Follow the herd to a Japanese buffet with an interactive difference, writes reviewer Kim Knight.
Haru No Yume
3 Vernon St, Freemans Bay
Ph: (09) 309 5446
WE SPENT: $161 for two
WE THOUGHT: 15.5 - Good
To my right, an impromptu lesson in how to hold chopsticks. To my left, instructions on the dip and swish (and swish again) of shabu-shabu.
The tableside interaction was a surprise. We were at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Usually people make eye contact only when they need another drink, fork or cheesecake.
It's dinner with a side of wilful avarice. Sure, you could tile a small roof with my empty oyster shells - but let us never speak of those 15 trips to the raw bar, because you gotta get ya money's worth, right?
Actually, at Haru No Yume, you pay extra for the oysters. And the first course comes to you. There is no need to pretend you're starting with a salad (we all know it's wall-to-wall camembert under that chopped iceberg) when everybody gets the same first sampler of sashimi, nigiri, two types of pickled seaweed, shredded daikon and a little pile of beef tataki with a sweetly delicious onion confit.
The smartest thing about this is that it slows down the pace of the evening and, I suspect, reduces food waste. Most of what's on your starter is also on the buffet table. When you finally visit the latter, it's with an educated palate. (Mine leaned towards the tataki with the moreish confit.)
Even the most moderate can go full Augustus Gloop at a buffet. But while other establishments slyly control the environment (small plates, torturous queues, labour intensive dishes) Haru No Yume appears to operate on trust and (gulp) politeness. Consider the prawns. The customary shell-on approach ensures the diner spends 40-minutes of their two-hour eating window battling an exoskeleton. Tiring for the customer; cost-effective for the restaurateur. Here, they are not just peeled, they are also tempura-ed. How many battered and fried prawns can one woman eat? This is the kind of journalism I trained hard for.
Most of the week, Haru No Yume is a standard Japanese-restaurant-in-New-Zealand. Sashimi, gyoza, karaage and katsu chicken, wafu steak, etc. The $57-a-head buffet is Friday and Saturday night only, with two sittings in a dining room full of fairy lights, dark wood panelling and a user-friendly sake list. If your previous experience of Japanese rice wine is limited to "hot" or "cold", you're going to love these tasting notes. Honeydew melon and enoki mushroom with a fresh springwater finish. Banana blossom, green grapes and sweet fennel. That's practically a meal in every $6-$16 shot glass.
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If the fairy lights don't convince you this is a date night restaurant, then the interactive second course might. Shabu-shabu is Japanese hot pot. Help yourself to dumplings, fish balls, robust green leafy vege, woodear fungus, noodles and thinly sliced beef before dipping, dunking, swishing and simmering it all in the bubbling pot of stock on the gas burner at your table. So much to do! So little time to discuss your children and/or mortgage!
On its own, the meat was tasteless (my fault - I soaked, when I should have swished). Douse it in something spicy and/or salty, watch the thin-skinned dumplings because they fall apart fast and don't be a snob about the fish balls. In Japan, surimi is an art form.
Were we paragons of steamy virtue? Not quite. I had five of those battered prawns and a little pile of eggplant. Grab this stuff as soon as it comes out because heat lamps do not bring out the best in anything. The tempura was tough, the karaage chicken was soggy on the outside and dry on the inside. Takoyaki fared surprisingly well and - bonus - were not as blisteringly, molten hot as their street-stall fresh version.
We ate more sushi, quite a lot more raw kingfish and salmon, a little green salad (truly) and no chawanmushi because even though I am quite fond of this savoury custard, I was stuffed.
Dessert was the buffet bog-standard self-serve soft-serve with assorted sprinkles, plus small slices of chocolate cake that looked like someone had forgotten to put it away last week. I thought we'd probably skip all of this but the herd was emboldened. At a buffet, where one goes, 27 follow. That cake turned out to be a dense and chewy brownie. The vegan chocolate icecream was unbelievably dark and delicious and tiny little house-made lemon meringues dissolved on the tongue like a sugary sherbert. It was like they had never existed. I went back at least twice to check.