Despite several train trips into town from Kingsland, I'd never noticed Taiko, the buzzy Japanese restaurant that sits on the right-hand corner as you head down to the train station. But now that we know it's there, Taiko stands out like a beacon: our first stop in Kingsland for Japanese food at reasonable prices with great service thrown in.
At first the restaurant doesn't feel particularly Japanese. There's less of that super-clean fastidiousness and attention to detail we usually associate with Japanese dining and the atmosphere is much more rowdy and exciting too.
There's also a cool bar, wild chalked street art and signs, plus Ian, the maitre d' and chief waiter, welcomed us with genuine enthusiasm and added a fun dimension that fitted well with our party animal friends. As for the food, we were immediately presented with an offer too good to turn down. For $35 a head, Ian elected to put together a bit of a banquet, specially tailored to our needs (no dairy or meat for two of us).
He started by bringing us bowls of crunchy, slightly sweet lotus root and a heaped dish of broccoli, rolled first in mayonnaise, then sesame seeds. Although the broccoli was towards the raw end of crunchy, it was delicious, while the lotus root was a high point of the meal. It showed up in a variety of dishes in different disguises - for instance, roasted to a crisp on the top of an icecream sundae.
But back to our meal, which started with what seemed like an entire smoked eel transformed into sushi rolls. Served with a teriyaki sauce and with fresh avocado and cucumber woven into the rice, it looked amazing and tasted beautiful too. Next came a sashimi of mainly raw tuna and then a bowl of delicious hot octopus balls waving their feelers (of katsuobushi) in a final farewell.
By now we all had bottles of Asahi beer, which was not quite cold enough for the scorching night but a lifesaver nevertheless and the food kept coming. The chicken (karage) was chunky-cut, tender thigh meat, smothered in a sweet-savoury "Wa-Fu" ginger sauce. The calamari was coated and served with a tartare sauce, then along came the huge prawns in a tempura-style batter, again a pretty-near perfect example of the genre.
"Just two more plates," Ian sang out as he passed our table for the umpteenth time and I undid another button. They were, of course, our main courses. First was the hot teriyaki salmon, which was silky and delectable; second was a large portion of sliced rare sirloin of beef, with a delicious side of mashed sweet potatoes. Again the ingredients were first class, the dishes exquisitely prepared and always he gave us exactly the right number of pieces to share, with something different for the vegetarian.
If there's any fault to Taiko, eating this way speeds up the experience just a little too much for our liking, so we loitered over a few glasses of wine, soaking up the atmosphere before we asked for the dessert menu.
Taiko draws a mixed crowd. This Tuesday, when we arrived at 7pm, there were after-work drinkers at the bar, young families with children in tow, business people a bit later, rowdy youngsters looking for a solid meal before hitting the bars - and a table of young lovers in the corner. The wooden tables were square and roomy allowing plenty of room for our dishes, and the dessert card listed five options, all of them various icecream dishes: sesame, green tea and coconut which, sadly for me, was unavailable. Best by far was Yukimi Daifuku, the "genuine Japanese icecream, served with berries and syrup drizzled over". The Japanese do icecream better than the rest of us with a sticky sort of marshmallow layer, or was that the texture all the way through? And there was that hallmark of Taiko, a slice of baked lotus leaf on top.
So we strode out into the night, thrilled with new find and marvelling at our bill of $213. Of that, $140 was for our 11 main courses, $12 each for dessert plus beer and wine. Taiko is excellent value close to the heart of town. And it's on the city rail loop.
Our meal: $213 for a banquet of 11 dishes plus three desserts, five glasses of Asahi beer and two glasses of wine.
Our drinks: Taiko offers an interesting and wide-ranging choice for a neighbourhood bar and restaurant. There's an excellent range of sakes, several Japanese beers on tap and many more by the bottle, plus a surprisingly good selection of New Zealand wines.
Verdict: Taiko is casual Japanese at its best. The food, selected and prepared by Japanese chefs, is authentic and innovative: the service friendly and even if you push the boat out, as we did, manager Ian's banquet of the day selection, at $35 a head, makes it exciting and terrific value.