I promised this review a while ago, but lack of any photography kept me from posting it. On the bright side this has given me an excuse to go back and more of their food and given me time to reflect.
As may be obvious to my followers, I really like Japanese food. Cocoro would normally be regarded as Auckland’s premier Japanese restaurant. Located in Ponsonby it is one of a growing number of fine dining restaurants emerging that area. Off the beaten path, Cocoro is the sort of place that will trade on reputation rather than location. It is set in a quaint brick building on Brown Street with the classic late 19th and early 20th Century villas lining the street. Of the fine dining establishments in Auckland, with the possible exception of Antoine’s, Cocoro, is probably in the nicest location.
Lotus Root chips
The first thing that is served is a bowl of lotus root chips. These are not far off a really delicious potato chip. They were nicely coloured (lotus root can discolour easily) and well fried, evenly browned, a delicious little hors d’oeuvre.
Miso grilled wakanui beef mince ‘Niku Miso’ with Iceberg Lettuce, spring onion, ginger
Beef mince grilled in a miso sauce served in two pieces of iceberg lettuce. The best thing about it was the miso based sauce that bound the beef together. Pungent, sweet, deep and complex of flavour, I really enjoyed that particular taste. The mince was also well cooked and relatively juicy. However the dish had several marked deficiencies. Firstly it was too big for chop sticks. This may seem a small complaint, but given Japanese food is generally prepared with chopsticks in mind, this dish clearly was not. As a result it was cumbersome to eat. More crucially the dish was uninspired, while the flavour of the sauce was nice enough, nothing could change the fact it was mince with some miso served in iceberg lettuce. I am a believer in a place for simple food. While complex and highly refined food may give us a sense of wonder, good food is still good food. I do not want to criticise the dish for its simplicity as an absolute problem, but in its context I do not think it worked. Either the technical aspects of the dish were not sufficient or the recipe itself failed to create interest. I would personally lean on the former, the lettuce while adequate was not inspiring and the dish as a whole failed to impress. Great food does not need many components, but it does need to impress. If the dish is simple it still should move the person eating it. Good sushi and sashimi are great examples of this. Also while I appreciate that brown mince and a leaf of iceberg lettuce is hard to present nicely, this was not the most visually stunning dish.
Sashimi (No 1)
Served in a triple tiered lacquer box that opened up, it looked impressive. The sashimi included Salmon, Bluefin Tuna (farmed) and another whitefish that I don’t remember. It also included fresh wasabi, pickled leather fish and pickled ginger.
Fresh wasabi in particular is a real treat. It is notoriously hard to cultivate, expensive and loses its flavour very quickly. The wasabi was grown in the South Island. Unlike the wasabi that we normally get, which is usually just mustard, horseradish and some old powdered wasabi, fresh wasabi is a markedly different experience. It is very intense in heat, but it does not last in the mouth like the paste you would normally get. The flavour is slightly different too, less mustardy, more fresh grass notes (which complements fresh fish pretty nicely). One of the difficulties of fresh wasabi is the flavour does not last, once grated it begins to lose flavour very quickly, so it is only really worth buying fresh.
The actual fish was good but not outstanding. First up Bluefin (farmed) tuna; this is obviously a tremendous luxury and at one level it was delicious, fatty, mild and easy on the palate. There was also Atlantic (farmed) Salmon, which had lovely texture luxurious texture. Despite the superb texture, I prefer the New Zealand salmons in complexity of flavour. The other Atlantic salmon preparation, which I will discuss later, I think worked better. As sashimi, the salmon was luxurious, but added little complexity or depth. The white fish, which I do not remember the name of excellent. One of the aspects of it that I really enjoyed was the grassy overtones and the subtle complexity of flavour. The cured leatherjacket was actually my pick of the items with the sashimi and was served in what can roughly be described as ceviche style.
I have two small complaints about this particular sashimi dish, which would easily be answered for in the next. Firstly the farmed Bluefin and farmed Atlantic Salmon were good, but lacked a real depth of flavour. I think this would not be too detrimental in the context of the large platter discussed below, but this was more of an issue in the context of three primary sashimi fish. I felt no deep sense of place from the sashimi as a whole, since there was so little that was from New Zealand, and what fish was presented was dominated by the salmon and tuna. Not too fine a point should be put on this, but it was a little disappointing. Secondly the sauce served with their generic soy, it would have been nice to have matching sauces, like ponzu or other prepared soy based sauces to match the fish as appropriate.
Sashimi (No 2) – Platter
This was perhaps the most stunning of all the courses. Served in a traditional presentation style of a shared platter, what is pictured is a platter for four people. It also harkens back to the splendour of presentations before the move to individual portions. To individually identify all the fish presented and go through it is beyond the scope of this review, but I will pick out a few of the highlights.
The main feature of the platter was the Rock Lobster (what we wrongly call crayfish in New Zealand). This was served in two ways: raw and pickled. Both were delicious, paired with ponzu (yuzu, soy sauce and other ingredients allowed to develop in flavour for months). The ponzu was relatively light, which was a great pairing with delicate taste of the lobster. The cured lobster was also excellent and much more intense in flavour.
One of the nicest features was the diversity of New Zealand seafood, including snapper, mahurangi oysters, crab and New Zealand salmon. There were also imported seafood like Abalone (interestingly not paua) and Bluefin tuna. The abalone was served with a delicious sauce made from the livers, intensely flavoured and a wonderful contrast to the more mild meat. Unlike the smaller sashimi plate served with the normal degustation menu, I think the seafood made much more sense in context. Most of the fish was wild, not farmed and while we may wonder about the ethics of this, it meant that the fish tended towards a more complex and individual flavour. In that context, the farmed, luxurious fish, such as the Bluefin Tuna and to a lesser extent the salmon, made a lot more sense to me. We still were able as diners to enjoy, the diversity and the complexity of the fish, since only minority of them emphasised texture. Furthermore I find the farmed New Zealand Salmon better than the farmed (Australian) Atlantic Salmon as far as flavour complexity goes and so I think in the context of sashimi, where there should be an emphasis on fresh local fish, it made a great deal of sense.
The scampi was perhaps the highlight of the platter. I have never eaten them raw and they were superb, a bit of bite in them and perfectly paired with a little fresh wasabi and ponzu. Another very nice detail was the miso based sauce that was to accompany the cucumber; it was delicious and provided another excellent contrast.
Sashimi is in some ways a hard thing to analyse with our normal haute cuisine glasses on. Ultimately what you are eating is uncooked fish, with some grated wasabi and some pickles. One could level the criticism, that the majority of sashimi preparation is simply shopping and that it is not cooking. I however would disagree with this. Firstly sashimi and sushi, still involve significant technique (sushi especially). Sashimi is about the details, how the fish is cut, the match of the sauces, the quality of the fish chosen and the accompaniments. More importantly perhaps this presupposes certain techniques as superior to others, something I question anyway. Lastly I think rather than resorting to standards of whether the technique involved is complex enough, we should rely on whether the food itself is good. Simply, this was great sashimi, need we look further? The fact is sashimi is not all created equal. I have turned my hand at it, and cutting the fish so as to maximise its texture is not an easy task. It takes a deep understanding of the fish and excellent knife technique. In this sense I really enjoyed the dish, the lavish presentation, the mixture of textures, some crunchy, some supple, some a little chewy, all combined to make a wonderful dish.
Prawns are difficult to deal with in New Zealand because we do not have warm enough waters to really make our prawns commercially viable or of good enough quality. As a result we import our prawns. The difficulty here is that you have two options. Firstly freeze them as soon as they are caught in order to maintain freshness and thereby stop deterioration, but in doing so you reduce the quality, because they have been frozen; or you can pack them in ice and rush them into market and serve them as quickly as possible. This latter option has problems because shrimp quality degrades, very quickly. The result is, we will almost never have truly amazing shrimp in New Zealand. It seems however that Paradise prawns from New Caledonia are gaining popularity and as I discussed in my review of Kazuya, they can be excellent, although perhaps never as good as a truly fresh one. I state this from the outset, because I appreciate the difficulties of trying to serve fresh prawns and shrimp in New Zealand.
In this preparation the prawn was wrapped in shredded filo (kataifi) and cooked served with tartare sauce and a house made “Worcestershire sauce”, there was also a microgreen salad and the head was cooked as tempura. The biggest sin was the prawn, firstly it just wasn’t that well-cooked. I won’t say it was over cooked as an absolute fact, but it was definitely cooked through. As a result we lost a lot of the luscious sweetness of it. Then it was coated in kataifi and cooked until well brown. The kataifi surrounding the prawn was executed with technical efficiency, well browned and very evenly surrounding the prawn. However I did not really enjoy this as a combination. The excess of kataifi did contribute to the lost flavours of the prawn. The sauces were excellent by themselves and intense enough to stand up to the thick coating of the prawn, but all of them for me detracted from the prawn itself. When I think of how singular and self-reinforcing many of the dishes were, this one seems odd, instead of elevating the prawn, the emphasis became on the coating the sauces. The shrimp head was absolutely delicious and the highlight of the dish, which to me indicates that the tempura coating is much nicer than the kataifi one, no matter how clever it might be. I have discussed this dish with others, some of whom enjoy the dish. This is one of Cocoro’s signature dishes; it was served identically every time I had it. I just cannot seem to understand its appeal; it is dry and lifeless in comparison to what is otherwise live, vibrant food.
Queensland Spanner Crab Chawamushi/or Queen Scallop
When the waitress brought a spoon and chopsticks, I knew it would be savour custard cup (traditionally eaten with both). I was I admit excited; I had just been reading about them and was looking forward to having one. The dish was relatively simple. A savoury custard enriched with dashi and embedded with crab, topped with salmon roe, shiitake mushrooms and chives. This was absolutely delicious. It epitomises the economy, subtlety and depth of flavour that characterises Japanese food. The custard was superbly cooked, just set and still wobbly. It was delicate in texture, but deep in flavour with complexity from the stock. The shiitake mushrooms and salmon roe complemented the custard beautifully with a strong hit of umami. Even the very fine sliced chives (a classic pairing with eggs), added to the dish. This was probably my favourite of all the dishes.
Hokkaido Scallop and Spinach with Sea Urchin and Miso Sauce
One of a trio of small dishes served at the beginning of the Sushi and Sashimi menu. Hokkaido scallops are a very special piece of seafood. They are quite unlike any other scallop I have had. It is hard to describe the exact flavour, but I would say they taste almost a little smokey or earthy. They stand up to much complex flavours I think than normal scallops. This is why a miso and sea urchin sauce makes a lot of sense. The dish was good. The miso and sea urchin flavours were not overpowering and the scallop was well cooked.
Confit Atlantic Salmon flavoured with Cinnamon
This was one of the more exotic dishes. It was also surprisingly delicious. The use of cinnamon with the Atlantic salmon (that was farmed) I think was a better use of the fish than sashimi. Secondly cooking the fish confit was incredible, unctuous, soft and meltingly tender; it was a superb way to eat the fish. It was very clever and relatively simple dish, maximising the ingredients.
Miso Marinated Antarctic Tooth Fish with Stuffed Courgette Flower and Courgette Tempura, Pickled Cauliflower, Yuzu miso and Yuzu foam or alternatively served with Eggplant Tempura.
The tooth fish was superb, gelatinous, moist, fatty and scrumptious. The combination of the citrus was nice with the fish and helped break up the richness of the fish itself and the white miso added sweetness. The pickled cauliflower and ginger also gave a nice contrast, especially with the sweetness of the sauce.
The tempura was a mixed bag. I love courgette flowers and tempura in general, beautifully light and delicious. The pieces of courgette were a little large for my liking in this dish, but that is a small problem. The biggest issue is they didn’t fit the dish for me. The courgette flower stuffed was fine, but its pairing with the fish seemed off. Furthermore the decision to stuff with corn and rest it on a bed of cut in half corn was odd. The whole thing felt misplaced, the watery, slightly buttery nature of the courgette did not really complement the rest of the dish. I would rather the courgettes have been left off the plate or served as a small amuse boushe between the other courses. It felt unnatural and took away from the look and feel of the dish. So as a whole the dish was still pretty awesome, that fish was just amazing and even given the courgettes, it was hardly a failure, but it was not quite as tight or as good as it should have been.
Having said this eggplant tempura, pictured below, was far more successful than its courgette counterpart. The texture was complementary with the fish and the less watery eggplant seems a more natural fit. This version of the dish, I think was far better.
Grain Finished Angus Eye Fillet with Teriyaki sauce and parsnip puree
For some reason I always feel a little let down, after all the fish, when we finally get to the beef, but this dish was pretty good. The beef was well cooked, succulent and very tender. Teriyaki is not my favourite of the Japanese sauces, it can be a little sweet for me, but the sauce had good subtlety and did not overwhelm the dish. The parsnip puree was enriched with stock and quite savoury rather than sweet and no cream was added. I liked this and its lack of richness was an upside for me, the play of savoury puree, juxtaposed the sweetness of the sauce and added a lot to the dish. A solid course, but perhaps not as impressive as some of the fish dishes.
Nigiri Sushi – Bluefin Tuna, Snapper and Scallop. (No 1)
We paid the extra to get to try some of the sushi. It featured three Nigiri (handmade sushi), bluefin tuna, snapper and scallop. The bluefin was luxurious, but lacked that intensity that you might get from wild fish. Fresh snapper is an excellent fish, I really enjoy that it offers some depth of flavour, compared to other white fish. The best however was the lovely scallop, sweet and juicy. I had not had it before on sushi and it was excellent. The course was served with the same soy sauce as for the sashimi. More thought about matching sauces would have been good all served with fresh wasabi. I would have preferred instead of extra wasabi, that the chef had simply added what they thought was appropriate to the nigiri, rather than serve extra on the side, but perhaps this is forgivable in a western environment.
Nigiri Sushi – Bluefin Tuna with Truffle, Paradise Prawn, Salmon and two anothers – with Miso Soup and Crafish (No 2)
This was the final platter before the dessert. In classic banquet style rice was served with miso soup, nigiri counting as a rice dish. The nigiri was excellent, the pairing of Bluefin with truffle, while not traditional, was a really nice match; the volatile flavours of the truffle mingling with the luxurious fatty tuna. One of the fish, that looked to me to be terakihi, although I do not think that is what the waiter said introduced it as, was my favourite. I would have liked more wasabi applied to the nigiri itself rather than a “help yourself” stance. The miso soup was also superb. Again the use of lighter white miso, provided a little more sweetness and did not overwhelm the crayfish. It was wonderful to get to have three preparations of crayfish in a single meal, raw, pickled and poached.
Milk Marinated Strawberries, Soy Ice Cream, Green Tea Meringues and Gooseberries
The ice cream was pretty good. I think it was made without any egg yolks and so it seemed closer to me to a gelato. There is no problem with this, but it means it was lighter rather than heavy (this could also be from higher milk, as opposed to cream content as well). It was pretty good; the soy was a nice and not overly powerful flavour. I love green tea, so the small meringues were a treat. The strawberries were good and it was clever to marinade them in milk to complement the ice cream. It was a nice finish to the meal, relatively consonant flavours.
Vanilla and Yuzu Icecream, Candied Yuzu, Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Cake, Black Sesame Tuile with Yuzu Puree
The ice-cream was again more in a gelato style, without egg yolk. The heavy use of yuzu in this dish really brought its flavours to the fore. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus, not unlike a grapefruit mixed with lemon in flavour (probably closer to a grapefruit, but without the bitterness). Surprisingly for me this worked with the chocolate and I think the pairings were very nice. The mousse was excellent, smooth, but thicker (perhaps no egg whites) than a traditional mousse. The tuile was delicious and the puree again brought the strong citrus flavours. My biggest complaint was the chocolate cake. It was a bit dry and dull. I think the dessert without it would have been stronger. Both of Cocoro’s desserts were good, but not outstanding and this was perhaps the weaker of the two.
Wine and Sake
I tried both wine matching and sake matches. I personally preferred the sake matches for the food; I think the fermented, yeasty characteristics of the sake, suits the cuisine at Cocoro better. The only miss was the initial sparkling sake that was too sweet for my tastes. There was an excellent dry sake served with tooth fish. Generally the matches were thoughtful and interesting.
Cocoro is an excellent restaurant. At its best, Cocoro serves some truly sublime dishes; the savoury custard is probably my favourite of all of their dishes. It is not however without its problems, particularly the desserts and frankly the signature dish of paradise prawn was a little lack lustre. Having said this Cocoro is head and shoulders above other Japanese restaurants in the city. It demonstrates interesting food with exceptional technique and range of ingredients. It is serving reasonably traditional food with great attention to detail. It costs between $85-110 for a degustation menu. Matching sake or wine is $60-65.
Rating – * (** Excellent * Very Good, everything else gets none)