: 8
The four of us were sitting in Soto posing that daft question: "Which nation's food would you have if you could have only one?" and for the first time I realised that my long-standing allegiance to Italian food might be wavering.
One of the reasons for my Italian preference is its variety, but Soto reminded us that Japanese, at least in the form this restaurant calls "modern", can cover a great many bases far from the cliche of 101 ways with rice and raw fish.
A couple of the stand-out dishes in an enjoyable evening would have been at home on any Western menu. The french-cut lamb cutlets were as near perfection as you would wish - tender, but full of taste, with balsamic miso and a Japanese twist on ratatouille proving an appropriate foil.
The same assessment applied to the pork belly, melting in itself but turned into a gem with the accompanying medley of Asian vegetables.
We had started with a pleasing taste of what the restaurant described as one of its "remake" dishes, one of the favourites celebrating its 10 years in existence. This was tiger prawn wrapped in filo tempura, an effect achieved by slicing filo pastry into thin filaments and an illustration of two of the attributes which render good Japanese food so attractive.
You always have the impression the chefs are graduates of demanding training in
culinary technique, and the food is always aesthetically well presented, looking as good,
if not better, than it tastes.
The field is pretty crowded now with high-class newcomers entering the market but Soto maintained its reputation with a couple of the regulation dishes on our visit, including the pickles, earning "the best I've ever had" accolade.
There are, of course, stock items, with an impressive list of sushi and sashimi variants and several permutations of ordering style.
You can avoid the agonies of selection with tasting platters and set shared options but we dipped in and out of the various sections and, with helpful advice from the typically courteous, efficient staff, managed to keep everyone happy.
The Japanese scallop sashimi was delicious, very different from my beloved New Zealand variety, and the yellowtail kingfish was similarly well received. The tempura vegetable selection was just as it should be, crisp vegetables and a crunchy, grease-free batter.
Spring rolls are probably the despair of the pencil-slim nutritionist, but I'm a bit of a fan even if they rarely provide anything memorable. The white fish and egg variants, served here with plum sauce, were particularly good.
If the Japanese repertoire has a weakness it's in the area of comfort food, but Soto moves into this territory with its dessert menu, which escapes the regional boundaries with borrowings such as a cleverly layered strawberry millefeuille crepe cake and a baked yazu cheesecake with caramel sauce.
We usually are reticent about dessert but here we all went for three-sample options and were unanimous on the excellence of the sharp sorbet and the fragrant ginger and white miso creme brulee with a good green tea icecream and, the hit of the lot, the distinctive black sesame icecream.
The wine list is good and Soto obviously takes pride in its sake list. We benefited from the advice of the staff in being steered to an Otokoyama brewery Mountain Man dry sake, which went ideally with our meal.
This good food is served in elegant, simple surroundings in a welcoming atmosphere. We left with the favoured national cuisine debate unresolved but with Soto having scored a good few points for its country of origin.
Our meal: $293 for 10 dishes ranging from edamame beans at $4 and filo prawns at $6 to pork belly at $20, plus two beers, a glass of wine and sake for four.
Wine list: A list that would do any establishment proud and our Millton Riverpoint 2011 Gisborne Viognier lived up to its "interesting white" listing. Plus beers, sakes, plum wine, Japanese vodkas and whiskies.
Verdict: Elegant and tasty food well served in a stylish venue good for couples but also family friendly.