Can't get to the rugby? Eat (and drink) like you're there at this excellent new Japanese restaurant in Kingsland. Reviewed by Kim Knight.
Japanese Lantern Street Bar
484 New North Rd, Kingsland
Ph: (09) 815 8057
WE SPENT: $159.50
WE THOUGHT: 17 - Great
In case you haven't heard, Japan is an island country in East Asia. It has a population of 126 million, its major industries include motor vehicles and electronics and, oh yeah, next week it hosts this thing called the Rugby World Cup.
If Japan is not yet on your radar, you'll be hard pressed to avoid it for the next month as this country becomes a walking statistic with an expert opinion on groin strains.
Rugby is not my thing. I can't, however, get enough of Japanese food. Clearly, I am not alone. On a recent Saturday night, Japanese Lantern Street Bar was only slightly less packed than Shibuya Crossing.
I had been to this Kingsland space before, once in its incarnation as a Spanish restaurant that did the best baby octopus I've eaten in Auckland and then again as a cafe that specialised in crepes. Third time lucky? I hope so, because the food and service at Japanese Lantern is excellent.
You sit on the long banquette seat or a surprisingly comfortable plastic crate. The counter stools are occupied by solo diners and the entire place is strung with paper lanterns and painted wooden signboards. The wine list is short, so you might consider starting with a sake or a cheap as (renkon) chips sake cocktail - ours was $10 and light and bright with yuzu and tonic.
The menu introduces wara-yaki cooking, in which food is flavoured with the "roaring flames from burning straw". Two staff members looked sorrowful when we said we had not ordered the lamb rack. I can vouch for the Ora king salmon ($23 for 120g) that was like mouthfuls of molten silk and the beef sirloin ($23 for 200g) - a multitude of barely cooked bites, seasoned with snowy, slightly spicy, grated daikon.
Eel is not so commonly served in New Zealand restaurants. This was one was a stunner - a large piece, sticky with sweet soy. Unagi, it turns out, is a controversial dish. The Japan Times reports eel stocks are low and the preparation is labour-intensive: "The hands of a veteran unagi chef are gasp-inducing - the fingers scarred, stained and punctured from years of slitting and piercing, the palms thick, red and callused from the grilling."
A date-night buffet where shabu-shabu takes care of the small-talk
Soup: To drink or not to drink? That is the question...
I read this and realise I could nearly always better appreciate the sheer amount of work that goes into Japanese cuisine. Consider the shrimp skewers ($9 for two). Five crustaceans per bamboo spike. Each one gutted, peeled and carefully cooked for maximum plump and flavour. A separate swirl of yum yum sauce on each individual shrimp. You could smash these in a second or take your cue from the tables where conversation is lively but the consumption more thoughtful. I notice this at Chinese yum cha and French bistros, too. Kiwis scoff; other cultures savour.
Tonight, however, was not the night to break habits of a hungry lifetime. In Japanese convenience stores you can buy a wonderfully addictive scallop, soy and butter potato crisp. Japanese Lantern offers actual scallops with the same flavour profile (plus garlic), but they also do a $9 mixed mushroom version. Fresh shiitake and (I think) shimeji mushrooms were hot and salty and, officially, my favourite vegetable dish of the 2019 reviewing year.
Japanese Lantern Bar has a sister in Onehunga (Sashimi Bar Ajimi) and the owners also operate Taste of Japan - one of the most popular offerings in the Auckland Night Market line-up. The chef, we were told, was a grilling expert. More skewers?
Chicken livers ($7) were made elegant on a pale board, doused in yakitori sauce and served with a Lilliputian pile of tingly sancho pepper (weirdly minty and an excellent foil to the rich offal). This dish was way prettier than the street food version but I could still feel the iron in every, visceral bite.
We ordered karaage chicken because it was only $6 for four pieces. The breast meat chunks must have been brined (they were extremely juicy), however, I didn't love the crispy coating as much as I expected. Perhaps I had finally bitten off more than I could chew? Our avarice was drawing attention - the barkeep stopped by to discuss another cocktail and hand out a business card so we could make future bookings. No arguments here - I'd already mentally ordered the sashimi that arrives in a puff of instagrammable dry ice.