The last time I had oden was in Japan probably about 5 or 6 years ago. As soon as cold weather hits, convenience stores on every corner bring out steaming tubs of light soy-dashi broth, with an assortment of plump fish cakes, eggs and vegetables floating in the simmering liquid. And at home, families drag out their nabe hot pots from storage and gather around the communal bowl of heart-warming fare.
Kazu's oden ($12, seasonal) came in a miniature nabe bowl, and was a perfect size for sharing between two. The assorted ingredients (hard-boiled egg, fish cakes, tofu, daikon radish, green beans) soaked up the mild, savoury broth, and a smear of mustard provided a sharp contrast to the soft flavours and textures.
I'm not sure if the disappearance of the sign out front has signalled the end of oden season at Kazu, but if not, it would be a great choice for the cold snap we've been having this week (what is up with the weather, anyway!?)
Kazu Yakitori and Sake Bar is definitely more 'bar'-like than its sister restaurant, Kazu on Tory St. It takes after the traditional watering holes in Japan, izakaya, which are more like Spanish tapas bars than our Kiwi pubs. Small plates of food are served alongside hot or cold sake, Japanese beer, and an assortment of other drinks.
Kazu specialises in yakitori, which literally translates to grilled chicken, and they do it well. If you sit at the bar you can watch the skewers of chicken (as well as beef, vegetables, seafood etc) being cooked on the special Japanese charcoal grill.
When we arrived, the chef was grilling up a batch of the most basic type of yakitori - skewered chicken thighs ($5 for 2 sticks). Of course we had to have some.
Chicken thigh is probably my favourite cut of the bird. It's tender, juicy and flavourful. These were no exception, and the sweet soy tare sauce coated the meat with a velvety richness.
Kazu has updated their menu since I was last there. The last time they had a menu change (both here and at their Tory St restaurant), I was disappointed, with most of the more unusual Japanese dishes being "dumbed-down" and replaced with Westerner-friendly dishes swathed with teriyaki or wasabi sauce.
Not this time. The new menu seems to have breathed life back into the concept of authenticity. Now, traditional yakitori cuts such as chicken heart, livers, cartilage and skin are offered alongside the usual thigh meat skewers. Excited by the new choices, we ordered tsukune (chicken meatballs, $6 for 2 sticks) and nankotsu (chicken cartilage, $5.50 for 2 sticks). The meatballs were pretty decent-sized and were coated in the same tare as the thighs; however, they were a bit dry.
The cartilage, on the other hand, was fantastic. If you've never tried chicken cartilage I recommend you do so at least once. It has a crunchy yet pliant texture that might be strange at first, but I found myself wanting more. And, there's enough meat on there that you're not just gnawing away at connective tissue.
Unlike some of the other yakitori offerings, the nankotsu doesn't come dipped in tare sauce but is rather more delicately seasoned with salt. It works really well.
I was glad to see that tako wasabi (wasabi octopus, $5) survived the menu changes.
I always worry that it'll disappear, since it's a dish many people might find weird. (Sure enough, when I ordered, the waitress looked concerned: "Have you tried it before? Because some people don't like it...") Raw octopus, finely diced, comes served in a hot wasabi and sesame seed marinade.
The marinade tenderises the meat, making it not as jaw-achingly chewy as some octopus I've had elsewhere. Plus, the tiny, slippery morsels mean you don't really have to chew anyway. The wasabi isn't so hot to sear your nasal cavities but provides a nice, tangy burn. It's a great snack to have alongside a couple beers.
When I blogged about Kazu's Tory St restaurant, I lamented the disapperance of ochazuke from the menu. I'm delighted that it's being offered again, at least at the Courtenay Place bar.
Ume chazuke (ochazuke with pickled plum, $7) provided a perfect end to our snacking. A bowl of cooked white rice, with a green tea-dashi broth poured over it, an umeboshi (pickled plum) on top. The rice softened a little in the broth and mingled with the salty broth and sour pickled plum, with little crunchy cracker bits giving the whole thing a nice textural contrast.
We couldn't stop there, though - taiyaki was on offer. These are traditional Japanese sweets made with a slightly sweet pancake batter poured into special fish-shaped molds, and filled most commonly with red bean paste.
I couldn't pass up Kazu's taiyaki with green tea ice cream ($8.50). The taiyaki was heated up on the charcoal grill in front of us as we watched with anticipation, and served with a glass of ice cream. Like most Japanese desserts, it wasn't cloyingly sweet. And, when eaten together, the ice cream melted into the warm pancake and sweet bean paste. Green tea and red bean are Japan's version of vanilla and chocolate: complementary flavours that are delicious on their own but meld together even better.
Kazu is probably one of my favourite Japanese spots in Wellington. Its atmosphere is lively and informal, and you'll be greeted with a rousing "irasshaimase!" welcome as you climb the stairs into the cosy bar interior. It can get quite busy at times, and the limited grill space means there might be a wait for your yakitori, but it's well worth it.
Kazu Yakitori and Sake Bar
43 Courtenay Place
(04) 802 4868
Open Tues-Sat 5PM-late.