Sunday, July 19, 2009

Soto - New Style Japanese Cuisine, Ponsonby, Auckland

So here it is. The Inaugural Restaurant Review.

Let me preface this by saying that I love to eat. I will pretty much eat anything and everything that is set in front of me (some call me the rubbish bin), and though this sometimes infers a lack of taste or persuasion, I like to think my rounded palate leaves me open to experiencing as wide a variety of flavours as the world can give me. My dream is to eat my way around the world. I want to eat bat in Nepal, seal in Greenland, insects in Egypt and everything in between. Burgers in America, pizza in Italy, mutton chops in England, sausage in Germany. The world really is your oyster, delicious, fresh, slimy, and to be taken as you like.

On that rather rambling note, here goes :D

Soto was named Best Japanese Restaurant in the 2008 Metro/Audi Restaurant of the Year Awards. Though I usually don't place much stock in the outcome of restaurant reviews in the New Zealand press, I guess one has to take notice of such laudments ocassionally (Metro placed my favourite restaurant The French Cafe as Best Fine Dining last year i think)..

The restaurant is buzzing and warm at 7 on a rainy Friday night, welcome respite from Auckland's wind and cold. The place looks to be almost full from the front of house. We are seated in a modified tatami room, the style that many of the more upper-class Japanese restaurants reserve for larger groups - no shoes, cushions on the floor, a low table with a space underneath to place your feet. The room is minimally decorated with some light box bamboo displays on the walls, paper lantern-style lights and corner tables. A column oil heater somewhat distracts from this elegance - it kept the room warm, but perhaps they could try something less.. in the way... hmm.

Settings on unadorned wooden table are sparse - chopsticks with holder, napkin and two wine glasses.

We are presented with menus and the drinks menu.

There are a variety of Japanese and local beers, a well-chosen wine-list encompassing classics and a few boutique wines, and a selection of sakes and cocktails. I go for a tap Sapporo nom nom.

After a little hmm and haa we settle on the Soto Share Selections - one of four Tenshin Japanese Style Set Menus. Though the menu says this is for 8 people to share, chef says no problem to us sharing it between 6 people ^.^

I'll now run through the menu dish by dish.

Left to right: Edamame Beans, Japanese Omelette, Spinach Ohitashi.

These were the first 3 of 6 'Japanese Tapas' selections.

The beans were slightly too warm for my taste, though the texture was just right, and extra points for using flaked sea salt to add flavour.

The omelette was sweet and puffy, well done but not particularly special.

The spinach was small condensed blocks of baby spinach covered in a sesame sauce. The sauce, nutty and gritty, and spotted with sesame seeds, added a nice contrast to the crunchy spinach, and was slightly warm to the spinach's fridge cold.

Left to right: Tempura Calamari Nanban, Karaage Beef, Fish Panko Crumb Katsu.

The next three starters were hot.

The calamari rings were tender all the way through, but the tempura batter had become a little soggy because of the saucethat coated them. I could taste garlic, ginger, chives, cayenne pepper, ponzu sauce and Japanese mayonnaise, a heady mix almost like a thousand island - very moreish and complimented the calamari perfectly.

Karaage is a deep-fried snack, usually of chicken. This beef was amazing, very tender, and coated with a crunchy batter. The sauce was a thickened ponzu, tangy and flavoursome though there was a little too much of it.

The fish bites were a little dense for my liking, a white fish in this style should be flaky and light. The panko coating provided a nice crisp and was perfectly fried, the accompanying katsu sauce was also good.

Yellow Fin Tuna, Snapper & Aoraki Salmon 'New Style' Sashimi. Dressed with a citrus soy sauce and spicy sesame finish. Accompanied with a julienne of Japanese vegetables & baby fresh salad leaves.

This dish epitomised the 'New Style' cuisine Soto so boldy purveys. It was presented more as a carpaccio than as sashimi is traditionally, and without the regular soy/wasabi/ginger accompaniment. Instead, a ring of cucmber slices in citrus soy dressing framed thick slices of fish which centred on a tower of radish and micro-cress.

The fish was so fresh it might have just been caught, firm and tender and fleshy. The soy sauce was reminiscent of a citrus reduction, though without the stickiness. Topping each piece of fish was a spicy, oily, ginger and sesame finish. This dab really made the dish. The combination of flavours was sublime, the oiliness of the finish balanced against the acidic soy sauce and met by the fatty fish. Overall, my favourite dish of the night! Really impressive.

Seared Crusted Tuna Tataki Sashimi. Crusted with southern ocean giant kelp pepper then seared. Garnished with momiji-oroshi, miniature salad leaves & a ponzu dipping sauce.

There was a LOT of tuna in this dish. Huge ass chunky pieces of seared fresh tuna. Topping each piece was a small dab of grated daikon radish with chilli, and a flake of fried garlic. As the tuna was in such thick slices, it was a bit hard to get enough of the ponzu sauce to adequately coat. This allowed the pepper crust flavour to dominate. If you managed to mix the sauces on top of the slice together with a bit of manoeuvring, they balanced better, though it was a bit hard with the tuna being in such large pieces. Nevertheless, I'm a sucker for big portions, and this was BIG!

Crispy Juicy Teriyaki Chicken. Infused with manuka honey. Served with Tawara rice rolls sprinkled with a wasabi furikake seasoning.

I would not hesitate to say that this is one of THE best teriyaki chicken I have ever eaten. Usually teriyaki chicken doesn't really appeal to me; its over-commercialised, boring and more often than not the sauce is just out of a bottle and the chicken is cooked by someone who doesn't care about chicken. This chef obviously cared about his chicken.

It was incredibly tender and soft - thigh cutlets (skin on!!) browned both sides with plenty of fat keeping it moist. The skin wasn't as juicy as it could have been because of the sauce, but the sauce was divine. You could really taste the honey, and it wasn't too sweet or too thick or salty, just right!! The taste was heightened further by strings of fried shallots mmm shallots....

Teppanyaki Angus Beef Fillet Steak - Premium, grain fed, grilled beef, accompanied by sesame marinated mung beans. Served with poached shiitake mushroom, snow peas & a citrus garlic jus.

A good-sized piece of fillet steak, but it was cooked a bit past the medium-rare I usually prefer. I guess you could ask the chef to cook it to your liking, but you might get a stony stare back T_T.. Though tasty, this dish was unremarkable. The beef had a really tasty beefy flavour, as one would expect from this premium cut, and it was enhanced by the earthy garlicky sauce. The vegetables on the dish were merely decoration and added nothing to the flavour.

Paradise Prawn Filo Tempura - Spun in shredded filo topped with tartare & wasabi caviar and a Japanese Worcestershire styled sauce.

Visually, this was a particularly interesting dish. The technique involved in spinning the prawns in the shredded filo pastry would have been intensely difficult!!

The prawns themselves were huge and tender, and the coating fried til crispy - perfect execution. Two things prevented this dish from being outstanding. The pastry layer was too thick. This reduced the ratio of prawn in every bite and was a little dry in the middle. Secondly, the prawns were shell on. I don't mind this, cos I'll eat anything, and I'm usually too lazy to shell prawns anyway so I'll eat the shell - and I did, tail, head, everything. However, this might make it a bit tricky to eat for some who want to avoid those crunchy sharp bits.

The tartare / wasabi combination worked well but the Worcestershire sauce was a little too much clash in flavours. It would have been better without it. The abundance of sauce helped prevent it from being tooo dry.

Chef's Dessert tasting plate, Left to Right - Vodka poached mixed berry 'ima shochu' with coconut Kanten jelly; Black Sesame Ice-cream, Ginger and white miso Creme Brulee.

The dessert menu at Soto actually consists of a whole lot of different and interesting 'themed' classics. Things like pannacotta and millefeuille with a twist. Also interesting is that when dining a-la-carte, you choose any three desserts to create your own tasting plate - for $14! Bargain!!!

The poached berries were tender and saucy, though not much of a hint of shochu flavour was left. The little cubes of kanten jelly were a little strange, like cubes of Jello, but with a slightly creamy, coconuty flavour to them.

The ice-cream was DREAMY!!! God, I can't really say how much I love the flavour of black sesame ice-cream. I've never eaten a bad one! Ever!! Perfectly sweet, smooth and moreish with a delicious slightly burnt sesame flavour. I could go on about this for ages. I licked that little box clean.

The brulee, too, was excellent. A really strong hit of ginger in the burnt sugar top, with a silky smooth brulee underneath. I didn't actually realise that this was 'white miso' brulee.. though I've only ever had white miso in soups and have no idea how it would taste sweet. Regardless, while I didn't catch any of that flavour, this was a top notch brulee with a lovely ginger finish.

We left Soto feeling fuuuuullll after this heavenly dinner. Portions were perfect size for sharing, and the price ($58 pp) was absolutely reasonable considering the quality produce and thoughtful preparation. This is far from your average in Auckland, each dish has had time and effort, as well as some creativity put into it. The service, as with Japanese restaurants of this high a standard, is attentive and always obliging, the waitresses always hovering at just the right distance to refill your drink, bring you another menu, or even crush your lime into your drink for you (as we found)!! Soto has to be one of the leading Japanese dining experiences in Auckland. Trendy, sophisticated, and creative, the food really does highlight a 'new style' of Japanese cuisine.


Food: 7.5/10
Service: 8/10
Value for Money: 8.5/10
Ambience: 6.5/10

13 St Mary's Rd
+64 9 360 0021


  1. Awesome review! Can't wait for the conclusion! :D

  2. Hey, great review!

    Completely and utterly agree with everything you said here.

    We're huge fans of Soto, although just wish the prices were a little lower...