KAZUYA : RESTAURANT REVIEW
PART 2 (PART 1 in 2014)
3.5 STARS / 5 (STUCK BETWIXT GOOD ET EXCELLENT THE LAST 8 YEARS)
CHEF : KAZUYA YAMAUCHI
VISITED DECEMBER 2022
Fine dining in Auckland, New Zealand by the close of 2022, the pandemic’s third year, has been stripped down to the bare elements of pleasure. You can’t blame the restaurants that much after the bankruptcy-inducing lockdowns of the last three years. The grand restaurants have died a stray dog’s death, and those that remain play a different kind of game, some seized by red meat mania and others by a lack of understanding of what the apex of coddled culture should feel like.
Kazuya in Eden Terrace, at the point where the suburbs segue to downtown, remains afloat with its European-influenced, Japanese-whispered fine-dining. Had it become even better than the solidly accomplished credentials it presented almost a decade ago? I returned in this post-apocalyptic phase to find out.
What surprised one right away is how little space there exists between the tables. Less than two feet between mine and my neighbour’s. The restaurant space is small admittedly but if you’re not seated in one of the few tables that are cut off from the other booths, the proximity is cozy enough to invite a menage a trois, French-Japanese or otherwise (the Cannes-winning Shohei Imamura would not be surprised). I checked many years ago and found precisely one swinger’s club in Auckland, but I could be wrong.
This meal by Chef Kazuya Yamauchi who is clearly capable of top-tier cooking, underscored one fact again after years – if the chef singularly focuses on the pleasure principle, he succeeds often, but distraction with superfluous elements on the plate continues to rob the restaurant of its true potential. The ambience is tightly controlled – that of a first-class lounge where the tablecloth glows white while the rest of the restaurant coolly seeps in darkness but that inter-table closeness kills privacy and privilege. Paradoxically, the tall booths mean that apart from the twin table next to you, you can’t see much else of the restaurant. Service by two ladies is solidly good and polite, but is excised of charm and lacks the subtle personality that makes great restaurant service such an art.
Kazuya does tasting menu only – a 5 course and a 7 course meal ($145 and $175 respectively) while a $195 premium option includes more luxury ingredients like caviar, truffles, crayfish and wagyu. As the first two options were too cheap for my taste, I went for the latter menu, although I couldn’t tell you about wagyu and its ilk as I abjured red meat many moons ago.
The amuse bouche was forgettable – olive oil in agar, and a mini pizza encasing fish. For $35, I received 90 ml of Denshin Rin “first-class” sake labelled by the menu as ‘extremely pure’ – they were right. Served in a stylish blue and clear crystal tiny glass, it had a refreshingly chilled crystalline structure that evoked a tight transcultural marriage between sake and good vodka. Diced high quality fresh prawns shone through carrot and mandarin cream served in a tall glass – similarly conceived but a little less pleasurable than superb crab in cream of edamame served in the same gestalt of glass in 2014.
A trio of disappointments ensued threatening to capsize this premium meal. What should have been the most indulgent plate of food – caviar, sea urchin, kingfish, trevally, cuttlefish etc. – turned out to be a forgettable misfire due to shocking miscalibration of ingredients. The caviar and sea urchin were served in miniscule quantities – blink-bite and you miss them – briny bit-layers if you managed to notice them while the brunoised trio of fish was drowned out by an olive oil dressing. Overall a terrific lesson on how to muffle a potentially great plate.
The colour of plates was more arresting. If the previous one was concentric blue, then a dark green one presented risotto with asparagus, paua (NZ abalone) and green peas. Only the Asparagus scored an ‘A’ while the featured seafood, notoriously difficult to memorably cook, was muted and indistinct in flavour. The server announced “Our signature dish’ and presented “Texture” – a salad with over 30 textured seasonable vegetables and bottarga – emblematic of how Kazuya loses its way when it chases quantity over quality. I don’t know if Michel Bras does any better but this overloaded salad here has remained the same the last ten years. It’s like falling into a dense but stylish garden and having to chew your way out of it. Occasionally if you luck out your teeth might hit something sweet but mostly you get the feeling you’re not out of the reeds yet.
The French-Japanese heavens finally parted the dratted nimbus (cloudy with a chance of glorious meatballs) with a beige-gray plate beautifully resembling a clamshell, cradling in its centre satiny soft crayfish, with silken mashed potato bewitchingly infused with haunting truffle flavour. An even better main course saved my meal further – gorgeous duck with deep rounded flavour and perfectly roasted exterior, accessorized by tender cos lettuce, with two excellent sauces competing – a controlled blue cheese sauce and a truffle one that finely distilled the jus. It had no spectacular stunt but often the spectacular stunt lies in doing the expected things remarkably right.
Patrons were an interesting slice across the demographic – a couple probably of North African vintage, a trio of youngsters from Chinese to Indian either medicos or legal eagles, a gaggle of male Pakehas. Memorable service personality remained a missing ingredient (Alan Richman asked Le Louis XV what makes their service staff so charming and he was informed they take special care to hand-pick highly sociable specimens – Amanda of ex-Sidart and now co-owner of Ampersand, we need more like you!) Dessert was an excellent plate of clear strawberry ‘soup’, cheesecake cream and a pleasant mochi rice ice-cream – adequately creative and accomplished but not what you’ll remember a month later. Kazuya can comfortably earn its fine-dining keep, but like most of its NZ brethren it has still not displayed that it can consistently soar.
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