Jesse Mulligan’s Auckland Restaurant Review: Azabu Mission Bay Is Utterly Sizzling

By Jesse Mulligan
The rainbow sushi, chicken and salmon yakitori and artichoke dumplings on the menu at Azabu restaurant in Mission Bay. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Japanese-Peruvian

Address: 44 Tamaki Drive, Mission Bay

Reservations: Accepted

Phone: (09) 930 7360

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Rainbow sushi $28; snapper and scallop tiradito $28; edamame $10; artichoke dumplings $22; kids’ bento box $18 ea; chicken yakitori $16; cucumber salad

Rating: 17/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

I’m trying to think of another restaurant that integrates so perfectly with its environment. The closest I can think of is Takapuna Beach Cafe, where you actually feel like you’re at the beach when you eat there (bonus, you don’t have to check the Safeswim website before you book a table).

But Azabu Mission Bay goes a step further, offering outdoor tables with gate access to the local playground, and an additional dining area that is technically within the restaurant but has no external wall, so you are almost side by side with the people tossing frisbees and passing around quiche on warm picnic blankets.

It’s not going too far to say you’re sharing an experience with these happy park people, though of course, unlike you, they won’t have a $300 bill to pay before they’re allowed to go home.

From that late-afternoon spot next to the park we had a good view of the Azabu wait staff, who were assembled in a circle on the grass to receive pre-service instruction from their captain. They are local kids, mostly, with good attitudes and good training — it’s amazing how a teenager who puts one arm behind their back when they pour your water looks about twice as professional as one who doesn’t.

This is a behemoth of a restaurant but it’s very well run — you don’t ever wait for much and, despite a couple of low-impact mistakes and forgets, overall the service is good.

The view from the outdoor dining area integrates the nearby park. Photo / Babiche Martens
The view from the outdoor dining area integrates the nearby park. Photo / Babiche Martens

This is the sister restaurant of Azabu Ponsonby, which is smaller and slicker but offers mostly the same menu of Japanese-Peruvian food.

(This might sound like a strange mix but it’s not fusion — it’s a cuisine that’s evolved over a couple of hundred years among Japanese families whose ancestors moved to Peru, borrowing from and lending to the local recipes.)

The Mission Bay outpost has a distinct vibe from the Ponsonby one, and the food has recently branched in a new direction too, with the installation of a robata (charcoal) grill and a chef who knows how to run it. Darren Johnson has overseen the food at Masu and Inca in Auckland as well as international stints at Zuma and Roka.

Now, he has bravely taken a job at a restaurant with more than four letters in its name, teaching a generation of young Kiwi chefs how to do precision cooking over coals.

The miso-marinated salmon yakitori is paired with simple garnishings. Photo / Babiche Martens
The miso-marinated salmon yakitori is paired with simple garnishings. Photo / Babiche Martens

A great example of this is the salmon — a fish which can be, let’s be honest, a bit much when it’s cooked right through. You need to start resting it a minute before that final spot of raw pink disappears, though the temptation is to keep cooking while the surface browns into a caramelised crunch, which will offset the rich flesh within.

You’ll have already guessed that they nail it here, the distinct, direct heat of the grill scorching the outside of the miso-marinated fish first in a way that a hot oven struggles to do. It’s served with a forkful of pickled red onion, a slice of lemon and not much else — a move of confidence from a chef who knows when a piece of meat can stand alone (if you love the black cod at Masu this dish might remind you of it).

“What’s different about this chicken?” my wife asked, thoughtfully omitting the rest of the sentence “compared to the dry, tasteless bird you serve me at home?”

“I don’t have access to a full robata charcoal range and four men to prep it for me,” I didn’t say, instead swallowing my pride, shrugging my shoulders and replying, “It’s good, isn’t it?” Golden brown with a few darker spots where it came closest to the fire, it was served on wooden skewers with spring onion and had presumably been marinated and lovingly basted with some sort of soy/mirin/sake tincture throughout, given how juicy and flavourful the pieces of thigh were.

The chicken skewers cooking above the hot charcoal. Photo / Babiche Martens
The chicken skewers cooking above the hot charcoal. Photo / Babiche Martens

Beyond the robata is an overwhelming number of dishes to choose from — too many for my tastes, the sprawling menu reminding me a little of lesser beachfront restaurants that don’t know when to save and close the document.

But as far as I could see you couldn’t order badly — though the scattered chilli and “tiradito” dressing on the snapper/scallop sashimi will be too spicy for some, it was a beautiful seaside dish to look at and eat; the sushi options are flawless and visually spectacular; the dumpling is my favourite vegan dish in Auckland: blitzed, pickled sunchokes and shiitakes inside a silky yellow pasta case, firm to the bite and sprinkled with toasty almond slivers. Beneath it is cooked, pureed mushroom which is so soulful and tasty, it makes you wonder why you don’t see this (presumably) simple sauce employed more often.

We took the kids, who enjoyed a bento box from the children’s menu — a brilliantly interesting option which treats younger diners with respect, rather than as fried food guzzlers who couldn’t possibly eat anything that wasn’t beige.

From the cocktails to the garnishes to the architecture, it’s a restaurant that takes aesthetic elements as seriously as the food, which is saying something because it all tastes pretty damn good.

It’d be a lovely choice for any number of occasions, but particularly a gathering of friends where you want the experience to be as beautiful as the people you’ve invited to enjoy it.

More Japanese Restaurants

Katsu, yakitori and much more.

Happy Returns At Ponsonby’s Cocoro. Cocoro reaches new levels of exquisite perfection, writes Jesse Mulligan.

Waku Waku Is Jaw-Droppingly Delicious. The new Japanese restaurant in Remuera offers a fresh twist on greatness.

Newmarket’s Katsu Katsu Doubles Down On One Thing, And It’s Flawless. The casual new Japanese spot has an abundance of talent and boasts a buzzy bar.

Jesse Mulligan Reviews Yakitori Restaurant Omni. A compact and poetic time at this new yakitori restaurant.

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