Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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

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