Words by Alice Harbourne, photos by Caitlin McKone.
Now here's somewhere really fun. You might have already heard about the new Peruvian/Japanese place on Ponsonby Rd - but you probably won't have heard as much about the alleyway bar off Maidstone Lane. The back entrance to Azabu is essentially a graffitied carpark, but let's suspend disbelief for a moment and act like it's a hidden Tokyo alleyway. That's what the designers of Roji bar (Japanese for "alleyway") did when they installed a free-to-play Pacman machine, placed low, round bar tables in elbow-touching distance along sleek brown leather banquettes, and put the volume up on party-vibes house and funk.
Walk the length of the bar and you'll find yourself at what the staff refer to as "the catwalk" - possibly Auckland's longest line of dining tables (there's got to be some kind of Guinness acknowledgement for that) - which connects Roji with restaurant Azabu in a gratifyingly uniform manner. Yes, Paul Izzard Design is back at it again with the A+ hospitality fit-out; this one is possibly the sleekest yet, with inky walls, mushroom lighting and statement, glossy photo frames leaning along the main wall. The fact they're not precisely hung epitomises the formal nonchalence of Azabu, which is itself inspired by the cultural interactions that occurred in Peru following mass-Japanese immigration over a century ago.
It's said that before the Japanese arrived in Peru, locals - who had always been prolific fishermen - would simply discard octopus and eel. The Japanese made use of the abundant, discarded riches, saw synergies between traditional Peruvian ceviche and Japanese sashimi, developed an appreciation for yucca, corn and pepper, and a beautiful cuisine was born. It's called Nikkei, and it's Azabu's focus, which means tostadas, tiradito and scotch fillet with chimichurri. Of course, with Azabu co-owner and executive chef Yukio Ozeki at the helm, it's executed with finesse and an appreciation for texture. Ozeki draws on years of experience in New Zealand kitchens - most recently Ebisu - and Japan; he honed his formidable sushi skills at Tokyo's iconic Tsukiji fish market.
Restaurant manager Ken Toyota, like Ozeki and many of the other Azabu team members, has been with the Pondarosa restaurant group since Ebisu first opened in 2012. Never underestimate the power of familiarity: despite only opening a week ago, Azabu feels confident and assured thanks to obvious trust within the team.
If you're a fan of escapism and are willing to suspend - and then totally forget - your disbelief that Auckland could ever feel as cool as Tokyo, head through that graffitied carpark on Maidstone Lane and open the door.
26 Ponsonby Rd