Apr 13, 2021 Restaurants
It’s got meat on sticks and smouldering charcoal, but Omni is more than yakitori.
When the prawn toast and chicken-thigh yakitori skewers appeared at the table simultaneously, an irresistible smoky smell slowly rose up to meet us, causing our heads to subconsciously lean in. It wasn’t that charred charcoal-heavy aroma you’d associate with night hawker stalls and backyard barbecues, but something mellower, earthier. That’s because they were cooked on binchotan, a white charcoal that burns as hot as hell and is the preferred choice in Japanese grilling, especially for yakitori.
The first I heard of Omni, I thought it was going to be a Yardbird — an incredibly popular expat izakaya I’d been to in Hong Kong, that specialises in yakitori. The co-owner and head chef, John Yip, had recently come off a stint at Yardbird and replied to my initial message saying that while this was going to be completely independent, he would, of course, be drawing on his Yardbird experience. The DNA is obviously there — it’s chicken sticks over binchotan, after all. Some of the skewers are similar (the wings dusted with shichimi, in particular) and others similar in concept but not full execution (the meatball, tare and yolk, for example).
There are countless examples of people taking inspiration from overseas and riff ing on their concepts in our smaller market. I don’t think it’s bad, if what you recreate is something of your own. Omni, by design, is a different beast from Yardbird. It’s a much smaller restaurant, and more intimate, with a pared-down menu that suits the place, and suits what Auckland dining is right now. Unabashedly, Omni is very much riding the new wave of natural wine and deceptively simple small plates; bright raw fish and hot, comforting bread. Call me basic, but I like all that when it’s done well.
Their “feed me” option is $70, but doesn’t get you everything. I had to add the prawn toast, because I was desperate to eat it. Prawn toast is something you’d get off the trolley at yum cha, a crunchy triangle of bread coated in sesame seeds and minced prawn. When I bit into it, the bread made an audible crunch, so deeply lush that I almost forgot about the prawn entirely. The prawn added contrasting texture but was under-seasoned; I remarked to my friend that maybe that’s because I’m so used to the fake seafood-ness of yum cha’s version.
The only dish more talked about (read: photographed-on-Instagram) at Omni is the katsu sando. They’re like little cartoon characters: a squashed oval meat patty sandwiched by two circular pieces of white bread that resemble floating icebergs. They’re almost perfectly mouth-sized, with an unadulterated meatiness complemented by the barely-there bread, which surprisingly holds up against the juiciness and sauce. It’s great; I’m fairly certain we’re going to see a lot more of this elevated comfort-food genre on future menus.
On my previous visit, the raw fish was a beautiful tuna, sitting in a white soy and sweet wasabi sauce. It was better than this time’s trevally, also in white soy, but without that salty-sweetness of the tuna’s sauce. It’s still good, but could be better. So could the cucumber salad, which is tossed in sesame, peanuts, chilli oil and coriander — sorta Chinese, sorta Japanese. It’s refreshing, but I’d prefer smaller cucumber chunks, with more prominent chilli oil, especially as nothing else on the menu has a spicy profile.
I wish that they’d included the soft bone or heart in the “feed me” offering, to show off the full breadth of their yakitori. We did, though, get a plate of oyster mushrooms, crisped up at the edges. They were glossy and moreish, but felt like they were missing a sauce, or something to mop them up with a little. My friend said last time she’d come, they arrived with a blackened Jerusalem artichoke purée — obviously, very much not in season any more.
Omni is not a yakitori restaurant. It has yakitori, sure, but with only five options. If I really wanted yakitori I’d go elsewhere. What’s really good eating is everything else on the menu: some of the dishes need a dial-up of flavour and salt, but the bric-a-brac of plates can hit the balance of acidity, salt, fat, and heat well, if you order right.
Oh, and that burnt-butter cake? Yeah. Yeah, just as good as you think.
359 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden
09 623 3590
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5.30pm-10pm
DINNER BILL Yakitori $8 each; Plates $13-$20; dessert $10
This review was published in our Summer 2020/21 issue, which was released in November 2020.