Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sushi in the Land of the Long White Cloud

Searching for the Best Sushi...in New Zealand

There are a number of reasons why I, with my characteristic zeal, pursued the sushi in Aotearoa, or Land of the Long White Cloud, otherwise known as New Zealand.

Known for its splendid natural beauty and famous for being an extreme sports mecca, New Zealand is also a First World country—I found these factors intriguing enough, so I finally paid a visit. And of course, the food, particularly the sushi, lured me there.

Sure, there were other foods I noshed on which were not classified as Japanese fare—there were the wonderfully greasy lamb burgers as well as fatty slow roasted pork belly sandwiches which were sure unlike any I’d ever tasted in other parts of the world…the food in New Zealand tastes untainted, naked and wholesome, like the pure, untreated vegetables and raw cubes of whale sashimi in Iceland. There were also fresh king prawns, meat pies, green-lipped New Zealand mussels…the list goes on and on.

What most people don’t realize is that sushi really does vary in different parts of the world, whether it’s the types of fish, the serving style, the trading hours or the uber-unusual ingredients. So allow this blog to take you on an Epicurean journey that features some of the very best that I could cram into my calendar—as well as my mouth—in two weeks’ time.

Do look for photos of the feasting in Queenstown, a destination in which I enjoyed the best crayfish maki, and even a Venison Roll, of all things. And don’t overlook the elegance and refinement of the upmarket establishments in Auckland (a vibrant city in which a third of the country’s entire population resides, which to me meant only one thing: good eating).

In two weeks, I managed to cover some of the most eclectic sushi in both the North and South Islands, expecting (and finding) some parallels to the sushi I came across in Australia a few years ago due to New Zealand’s proximity to Oz. From the tortuous metropolis of Auckland to the quaint city with the trademark “rotten egg” smell known as Rotorua, and down to the energetic resort town named Queenstown, you will find everything from pampering service in uppity establishments to the simplicity of grabbing a pair of tongs with which to pluck individually priced pieces of sushi out of display cabinets in more casual joints.

So let’s get to it….
The Sushi Diva

MASU Japanese Robata Restaurant and Bar in Auckland

MASU of Auckland
Soft-Shell Crab Roll Wrapped in Daikon Radish
Crispy Prawn Roll with Takuan
Spicy Tuna Roll with Jalapeno Mayonnaise
Alaskan King Crab Leg with Smoked Wasabi Lime Butter
Kingfish Sashimi Salad with Yuzu Truffle Dressing

Introducing MASU of Auckland, New Zealand

After doing some research, I decided on two of the most fancy dining establishments in Auckland based on cursory reviews (and the simple fact that these restaurants had four “dollar signs” as opposed to two or three, which suggested to me that perhaps expensive equaled qualitative). These restaurants were MASU and Cocoro, the first of which is located near SkyCity Tower right next to The Grand Hotel on the fine dining row known as Federal Street. Could it have been more obvious that this one might be positively indulgent?

I was on a high, and I mean a high!—as the servers greeted me just as servers would greet you in a posh place named MASU Japanese Robata Restaurant and Bar by Executive Chef Nic Watt, which boasts a stellar list of awards and menus with heaps of extraordinary choices littered with the likes of black cod and Japanese Black Wagyu Beef, ingredients exotically named coriander (known merely as cilantro in California), silken tofu, and even honey (which is quite a common ingredient in New Zealand).

Ever longing for the best view of the action, I sat at the sushi bar and just enjoyed watching as chefs, male and female, lay yellow takuan and spears of chives in rolls they have started preparing. One chef makes dual use of white daikon radish—tightly rolling sheets of the daikon and standing them up like stalks, ready to use them as the wrap they put around my Age Watari Gani, or Fried Soft-shell Crab Roll, which they filled with chives, cucumbers and yuzu kosho mayonnaise; or shredding the daikon into a garnish to be used for sashimi dishes, all of it done with precision using one hell of a sharp knife.

The white daikon wrap around a Soft-shell Crab Roll is reminiscent of Nobu’s style, but not even Nobu applies takuan, also known as oshinko, inside his version of this roll. (Though I’ve never seen it used in a soft-shell crab roll, the pickled yellow radish surprisingly enhances the flavor of the crispy crustacean.)

I order more maki, for I am ravenous! And the Crispy Prawn with avocado, sweet soy, and takuan for NZ $12.60 (Americans currently pay about 75 cents to their dollar) sounds appealing. The Spicy Tuna Roll with jalapeno mayonnaise, avocado and chives for NZ $16.90 also did not disappoint.

Then from the Robata Grill, I chose the ultimate—the Alaskan King Crab Leg with smoked wasabi lime butter for NZ $32. The gigantic crab leg that was presented to me in a V-formation was split and piled to the hilt with chunks of fleshy white and pink crab meat, topped with a burnt-orange creamy sauce that wasn’t redolent of wasabi at all, but rather a tangy, aromatic mayonnaise, with portions burnt to a crisp, the side of minty green salad lending an acrid contrast to the heavy sweet crab. They divulge a secret—that the crab meat is actually derived from various crab legs, then piled back into the shell in fluffy formation—though that should’ve been obvious to me, given the easy manner in which the meat lifted from the shell. There was no scraping, no digging, no work, as is usually involved in hollowing out crab legs. This is because sometimes one crab leg may be less meaty than another, the waiter explained, and they do their best to create a sense of uniformity in all their servings.

Just like in Australia, for some reason yellowtail in New Zealand is also often referred to as kingfish. Thinly sliced kingfish was served in my final last dish here at MASU—Kingfish Sashimi Salad with Yuzu Truffle Dressing, the fish so diaphanous that the pieces are translucent and rip with a mere prod of my chopsticks. This dish came with a bed of refreshing greens that tasted like they were straight out of a Vietnamese restaurant (not surprising, considering Watt also opened Madame Hanoi Bar & Bistro in Australia).

The service is impeccable; my water glass was always filled to the brim from sleek decanters as I watched more chefs chop and prep and roll the night away.

Cheers,” they say in their Kiwi accents. It’s an expression of thanks that I will keep hearing in this country for the next two weeks. It’s also one of the things I don’t need to ask them to repeat just so I can understand what is being said.

90 Federal Street, Auckland, New Zealand
+64 9 363 6278

Cocoro Presents a Japanese Feast

Angel Prawn and Cucumber Hosomaki
A Beautiful Wasabi Presentation
Bluefin Toro Sushi
New Zealand King Crab Leg Steamed Sashimi
New Zealand Cheese Selection with Rice Crackers
Soy Sauce and Ginger Vanilla Ice Cream

New Style Japanese Cuisine at Cocoro in Auckland

Unlike the boisterous MASU, Cocoro is an understated affair, and rather hidden, in an old brick building in a quiet part of Auckland. With no sushi bar, the only way to catch a glimpse of the chefs in the kitchen is through a long rectangular serving window cut into the wall, from which smartly dressed waiters pick up the plates that are ready to be presented to patrons. A large communal table sits in the center of this small place, catering to groups; intimate dining tables for couples line the walls.

Cocoro features a degustation menu for NZ $89, a nine-course meal which comes with seafood, duck, free-range chicken, and of course, dessert. Cocoro must also be known for its wasabi, for the place serves some of the sweetest tasting real wasabi I’ve ever had; it’s gritty and has the perfect texture.

I knew meringue was popular in New Zealand because of their famous pavlova dessert, but when I found out those orange-hued bits on my long serving tile were actually puffs of meringue with soy sauce, I knew this was no ordinary restaurant. Besides which, my “Angel Prawn and Cucumber Hosomaki Finger Roll Sushi” (NZ $17 for six pieces) was practically an artistic creation, the way the bites of maki were interspersed with haphazardly (yet harmoniously) placed edible flowers, alongside a miniature decorative wooden cutting board of some sort that had a mini mound of real grated wasabi on top.

Cocoro obviously takes presentation very seriously, so it came as no surprise when my single piece of farm-raised Bluefin Toro sushi (NZ $9.50 a piece) arrived on a square volcanic rock plate, or that my “New Zealand King Crab Leg Steamed Sashimi (with special crab caviar, uchiko)” came on an elaborate plate, ornate silver crab-picking tool and all.

“Left side is grilled, right side is chilled,” explained the waitress of my dish of six cut-up pieces of King Crab Leg. (In my opinion, the chilled crab had more flavor and tasted sweeter; the warm side was a bit salty.)

She also imparted that the little bowl of pink and white stuff on my plate is actual crab head meat, that it’s very popular in Japan, and that the saucer with the yellow goop is uchiko sauce, or a sauce made from crab roe. I found that to my slightly Americanized taste buds, the crab head meat tasted a bit strong, but the uchiko sauce was very heady stuff.

Of course, no New Zealand trip would be complete without a cheese plate, so I asked to try the New Zealand Cheese Selection with Rice Crackers for NZ $24. Of the five kinds, the best ones were the cream cheese marinated with sweet miso, the blue cheese, and Manuka Honey-smoked cheddar cheese, obviously an indigenous favorite.

I’m not typically a die-hard for desserts at restaurants, but who could turn down the chance to try soy sauce and ginger-flavored vanilla ice cream with sesame cracker, tempura flakes and droplets of cherry blossom puree? The magical finish came with a perfect touch—a dish of three diminutive sake ganache chocolate balls with Marlborough Flaky Sea Salt.

Cocoro may boast “New Style Japanese Cuisine,” but clearly this is a marriage made in Heaven between the old traditional way and the innovation of bold flavor twists.

56a Brown Street, Ponsonby, Auckland, New Zealand
+64 9 360 0927

Ebisu, Auckland: Modern Sushi in an Old Building

Ebisu: Located in a Historic Building in Auckland
Contemporary Decor in a Century-Old Building
Seared Beef Roll with Goat Cheese and Black Truffle on Top

Ebisu's Goat Cheese Roll in Auckland

If you have the time, as I did during a short layover back in Auckland, why not take an overpriced taxi ride from the airport to Ebisu? The cab driver had tried to con me into paying an exorbitant amount until I haggled and talked it down to a slightly more reasonable total, though it was still overpriced.

Located in a historic building in Auckland’s Britomart precinct, Ebisu was actually not my original choice, but a place called Fukuko, which got a higher rating on my list of Internet-researched picks. But for some reason, Fukuko, not exactly reflective of its online review, turned out to be a tiny and casual izakaya that only served Japanese tacos and snacks. But as luck would have it, Ebisu was by the same owner, and located right down the hall on the other side of the building.

Ebisu featured a full bar and a deejay booth, and although there was no sushi bar, its menu at least showcased sashimi, sushi rolls and nigiri, as well as tempura and side dishes.

I don’t know if it was the goat cheese topping that appealed to me, but a Seared Beef Roll with avocado, spring onion, black truffle, tobiko and goat cheese sounded really good. I am not unfamiliar with the pairing of sushi rice or meat with cheese; I have had bluefin tuna sashimi with Burrata cheese, which was delectable. I have loved almost all the Philadelphia Rolls ever served—you can’t really go wrong with combining cream cheese with raw or smoked salmon—and I have loved eel and avocado rolls with cream cheese added inside them, which you will see once in a while.

I have also had items at sushi bars paired with cheese that turned out to be not so delectable, like a Crab Mozzarella appetizer, or “The Cheese Roll” at a few generic sushi places that try hard to be Americanized. But goat cheese? Had to try it.

The creation was a tasty one, and the goat cheese was definitely the highlight, but the roll was a bit dry—a problem solved when I requested extra truffle oil on the side. Ebisu also features tasty real wasabi, which quizzically mixed well with the truffle oil.

116-118 Quay Street, Auckland, 1010, New Zealand
+64 9 300 5271

Sushi To Go at Sushi Gallery of Rotorua, New Zealand

Sushi Gallery of Rotorua, New Zealand
Sushi Gallery: "Japanese Takeaway" Style 
Sushi Priced from NZ $.90 to NZ $2.50
Get Here Early for the Best Selection
Fill a Box with Your Favorite Sushi

Sushi Gallery of Rotorua, New Zealand

When in Rotorua, stop by Sushi Gallery, where a friendly Korean owner and sushi master takes pride in filling display cases six days a week with everything from Teriyaki Salmon Inari to Chicken Tender Sushi wrapped with a band of seaweed—all sold by the piece. You can pick up a pair of tongs and a flimsy clear box and grab a single piece, or fill up the entire container if you so desire. The box is so flimsy, it doesn’t even snap shut—a piece of scotch tape is used to seal it when you take it to the counter to pay for it. There’s also a “Party Pack” available if you want to fill up a large round platter and take that to go (these, thankfully, look like they come with a snap-on lid).

The sushi prices here seem to range from NZ $.90 for a piece of Teriyaki Chicken Roll to NZ $2.50 for Salmon Nigiri. The most unusual item? Probably the Spring Roll sushi for NZ $1.90 (two tiny spring rolls sitting on a block of sushi rice, held together, apparently, by the ribbon of seaweed that encircles it all). It is such a work of novelty that I want to laugh and coo at its cuteness at the same time.

A smaller heated display case offers six different types of snacks, most of them fried-looking, from crab nuggets on skewers for NZ $1.50 to onigiri for NZ $3.50. There are also prawn dumplings and shrimp shumai.

“Ginger wasabi?” the owner asks as you pay. “Soy sauce?” The soy sauce comes in little squeezable fish-shaped containers with mini red caps that unscrew. (I infer that the ones I’ve seen with the green caps are the low sodium soy sauces.)

I decline the powder wasabi, the ginger and the soy sauce, but assent to the “honey sauce” and Japanese mayonnaise. He squeezes the mayonnaise onto the Deep Fried Crab Stick sushi I chose, then dribbles some kind of honey syrup into one corner of the box before taping it shut. (Later, I dip the Spring Roll sushi into the honey sauce, which goes perfectly with it. The honey sauce, in my opinion, actually goes well with everything.) I’m given a bowl of miso soup, a napkin, a pair of chopsticks, then it’s time to leave the tiny shop—most customers that sidle in, I notice, take their sushi to go, for there aren’t any tables inside. (The sign does say “Sushi Gallery: Japanese Takeaway.”) Outside, there are a couple of wooden tables at which to sit.

I love the “Pineapple Avocado Cream Cheese Roll” for NZ $1.50 and the “Deep Fried Crab Stick Sushi” for NZ $1.90, because they are unusual. I love them all, actually, because this is a fun, inexpensive way to try multiple types of sushi, though you do have to get here early for the best picks from the fullest display cases. The first time I went in happened to be right before closing time. The owner looked aghast when he saw that I was taking photos of near-empty cases, the arrangements were wonky and a few pieces were tipped on their sides. “Come earlier next time,” he said, embarrassed.

Like Melbourne, Rotorua maintains the strangest “trading hours” for restaurants that I’ve ever seen—open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays.

I went in at 9:20 a.m. on a different day and the owner was still in the middle of the displaying process, lining up each row of sushi and putting up the corresponding name and price signs. Rotorua is a slow-paced town, where one feels relaxed, never in a rush, for everything, it seems, is within walking distance or a short bus ride away. People are friendly in this laid-back, touristy atmosphere, where time seems to stop.

Outside the restaurant, you might catch a whiff of air that’s tinged with the scent of sulfur, thanks to the city’s geothermal activity, which seeps from cracks in the streets (though the smell is only extremely noticeable when you visit a thermal park).

Sushi Gallery
1230 Tutanekai Street, Rotorua, New Zealand
+64 7 348 2828

Sushi Choices Abound at "Hikari Sushi Takeaways" in Queenstown, New Zealand

Choose Your Own Sushi To Go
"Hikari Sushi Takeaways" in Queenstown Mall
Sushi Sold By the Piece
Grab Your Favorite Sushi Using Tongs
Fill Up Your Box, Then Pay

Sushi Sold by the Piece at "Hikari Sushi Takeaways" in Queenstown, New Zealand

In Queenstown, sushi seems to be served in one of two ways—“takeaway” style, or semi-fine dining style. The town simply isn’t big enough or formal enough to have the caliber of establishments that a city like Auckland would introduce. (In my short time in Auckland, I had glimpsed casual shops with signs that heralded sushi for as low as NZ $.69 per piece, but I chose to pursue the upscale sushi for upscale sushi’s sake, leaving the casual places for the smaller towns to demonstrate.)

The hours in this town, too, are strange, especially for sushi haunts—some only open for dinner, some close in the afternoon—although I did find one casual place in the open-air Queenstown Mall that always seemed to be open during the day.

Enter the ever-casual “Hikari Sushi Takeaways,” a tiny sushi place strangely stuck between a Louis Vuitton store and a Bendon Lingerie shop. Upstairs, it’s an H.M.S. Britannia Restaurant & Bar, with an interior designed to make you feel like you’re aboard an old English galley ship. Outside the sushi shop, a sandwich board sign reads “D.I.Y. Sushi Box: Choose Your Sushi Selection and Take a Free Miso Soup.”

The clean tongs hang on the wall by the entrance; the used ones get tucked in a little bucket on the counter by the cash register. Choose from a variety of sushi…“Crumbed Prawn” nigiri or Crispy Katsu Chicken maki for NZ $1.80 a piece. There’s Inari for NZ $1.60, or Inari with Seaweed Salad tucked inside it for NZ $1.90. Signs promote the availability of brown rice and gluten-free soy sauce…just ask. In the background, K-Pop music plays.

Because of the cramped space, this place seats only four along a bar opposite the side with the sushi cases; the large kettle of free miso soup sits on one end of the bar near the exit, as if to say Help Yourself to some soup…on your way out.

On the door, the sign states their hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but the sushi chef says it really depends on the number of customers as to how late they close. (This is a notable feature of most businesses in New Zealand that I’ve come across so far; some places even post signs that they are open “till late”—closing time really “all depends.”)

At 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, while all the other semi-fine dining Japanese restaurants are still closed, Hikari Sushi Takeaways has full trays of stock. Of course, this is a resort town with all kinds of food available midday—from Turkish kebabs to Chinese dumplings and Bambi Burgers made of Fiordland Deer, allowing tourists’ taste buds to be about as fickle as the weather here in Queenstown. But if you’re craving sushi around this time of day, Hikari Sushi Takeaways is there for you.

Hikari Sushi Takeaways
Queenstown Mall
22 Ballarat Street, Queenstown, New Zealand

Hikari Japanese Restaurant in Queenstown, New Zealand

Hikari Japanese Restaurant in Queenstown, NZ
Wakatipu Roll
Tempura Prawn and Avocado Hand Roll
Aburi Sake Toro Sushi

In the Heart of Queenstown

Named after the lake in South Island, the Wakatipu Roll is a refreshing one, with its cargo of salmon, cucumber and imitation crab, crown of avocado slices and creamy Japanese mayonnaise. 

For some strange reason, the sushi rolls at Hikari Japanese Restaurant (not to be confused with Hikari Sushi Takeaways) sometimes arrive in odd numbers of five and seven pieces, and it says so on the menu. There are four rolls that come in six pieces, and the rest are five- or seven-piece maki.

The direction in which a maki gets rolled is often determined by how much you’re going to stuff in its center; soft-shell crab rolls, because of their heft, are almost always rolled in such a way that it yields about five large pieces, six at most (in which case you get skinny slices with a whole lot of soft-shell crab pushing out). But I’ve never before seen so many sushi rolls on a menu listed as being seven-piece rolls, which I found oddly amusing. Sushi chefs, as I understand, are trained to cut the long rolls down the middle so they can split them in equal parts after combining two halves, which results in six or eight pieces. So it’s either just another foreign puzzle, or the chef here has an extremely sharp eye to be able to discern exactly where to cut.

Another strange detail of this restaurant is that there appeared to be an unused sushi bar; the patrons were all seated in the dining room at tables, and the chefs were in the kitchen. In one section of the glass cases on the bar sat some vegetables and a few seafood items, whereas the rest of the case was starkly empty.  

But despite its vagaries, the victuals here were pretty decent and fresh. I enjoyed a crunchy Tempura Prawn and Avocado Hand Roll, after specifying that I wanted Japanese mayonnaise and tobiko inside it. The Aburi Sake Toro nigiri, or “Flamed Salmon,” as it was written on their menu, came as a single buttery piece with a slice of lemon for NZ $5, and it was perfectly torched to a lustrous golden hue.

Hikari Japanese Restaurant
5 Beach Street, Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 3 442 7767

Of Venison and Crayfish at Minami Jujisei in Queenstown

Venison Tataki and Alfalfa Roll
New Zealand Crayfish
Crayfish Sushi Roll

A Heavenly Meal in Queenstown, New Zealand

In New Zealand, the term crayfish generally refers to a saltwater spiny lobster. In Queenstown, crayfish are also called Rock Lobsters. At a Japanese restaurant named Minami Juisei, they are Heaven on a plate.

Minami Jujisei is probably the finest in Japanese dining I experienced in Queenstown. Although it has a small sushi bar that seats only four, I was able to sit there and confer with the chef. The glass display case showed off beautiful selections of fish, including a container of “Tako Wasabi,” or octopus marinated in wasabi seasonings, which came from a purveyor, the chef conceded when I asked.

The menu, displayed outside, originally enticed me with an unusual item: a Venison Tataki and Alfalfa Roll, for NZ $18. I have always been a fan of extremely original and house-created sushi rolls and sauces, but a seared Venison roll with alfalfa sprouts in New Zealand definitely takes the cake.

I was even more pleased that Chef Koji added a housemade Japanese chili and lemon soy sauce on the side for my Venison roll, which arrived in front of me lightly seared, as tataki items are, with green onions sprinkled on top. Chunks of venison were rolled inside with the alfalfa, while thin slices of it sat on top. It was a beautiful roll, and it tasted a bit like seared beef, and wasn’t hard to chew or gamy. The alfalfa balanced out the flavors and textures just right.

On the menu, there’s another section that catches my eye: whole crayfish—your choice of sashimi, poached or grilled—at market price. Today’s market price? NZ $85. I decided to order the crayfish, but insisted I wanted it served with sushi rice, seaweed and Japanese mayonnaise. Chef Koji responded right away and began to construct a sushi roll for me from a whole poached crayfish. It was big as a lobster, shiny and bright red, and then it became white and pink chunks sticking out of a roll, with avocado, sushi rice and black seaweed laced with Japanese mayo. Then he bedaubed it with Japanese chili and lemon soy sauce, and did the honor of serving it to me personally, by stepping out from behind his station and walking around the bar to place it before me, this brilliant, incredible heap of steaming sea meat in a sushi roll. The crayfish chunks that didn’t fit into the roll were piled on the side and also touched with the sauces, to be simply savored in bites.

The taste of the crayfish was so good, I was nearly moved to tears, and I felt suddenly grateful for this moment in time, for this wonderful journey to this exotic paradise…this moment…this was the moment I had been searching for in all my travels. It’s this moment that makes it all worth it.

According to Chef Koji, the water is colder in South Island, which might explain why the meat tasted sweeter than I’d expected.

The Japanese mayonnaise and house-made sauce offered a refreshing change from the way a lot of the sushi joints in California would have seasoned something like this—drowning it in eel sauce and spicy mayonnaise, then blanketing the top in green onions and smelt fish eggs. It’s one of those generic, habitual treatments in places that don’t seem to recognize that meat itself has a taste, and it need not be coated with so many seasonings that its greatness is lessened. I felt jubilant to have completed my New Zealand sushi tour with this most outstanding of meals.

Minami Jujisei
45 Beach Street, Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 3 442 9854