Restaurant review: Cocoro, Ponsonby

By Peter Calder

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Address: 56a Brown St, Ponsonby
Phone: (09) 360 0927
Online: cocoro.co.nz

Chef Makoto Tokuyama. Photo / Getty Images
Chef Makoto Tokuyama. Photo / Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, I remarked in a review of a Kingsland place that it was the fifth occupant of its premises in the past decade. It is, of course, far from alone in being a site of furious turnover. Life in the restaurant business can be precarious and, making matters worse, places flourish that deserve to fail and vice versa.

So it was a pleasure to hear that this Japanese place had reached the grand old age of 6 - and, what's more, that founding chef Makoto Tokuyama is still in charge. Tucked down in the Brown St dip, between Ponsonby Rd and Richmond Rd, Cocoro impressed when it opened and its sixth anniversary special offer (the degustation at 2008 prices), made a return a no-brainer.

The restaurant's name means something like "heart and soul" or "through and through", which is apt, because it is Japanese to the core. Its modern take is billed as "ichigo ichie" (literally "one opportunity, one encounter"), a reminder to treasure each experience since it will never recur. It's a phrase that underlines how Japanese cuisine is an experience that is equal parts gastronomic, aesthetic and spiritual. This is the country, after all, where they have a word for the sadness that tinges the joy aroused by something beautiful because you are aware its beauty is transitory.

The restaurant - white linen, black furniture and meticulous table settings - is high-end in its way, though not all options are eye-wateringly expensive. You can get a good idea of Tokuyama's food for under $50 at lunchtime or blow $145 ahead on a sushi-and-sashimi set menu that makes me moan with pleasure just to read about it.

But the best angle of approach is probably the degustation (regular price $90), eight exquisitely refined small dishes that will upend the expectations you may have developed in food halls and sushi bars, many of which have no Japanese input at all.

I went to Japan for a couple of weeks last year on a trip long postponed because of the horror stories I had heard about the expense. But with a bit of forward planning, travel and accommodation are no dearer than here and eating can be positively cheap. Street food is excellent and the basements of department stores are wonderlands of takeaway delights.

Sure, you can blow $400 on 20 pieces of sushi at Sukiyabashi Jiro (assuming you managed to get a table), though I hear it's gone downhill a bit, and the steakhouses certainly set you back, but wandering in our Kyoto neighbourhood one dinnertime, we peeped through the little noren curtain into a tiny, one-man kaiseki operation (kaiseki is the name given to a meal made of many small and perfectly composed dishes) where we ate seven courses of dazzling originality for about $60 a head.

Cocoro brought the memory of that experience flooding back. They give you a menu when you arrive (along with a small bowl of lotus-root crisps) but I ignored it, preferring to sit back and wait for whatever would happen.

The waitstaff deliver an explanatory introduction to each dish, but, as it turned out, that menu provided a useful key to identify ingredients. It's not always helpful unless you know your karashi from your wasabi or your aosa nori from other kinds of seaweed, but since I'd never met salmon cartilage before, it was good to have it named. Fortunately, there isn't an exam at the end.

And so it came, a procession of small impeccably composed delights: a single tempura oyster was followed by a selection of sushi and sashimi that came in a box you folded out like a doll's house, together with a stalk of fresh wasabi and a tiny, rough board on which you could grate your own paste.

Salmon, cured in a kombu (seaweed) stock and seared in the flaring flame of a bunch of straw, was decorated with a large fleck each of that salmon cartilage and a scale, tiny chopstickful morsels that were just the right size to appreciate. Tofu with whitebait was intriguingly slippery.

Later, slightly larger courses were slightly routine by comparison: karaage (lightly battered) snapper and teriyaki chicken, but they and two precise miniature desserts rounded off a terrific performance.

Sushi shops in suburban malls have cheapened the currency of Japanese cuisine in Auckland. Cocoro offers a chance to be reminded that it is food for eye and palate, heart and soul.

Set menus $89; $145; $188.
VERDICT: Japanese food as it is meant to be.

- Spy.co.nz

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