The Kazu group of eateries, made up of the restaurant on lower Tory St, the yakitori/sake bar on Courtenay Place, and the new kaiten-zushi (sushi train) restaurant on Cuba St, have proved to be authentic both in atmosphere and cuisine. After all, what first brought my attention to Kazu (restarant) on Tory St some years ago was the presence of ochazuke on the menu. I was thrilled to see this - it's more of a home-style dish, something you'd eat as a snack, pouring hot water or green tea over rice with some seasonings like leftover salmon and spring onion, or pickled plum and seaweed. Definitely not something teriyaki-chicken-accustomed Westerners would expect, or order. And on one of my first visits to the restaurant, I had saba no shioyaki - simple grilled mackerel, seasoned with salt, with a lemon wedge and a mound of daikon-oroshi (grated daikon radish) on the side. It was exquisite: unadulterated, fresh, absolutely delicious.
But perhaps a simple slab of fish, served with rice and miso soup, doesn't fit the Kiwi idea of Japanese food. And perhaps neither does a bowl of rice in a steaming savoury broth with salmon, wasabi, bonito flakes, a bit of seaweed. Because on a recent visit, I noticed the menu has changed dramatically from that first visit over 2 years ago.
Gone are the ochazuke, the simple grilled fish, those things that made Kazu stand out from the other Japanese restaurants in Wellington. While there is still a decent selection of sushi and sashimi, the menu seems to be now centred entirely on teriyaki chicken and other dishes doused in sauce: teriyaki tofu, teriyaki salmon, teriyaki chicken noodle soup, chicken with wasabi sauce. I was more than a little bit saddened by this change; it seems to me like pandering to Western tastes instead of giving us those unique choices that give a feel of authenticity.
So I ordered the unagi-don (aka unadon) ($21), grilled eel coated in a sweet, soy-based sauce, served over a bowl of rice.
Luckily, the quality of the cooking survived the Westernisation of the menu: I can still say it was authentic, the sauce subtly sweet, not overpowering, the mild flavour of the eel coming through. It came with a bowl of miso soup and a few pieces of tsukemono (Japanese pickles) on the side, which were both acceptable.
E ordered - what else - the teriyaki chicken set ($26). Though it was the last thing I felt like eating after staring at a menu full of teriyaki, I had a few bites and can give my stamp of approval, as it was juicy, and not overly smothered in sauce.
The set was beautifully presented, and came with crumbed prawn, fatty salmon sashimi, 2 pieces of sushi (salmon and tuna), rice, miso soup, and some edamame.
It was good to see that Kazu still offers genmaicha (green tea with toasted brown rice which gives it a nice roasty aroma) in addition to the normal green tea, though we didn't partake this time as it was BYO Sunday ($5 corkage)
For dessert, too, I was happy to see that they still offered black sesame ice cream ($6), which is as innately Japanese, though lesser-known, than green tea ice cream.
It has a unique, nutty flavour that is a must-try for those unacquainted with it (and please order it so that it too doesn't disappear off the menu!)
So, while I lament the dramatic menu changes, we still managed to have an enjoyable meal. Service was impeccable (though I do think this was partly due to us dining late on a Sunday night), the atmosphere still unmistakably Japanese, and fans of sushi and teriyaki-flavoured meat will have lots to choose from. Just remember, though, that there's more to Japanese cuisine than teriyaki chicken.
(though the food was delicious, I'm super bummed about the "dumbing-down" of the menu. Bring back the grilled saba!)
13 Tory St
(04) 802 5298
Dinner, Tuesdays-Sundays from 5:30pm