Auckland Restaurant Review: Korean Bistro Kookoo Debuts On Dominion Road, Angling To Make The Best Bird In Town

By Jesse Mulligan
The bulgogi roast chicken, fried chicken and kimchi pancake on the menu at Kookoo restaurant on Dominion Road. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Korean

Address: 245 Dominion Road, Mount Eden

Phone: 0274 408 589

Drinks: Fully licensed

Reservations: Accepted

From the menu: Kimchi pancake $24; green salad $13; rose cream udon $15; sweet chilli fried chicken (half) $22; bulgogi roast chicken (half) $22

Rating: 14/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing,

My excellent colleague Kim Knight, reviewing Kookoo in Canvas, noted the style of cuisine as anju, a Korean concept meaning “food to soak up your alcoholic drinks”. But on the night I visited I was in desperate need of some drinks to soak up the food.

It is a charming restaurant in many ways but the service was barely there — it took our table 15 minutes to be offered a beer and even then they wanted our food order too. Out-of-fashion though this view is, I think a first drink loosener is a pretty crucial part of most restaurant occasions (not to mention a crucial part of that restaurant being able to pay the bills), so when my first bottle of Cass arrived at the same time as four plates of kai, I couldn’t help but feel a little ripped off.

Kookoo is replete with blonde tables and dark green walls on Dominion Road. Photo / Babiche Martens
Kookoo is replete with blonde tables and dark green walls on Dominion Road. Photo / Babiche Martens

The staff are hard to get cross with, mind you. They are helpful when you see them and have a lovely manner but just don’t seem to quite have their eyes on what needs to happen next. With some difficulty, we managed to order a second drink by calling out to someone on their way past (the New Zealand social equivalent of driving your car through the front window) but a third round proved impossible. Their business plan is clearly based around fried chicken.

It’s that crunchy battered stuff that gets all the attention but the waitress conceded that she actually preferred the roast chicken, so we ordered a plate of each and compared them head to head.

She was right — the roasted version is great, with a light taste of smoke in the flesh — and though I’m not qualified to tell you whether baking a chook in the oven is common in South Korea, it tastes delicious and authentic with a bulgogi marinade, arriving at your table on an iron skillet before the server takes a pair of metal scissors and snips the bird into shareable pieces, a surprisingly satisfying ritual to observe.

Underneath the chicken is a little pile of glutinous rice, which thanks to the bulgogi and the rice’s own natural qualities sticks and caramelises a little on the skillet. You get to scrape it off the tray along with the scorched marinade residue and if there’s a more crave-able mouthful of food in the city I’d be surprised.

The sweet chilli fried chicken. Photo / Babiche Martens
The sweet chilli fried chicken. Photo / Babiche Martens

The fried chicken is just what you’ve been hoping for, probably, and because I was a little nervous about ordering the very hot version following my humiliation at Simon and Lee a few years ago, I went for the “most popular” sweet chilli option, which hit the spot — that batter crunchy but with some chew to it, the pink glaze sticky and scattered with sesame seeds (there is also a “cheese powder” chicken option which might be worth a look in case, as a New Zealander, your natural aversion to very processed cheese products is outweighed by your desire to eat a Very Korean Thing).

The environment is noisy — possibly the noisiest restaurant I can remember visiting. I say this as a reviewer who almost never thinks or writes about ambient sound despite how crucial to the dining experience a good portion of my audience finds it. Kookoo’s volume level is about what you’d expect from a wooden box on Karangahape Road full of young people — that’s not a criticism, just something you ought to know before booking.

Actually, it’s not quite a wooden box as there is an unusual little alcove on one side of the room presumably left over from an awkward renovation. I’m not sure if tables in this quaint space are more or less sought after but I loved our spot in the front window, with a great view of the best of Dominion Road, and only a little physical contortion needed to slip out between bench seat and table and head to the toilet facilities outside.

The kimchi pancake. Photo / Babiche Martens
The kimchi pancake. Photo / Babiche Martens

The best thing about Kookoo, you’ll have guessed, is the food, which is spicy and moreish. I loved a silky bowl of udon noodles in a “rose cream” sauce which reminded me of laksa — though sadly we didn’t get a spoon to help with all the soup at the bottom. There were fragments of prawn hiding throughout and an extremely big hit of garlic which added spiky flavour to this excellent dish.

A green salad is a nice break from the full-on stuff, dressed in a tasty Korean-style vinaigrette. And there’s a lovely indulgence to the jeon pancake, fried until golden crunchy, with plenty of kimchi inside the batter and (speaking of indulgent) mozzarella melted on top.

“They were so sweet, excited to be in Viva,” reported our photographer Babiche Martens, who presumably visited during quieter times. “I hope you weren’t too rough on them!”

Probably a bit rough, reading back. This’ll be a perfect restaurant for some, and for others just a place to find good food and not so much else. If they dial up the service a little, I’ll be happy to recommend it to everyone.

From dining out editor Jesse Mulligan.

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