With more flavour in a single bite than you'd find in an entire St Pierre's Sushi shop, Japanese Lantern Street Bar is bringing a style of cuisine lacking in Auckland to a space that has had some bad luck. We reckon they might be able to make it stick.
With crowd-pleasing, quick and easy chains like St Pierre’s and the rise of gas station sushi, New Zealanders seem to have been lulled into the impression that Japanese food is mild and subtle. Rice, fish or chicken, with salty soy and if you’re brave, some not-that-spicy wasabi and a pinch of ginger on the side (stop putting it on the top, you heathens). It’s nice, gentle, simple and easy on the taste buds of even the smallest child or a dad who sweats at the thought of the heat of a mild butter chicken.
Japanese Lantern Street Bar is different. The bright, friendly alleyway of a restaurant (bar in name and physical shape, restaurant in nature) is adorned in the style of a traditional Japanese pub. The menu items are written all over the walls in Japanese kanji painted by the owner, Daizo Yamada and his children. The child of a friend has contributed illustrations of salmon and tuna. The art is set on raw wood panels on roughly brushed red walls. There’s an informal festivity to the space, enhanced by the staff uniform of loose cotton shirts adorned with images of lanterns, fans and flowers.
But the biggest contributor to the atmosphere is undoubtedly the smell. As soon as you open the door, the sweet, rich, charred scent of smoke hits you. It’s powerful. And the taste of each dish is even more so. It’s intense.
Even though Yamada hails from Chiba, near Tokyo, this particular style of Japanese cuisine hails from the island of Tosa. It’s famous throughout Japan for imbuing everything with smoky intensity. Where some food deemed “smoky” can be likened to walking by a bonfire at a distance, the smoked food at Japanese Lantern Street Bar is more like being hit in the face with a burning log. The smoke is so present in the food that It’s practically an ingredient.
The flavour is achieved with a smoker brought over (along with all the innumerable lanterns in the shop) from Japan. Staff stoke it with straw and allow the flavour to get into the meat as it sits on the grill for three or so minutes. As a result, the smoked bonito (served cold) and the duck barely need sauce; they’re melt-in-your-mouth soft and packed with umami.
The yuzu sauce the duck is served with is potent with citrus spice – you only need the tiniest dab and the tender fatty morsels of duck are transformed. The ponzu sauce with the bonito packs a similarly strong kapow, intensifying the flavours of the fish.
And the whole menu is like that. The tantan noodles (a Japanese take on Dandan noodles) err on the side of extreme flavour and are, if anything, too salty and full of peanut (to the point where you’re almost drinking a jar of Pic’s) with a slow build spice.
The drinks range from Sapporo beer (poured through a tap with a katana as a handle) to Japanese whiskey, sake, and bright, pretty cocktails that combine the two.
This is Yamada’s third shop in Auckland; he owns sashimi bar Ajimi in Onehunga, and Taste of Japan, which you can find at the night market. Despite the fact that the last two businesses to fill this space didn’t last long, the spot in Kingsland was chosen (optimistically) for its sense of community.
Yamada is no newbie to the Auckland food scene; he's been here around 15 years with an eye to Japanese cuisine. He’s shrewdly picked a niche, regional style that Japan loves and Auckland is missing. So it could be that Japanese Lantern Street Bar might be the business that makes this space work.