Cocoro, Ponsonby

By Peter Calder

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Herald on Sunday rating: 4/5
Address: 56a Brown St
Ph: (09) 360 0927

Cocoro's fitout takes its cue from the Japanese aesthetic sensibility of simplicity. Photo / Janna Dixon
Cocoro's fitout takes its cue from the Japanese aesthetic sensibility of simplicity. Photo / Janna Dixon

In the early 90s, I wrote a piece for the Herald in which I sought to demystify for readers (and myself) a cuisine that was newly making its presence felt on the local culinary scene: Japanese.

Under the expert guidance of the effortlessly courteous Masa Sekikawa, I ate at several Japanese restaurants including Ariake - the only one that was already an established presence and which is now, alas, extinct - and was initiated into the splendours of sashimi, tempura and teppanyaki.

Less than 20 years later, sushi is the lunchtime dish of choice for city office workers; gyoza dumpling and ramen noodle bars are an established fixture in cheap-eats precincts; Kiwis happily put away tonnes of raw fish each year; New Zealand wasabi growers export to Japan. Can sake and Red Bull cocktails be far behind?

In such a context, it's hard for a Japanese restaurant to stand out from the crowd. Gion in Parnell, Soto in St Mary's Bay, Bowz Teppan at Greenwoods Corner and Sake Bar 601 in Morningside have all impressed.

So does Cocoro, established in October in a quiet Ponsonby side street.

It's the showcase restaurant of Makoto Tokuyama - formerly head chef at Soto - and in line with the sublime Japanese aesthetic sensibility, the fitout is simplicity itself: rails of white pine partially line the walls and ceiling, enough to soften but not conceal the rough-cast concrete interior of the old brick building in Brown St of which Cocoro has a small part.

The 40 seats include those at a large central table where singles can eat cafe-style or couples sit side-by-side, and the walls, it transpires, are the only rough thing about the place. White linen, curve-backed chairs and table settings composed with the meticulousness of a zen garden combine to provide a soothing impression as we take our seats.

The six-course degustation menu we are to be served - the only menu for which Cocoro takes reservations - is called "ichigo ichie", which means "one opportunity, one encounter". It all sounds terribly solemn and it bears saying that if you're out for a celebratory knees-up, this is not the place. I'm sure they'd be too polite to ask you to keep quiet, but you wouldn't "get" the food. For, more than is usual even in a Japanese restaurant, Cocoro's experience is to be savoured.

Impressively, they checked in advance whether we had any allergies (the Professor suggested we say we were fine with anything except rice and fish, but since I fancy the Japanese concept of irony is somewhat more refined than hers, I did not pass it on).

I did express some reservations when I arrived about sashimi of fugu, the highly toxic pufferfish that can paralyse your lungs in seconds if you get an ineptly prepared bit (a skilful chef will make your lips go numb and tingle, but let you survive). It wasn't on the menu, which was just as well, since a few thin slices usually set you back $100 or so.

What we got instead was six "courses" that referenced, but never duplicated, the Japanese food with which we were familiar.

Apart from the dessert and two lamb cutlets (the latter slow-roasted at 68C, a temperature at which the fibres soften but do not shrink), seafood predominated, but the treatment was always striking and original. The marinated octopus, served with seaweed and sweet ginger, was faintly crunchy, not rubbery at all; a trio course of sashimi, nigiri sushi and a fat Stewart Island oyster in ponzu vinegar came to the table in a lacquered box which opened like a doll's house. Other highlights included a velvety chawanmushi (a savoury custard containing a single queen scallop); a gratin of scallop, prawn and oyster with a delicate miso sauce; a dish of salmon and snapper, steamed together so that they interlocked like lovers.

Cocoro is no budget destination: the degustation is only just less than the price of three courses at, say, Vinnies. But there is a cheaper "tapas" menu for what the Japanese call izakaya-style dining, which includes much of the above, as well as standards and less familiar (grilled Kransky sausage!) dishes which make a good excuse to browse at leisure in the voluminous sake list. Either way, it's one encounter to treasure.

Ambience: Serene
Vegetarians: Do you eat fish?
Watch out for: The sake list - four dozen labels
Bottom line: Savour this

$218 for two

Degustation (2): $160
Sake: $48
Water: $10

- NZ Herald

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