"Turning Japanese , I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so" is the catchy chorus of a tune by The Vapors.
It could well be the theme song of the restaurant world at the moment. If not Japanese, it's definitely modern Asian and it's global. What is it about Japanese food that is suddenly so "now"?
Yes, it is being served in the most contemporary of environments (fitouts that ring up major dollar signs), it is being exquisitely plated on artisan Japanese pottery, it totally bows to the refined and highly styled Japanese aesthetic and it is entirely au courant. If anyone should know, it's Nic Watt. He's been leading the charge around the world and the fruition of a year's planning is his spectacular new space in Federal St, Masu.
"Japanese food honours the ingredients. It is healthy food, it's perfect for sharing and it's interactive. It is flexible and great for grazing.
In its modern style, it's informal and as such it has wide appeal that suits today's eating patterns and way of living."
Nic spent his teenage years in New Zealand and grew to love our seafood. After graduating, it is the typical route for a young chef to head to Europe. Nic took the path less travelled and went to Japan. After spending several years in the disciplined environment of Japanese kitchens and learning the language on the job, Nic ended up in London at the famed Michelin-starred Nobu.
A three-year stint back in New Zealand saw him as as executive chef at Huka Lodge, before being enticed back to London to launch Roka. Roka is one of the world's most highly regarded restaurant groups and as chief operating officer he was responsible for its global expansion.
In New Zealand again, Nic has a wealth of knowledge about restaurant operation, systems and business structures and of course, Japanese food. He also brought back Darren Johnson as his head chef. Darren also grew up in New Zealand and he and Nic have worked extensively together. Nic's prerequisite to agreeing to set up Masu was that Darren was part of the picture and as a result some major talent has landed in amongst Auckland's dining scene.
Masu serves Robata food. In Japanese cuisine robatayaki (shortened to robata) literally means fireside cooking.
The method is similar to barbecue, items of food on skewers are slowly grilled over hot charcoal. It is based on a centuries-old cooking style developed by fishermen cooking around a communal hearth with a heavy emphasis on seafood and vegetables. Nowadays other meats and poultry are included, and, at Masu not all of the food is grilled, the freshest of seafood is served in its natural state accompanied by perfect flavour notes.
The robata cooking hearth is the epicentre of Masu. Nic has designed the restaurant to ensure it is visible from all points within the room, the open kitchen providing a well-orchestrated performance space. Chefs are required to be totally conscious of Japanese kitchen discipline, their boards and knives must be placed in a certain manner and there is a calm and refined manner in the way they approach their work. All ingredients are given high respect and plated on an extraordinarily beautiful collection of hand-made plates and bowls. Large raku-fired vessels arrive at the table with exquisite displays of artful food kept cool on beds of ice. It's all a long way from the rustic fisherman's fire.
Without turning this story into a restaurant review, you cannot help but be amazed at the attention given to all elements in this space. In the Japanese manner, it is all in the detail. There are no jarring moments, a huge amount of thought has gone into every design descion; a laser light is used to line up the table settings so as not to disturb the calm flow of the eye. Several months of experimentation was needed to get the perfect ochre-coloured straw-textured entrance wall.
Equal weight has been given to the simplest of wooden vessels to the subtle Champagne-bubbled glass wall that separates the private dining area. It's all in balance - the finest of food, a perfect room and world-class restaurant talent.
One of the features of Masu is the bar where deoxygenated ice is hand-chipped to chill down glasses of Shochu (Japanese vodka), which is flavoured in Kume jars with all manner of ingredients. Nic has introduced a Kiwi note using tamarillo and kiwifruit, alongside the more traditional options. The idea is that Masu regulars will purchase their own Kume jar to be filled with their customised blend.
Although this food is complex in its detail, Nic assures me you can replicate some of his dishes at home. Welcome back to New Zealand Nic Watt.