Address: 244 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Phone: (09) 376 9909

A lot of Japanese restaurants here are not. Japanese that is. A friend of mine discovered this when she went from sushi bar to sushi bar seeking a translation of the warning message on the dashboard screen of her Japanese import. "We don't know," all the staff said, beaming with evident pride. "We are Korean."

Now, I'm not obsessive about the chef having the same nationality as the cuisine, but when I spent a couple of weeks in Japan last year, my contention that New Zealand was a great place to eat Japanese food took a hell of a dent.

At this Ponsonby Rd newcomer, in the spot formerly occupied by Thai Me Up, some of the choices are dispiritingly generic. Thai, Vietnamese and even Chinese touches are evident: a "bigger plate" choice of beef and veg with wasabi pepper sauce was positively food-hall. But among the small plates are hidden treasures.

It's certainly no standard sushi and tempura joint (although it serves both). Head chef Takashi Shitamoto, who has done time at the fabled Nobu and is blowfish-certified (it's a licence to not kill and if you don't know what it means, look it up; it's fascinating), presides at a bar that is, like most of the interior surfaces, blond wood.


A backlit shelf unit of handsome bowls on the opposite wall references the array of crockery you will see behind the shokunin (master chef) in the modest but stunning one-man kaiseki operations in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Among his chef's specials are a sashimi plate on which the sensationally fresh fish was interspersed with lavender buds, onion flowers, paper-thin slices of radish, seeds and berries. Kingfish with a "green sauce" that I would have called fresh herbs was another state-of-the-art item on a raw and nigiri sushi menu that runs to 10 choices.

The stuff further down is the work of a busy and ethnically varied kitchen staff out the back. The gyoza dumplings (there are pork and vegetarian options) are connected by the distinctive delicate sheet of starch that marks out the true handmade specimen: the Japanese call these hanetsuki (winged) gyoza and they make a wonderful sight on the plate. Equally impressive are slightly spicy prawns served on skewers standing like lollipops in a rack and cubes of agedashi tofu, the surface textured like coconut marshmallow, in a rich, faintly peaty broth.

The most intriguing offering came as a shot glass topped with a small spinach leaf you are meant to form into a cone into which you pour the glass' contents (shallot, dried shrimp, coconut and other delights). Though refreshing and unusual, it needs a rejig or at least a couple more leaves to really work.

To judge by online chatter, Namo had a shaky start, but it has certainly sharpened up. My advice is to order from the top half of the menu. And go soon. I rather fancy Shitamoto is bound for better things.

Small plates $7-$14; salads $9-$16; bigger plates $18-$22
Verdict: The master's work is better than the bigger plates.