When you move away from your home turf to visit an unpretentious neighbourhood eatery and come back wishing it was in your own suburb, they are doing something right. In the case of Taiko in Kingsland they ticked all the boxes you might want - decent food, pleasant surroundings, welcoming service, good drinks list and reasonable prices.
Our first sight was not, one has to say, promising. The premises are tucked into an oddly shaped little bit of building next to a less than lovely railway station but once inside it's a different story. The surroundings have been made visually appealing with elegant Japanese touches, even if the furniture is utilitarian.
But that low-key style is only to be expected. Taiko calls itself an "izakaya" and we all know what that means, don't we? For those not familiar with the term, izakaya refers to establishments that are basically drinks venues but that also serve food. Yes, it's the Japanese version of the world-conquering tapas.
I'm not sure that Taiko has quite the same emphasis on drink as the Tokyo original, although there is a impressive sake list for any local who wishes to adopt the salary man's practice of loading up a few glasses while waiting for Auckland's equivalent of the bullet train, the arquebus express.
For those wanting to take on some calories in solid form the choice is large, even if most of the offerings are small. There are a few familiar main dishes; crumbed pork cutlet, silky tofu, salmon with teriyaki sauce and the like but, like most of the other customers within sight, we stuck to the long list of small plates backed with an equally
long sushi and sashimi menu.
I won't go through all the dishes we sampled but they were all welcome, if not uniformly stunning. Particularly good was the horenso of spinach with Japanese mushrooms, bright in colour and with a real flavour kick. Another stand-out was the takoyaki, octopus balls with chewy centres and topped with waving katsuobushi. This is, of course, a bit of showbiz with the shavings of fish curling and uncurling on top of the hot balls but the taste of the dried, fermented and smoked fish was a delight. I'm a pushover for tsukemono, those great Japanese pickles, and the offering here was up to the mark.
To give us a bit of carb-loading we turned to the sushi range and enjoyed our spider rolls of soft-shelled crab with avocado and cucumber. The pork belly, slow-cooked in a miso sauce, was a little disappointing and I'll stick to the western versions of this favourite. I also prefer the more conventional batter approach to tempura rather than this oddly threaded version, although it was certainly crisp enough.
As the dishes kept coming I thought we had bitten off more than we could chew, which is often a problem in the small plate system but our ordering, in consultation with the staff, turned out to be just right although it left no room for dessert. I was tempted by the usual green tea icecream and some might like chunks of marshmallow and coconut in vanilla icecream but we were happy to pass.
The service was excellent, with our waitress and the front-of-house man both observant and engaging. It was not a meal to linger over but for a modest spend we had eaten decently, been well treated and that's not a bad result at all.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $122.50 for eight small plates, and four glasses of wine.
Wine list: As befits a bar, there's a good range of drinks and the wine servings by the glass are generous. We stuck to Marlborough, with a 2011 Dog Point sauvignon blanc and a 2010 Dry Hills gewurztraminer which went beautifully with the food.
Verdict: A welcoming, warm venue equally suited for a quick drop-in meal or for a big gathering of friends.