Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


1 March 2014


There‘s a little hidden gem in the backstreets of Ponsonby that reeks of the sophistication rarely found in an area where most dining is casual and laid back. In a low slung, perfectly crafted space decked out with sleek timber and fashionable concrete, tucked under an old industrial brick building in Brown St, Cocoro offers a seriously good dining experience that feels and tastes authentically Japanese. It’s the brainchild of Ricky Lee, a thoughtful and dedicated restaurateur who we first got to know at Soto in St Mary’s Bay. His masterstroke there was, and now here at Cocoro, is the very talented and zany chef Makato Tokuyama who presides over the kitchen, attracting attention from some of the city’s most discerning diners.

Chef Makato has a passion for fresh fish and the parade of courses in his omotenashi or degustation menu leaves no doubt of his skill with any and every type of seafood. I called by one afternoon recently with some Japanese food writers who wished to meet him and typically he welcomed us and then proudly rushed us into the kitchen to view some gleamingly fresh fish. It had just arrived from the fishing boats of the revered Lee Fish company north of Auckland and I swear the fish was still almost wriggling. I lamented we could not return to feast on this but my companions were flying out.

The menu at Cocoro is seasonal. Japanese cuisine always stands out above all others for signalling the seasons on the plate, whether it’s the freshly harvested produce, or the accompanying garnishes and presentation that enhances the food and sets the scene. And that’s exactly what Chef Makato concentrates on.

To get the best experience, it is wise to make a reservation and book the omotenashi menu. A six or more course meal of exquisite tastes will be delivered and as the friendly and helpful staff will have ascertained any dietary requirements and food preferences, diners who choose this are in for a real treat. This may be the best value $85 experience around.

One evening we started with crunchy tender octopus, and another night it was paua. Our sushi and sashimi course appeared in the most intriguing hinged box, and opened up like a miniature wardrobe, revealing three shelves packed with delicate plates of perfect seafood. An oyster in it shell, garnished with seaweed and cucumber, some shiny fresh fish precisely cut into perfect sashimi, and delicate salmon nigiri and more.

Subsequent courses continued to delight, with the highlight being a meltingly tender gratin of scallop, prawn and oyster alongside the most wonderful chawanmushi I have ever had…silky smooth savoury custard that had a tiny queen scallop hidden within. You are also likely to be served grilled fresh fish, grilled beef and all will be garnished with vegetables of the season.

If you don’t book, or wander in at lunch time the more prosaic casual menu will be offered. There’s a large table that dominates the centre of the restaurant and it’s perfect to perch at for the casual eating of the extensive offerings which are called “Japanese Tapas.”

Makato makes some lovely salads, offers excellent sushi and sashimi, crisp light tempura, old favourites like teriyaki chicken and more. There’s also some fine donburi dishes that make a complete lunch on their own.

The wine selection is well chosen, emphasising excellent local and organic wines, but it’s also well worth exploring the sake menu. Who would have thought there were so many amazing flavours and textures to dive into that could match this food so well?

But for the very best experience, look out for the special degustation evenings that are held from time to time. One of my all-time favourite evenings was when a boutique sake maker presided over a sensational parade of different styles of sake matched to some beautifully thought out dishes by Chef Makato – a total revelation of food and beverage matching, complete with some fresh tuna flown in specially from Tokyo.

Another night the chef’s skills were to the fore with some fabulous food to match the stunning wines of Pyramid Valley. It was hard to decide which I loved best; Makato’s delicate food or the complex and aromatic wines.

56 Brown St, Ponsonby ph 09 360 0927 Open Tuesday to Saturday lunch 12-2pm Dinner from 6pm.

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