The chef's selection of entrees at Waku Waku. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Review: Waku Waku Is Jaw-Droppingly Delicious

With its chef Lucas Lee guided by Cocoro’s Makoto Tokuyama, the new Japanese restaurant in Remuera offers a fresh twist on greatness

WAKU WAKU
Cuisine: Japanese
Address: 1D/415 Remuera Rd, Remuera
Phone: (09) 520 0243
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
From the menu: Sashimi $39; chef’s selection of entrees $36pp; market fish $39; lamb shoulder $39

Don’t rely on Google Maps to get you to Waku Waku or you’ll end up doing what we did: taking a phantom left down a dark service alley and having to reverse through driving rain back to the wet and busy road.

You’re better to park vaguely nearby on Remuera Rd, where every parking space is empty, suggesting that the locals are either walking to dinner or being dropped at the door by their elderly butlers.

Waku Waku’s street number is 415 but that won’t help you much. I eventually rang the restaurant’s landline which was picked up by a gentleman who had clearly received many such calls for help in the past.

“Head down the alleyway next to Ray White,” he said calmly.

I looked up. “Do you mean Barfoot and Thompson?” I asked.

He said, “That too.”

The sashimi. Photo / Babiche Martens

And so we bisected these twin pillars of Auckland’s economy (it’s not really an economy, reckons Bernard Hickey — just a housing market with bits tacked on) and walked deep into the construction zone that will one day be the “Village Green”, a $40 million revamp of the Remuera town centre. Waku Waku, like the excellent Spiga, is currently operating out of a small space, waiting patiently for a larger dining room to be completed.

They didn’t need the extra tables on this rainy weeknight — there was just one other group here but they were getting up as we arrived, presumably having gulped down the last of their dinner in order to get home and catch the start of Fair Go. So we ate our entire meal outnumbered by staff, though here’s hoping, after this review, that won’t ever happen again.

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Because the food at Waku Waku is jaw-droppingly delicious, and the wine list is long and lovely. Plus, the service is excellent and the room is cosy. Once word gets around, you won’t be able to get a seat here, so you may as well book a table now and experience some of the best Japanese food you will eat in this country.

Cocoro on Brown St sets the standard for this sort of cuisine and they have an involvement here, the famous chef Makoto Tokuyama having what I understand to be a mentor-investor relationship with Waku Waku’s chef, Lucas Lee.

For example, the Ponsonby restaurant is famous for its little bowl of silky, savoury custard and chef Makoto has enough pull that he also got it listed on the menu here too, insisting that Lucas give it “a twist”.

"This is a lovely place to eat dinner, so don’t let the Remuera locals have it to themselves." Photo / Babiche Martens

And so instead of seafood (mine had tiny pieces of pāua last time I was at Cocoro) Waku Waku’s version comes with two incredible slices of salty, tender beef cheek — this extra umami balanced with a trace of blue cheese in the custard.

One of the staff co-wrote the drinks list and is great fun to chat with about wine, although he wasn’t around when I asked for advice on my first drink.

Instead, my guy rubbed his chin for some time and I really thought we were in trouble, before he pointed to one of the best recommendations I’ve received in ages — a glass of sparkling sake, cold and a little cloudy and just different enough to regular bubbles to feel authentic and interesting.

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From the moment I book dinner at a Japanese restaurant, I start thinking about sashimi, so we had to order it — trying not to dwell on the cost (at $39 for nine slices, the most heartening comparison is probably with oysters) we enjoyed thick pieces of kingfish, tuna and salmon, served simply with real wasabi and a little soy sauce.

Ceviche and kokoda are wonderful but they are everywhere now and there’s something uniquely special about a Japanese chef choosing the very best slice of his very best fish and presenting it to you almost unadorned.

Highly recommended after this is the chef’s selection of entrees — six dishes that each showcase different proteins, flavours and cooking methods.

The market fish. Photo / Babiche Martens

“Which was your favourite?” the waiter asked but it was honestly too difficult to pit one against another — a tempura oyster mushroom dusted in numbing shichimi powder with an intense mushroom puree, a “Japanese steak tartare” that was both inky and fresh, a little bowl of cold, tart marinated cucumber.

The only small complaint might be the ubiquity of mayonnaise — by the time you taste it in your third or fourth dish it risks feeling a little samey.

For a main, I ordered a lamb shoulder, which I expected to be falling apart on the plate, however this one is something more interesting: very tender, yes, but compacted and sliced so you get a cross-section of meat and some crunchy roasted surface in every mouthful. Cauliflower came two ways — in another dark, flavour-packed puree sprinkled with pistachios and with thin slices of raw, pickled floret on top.

This is a lovely place to eat dinner, so don’t let the Remuera locals have it to themselves. We got in the car as Stairway to Heaven started on Hauraki and were back in Grey Lynn by the final guitar solo. You’ll be in and out of here far faster than a trip into the city and besides, there’s nothing in the city nearly as good as this.

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