Oct 15, 2013 Restaurants
By Catherine McGregor. Photos by Ken Downie.
Before service at Masu, waitstaff use a laser beam to straighten the chopsticks at each place-setting around the restaurant’s robata grill. In the open kitchen, where there’s no hiding from public view, knives are set down in one direction, and one direction only. “The unseen details”, chef-owner Nic Watt calls them. They’re the tiny things that you don’t consciously register, but which together can turn a restaurant meal into a dining experience.
Masu is full of such thoughtful details. Above the entrance Watt has hung Shinto-inspired wooden ema boards, inscribed with the prayers and wishes of those who worked on the Masu project. In the semi-private dining room, a wall is decorated with vividly coloured silk obi belts, spoils from a recent trip to Japan. The exquisite sashimi platters are by Japanese-American potter Ryusei Arita, whose work is in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York.
While Watt has done him time with European cuisines, including three years as executive chef at Taupo’s Huka Lodge, it’s the flavours and techniques of Japanese food that are his lodestar. He cooked at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo and at Nobu in London before opening the first Roka in 2004. By the time he returned home to Auckland from London in 2012, he was chief operating officer and partner in the Roka group, a family of robatayaki-style (Japanese grill) restaurants in London, Hong Kong, Macau and Arizona. It was a glamorous life, but he doesn’t miss it. “Flying 14 hours to get to your restaurant, or [as he does now] driving 15 minutes? No contest.”
Tastes and techniques from Watt’s previous ventures show up in the Masu menu, but it’s no cut-and-paste job. The dishes are all new, not least because MAF restrictions mean some Japanese ingredients Watt had used at Roka – kinome (the fern from which sancho pepper is made) and hajikami (fresh ginger root), for example – are unavailable here. The menu includes “kitchen” dishes – king crab hotpot, pork and kimchi gyoza – and tempura, but the star dishes are those from the robata grill, including a quite spectacular saikyo miso and yuzu-marinated black cod.
When Watt arrived back in Auckland after 18 years away, he already knew what his ideal restaurant would be: somewhere refined but not uptight, deadly serious about food but aware that eating out should be fun. On the first day Masu was open, his impeccably dressed champagne supplier sat down for lunch around the grill next to a guy in jeans and a t-shirt. “Within 10 minutes they were getting on like a house on fire. I was looking at them thinking, ‘this is the sort of restaurant I want to run’.”
More on Metro Eats: Simon Wilson’s review of Masu.
SkyCity Grand Hotel
90 Federal Street
Reservations: 09 363 6278 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For more images from Masu click here.