REVIEW: Compared with Auckland or even Christchurch, Wellington's Japanese population is tiny.
So when you go to a restaurant like Tatsushi and realise the majority of patrons are conversing with the staff in Japanese, this really says something. Most importantly, it tells you the food is authentic.
For unlike the vast majority of so-called Japanese restaurants in Wellington, which are Chinese or Korean owned, Tatsushi truly is Japanese.
Owner Tatsushi Mikuni was born in Kyushu, trained as a sushi chef in Tokyo and has worked for the past 16 years in traditional Japanese restaurants, including Tofuya Ukai in Hachioji, whose sister restaurant holds two Michelin stars.
Settled in Wellington since last year, Tatsushi took over the former Matsuri Sushi in August.
It's a modest little shop where a large open kitchen occupies three-quarters of the space.
The vibe is Zen-like and spare: dark floorboards, plain white walls, a traditional wooden dresser (bought from my favourite curiosity shop, Asia Gallery in Kilbirnie) and just a few exquisite objets d'art: two Japanese teapots, a bamboo river fish sieve containing a flower arrangement and, on the counter, an understated piece of ikebana.
You drink your sake - or in my case suishin, slightly warmed to enhance its fruity, almost apple-like aroma - from tiny, slightly irregular pottery cups.
Tatsushi's pledge is to keep the ingredients fresh and the menu seasonal.
The menu changes every month and since Tatsushi personally picks through the catch at two Wellington fish markets every morning, the freshness of his raw fish is sensational.
Not just one, but five species created a glistening rainbow effect in the osashimi bowl in front of me: from the flaming orange of salmon, to the silver of trevally, the deep crimson of jack mackerel and the pure white of terakihi and squid. In the sense that these are laid over sweet, slightly vinegary sushi rice with a dab of sinus-clearing wasabi, the dish can be seen as a form of deconstructed sushi.
Tatsushi makes his own fresh tofu and the difference in flavour is palpable. Unlike many other Japanese restaurants around town, he also makes his dashi stock from scratch, eschewing instant powders in favour of dried bonito flakes and kombu seaweed.
This dashi is seen in the bowl of udon noodles which comes as a lunchtime set with a plate of tempura.
Curry may seem an odd thing to eat at a Japanese restaurant, but actually the dish has been firmly entrenched in Japanese cuisine since the 19th century Meiji Restoration.
Curry came to Japan via the British Raj, as seen in Tatsushi's rendition, with its flour-thickened gravy, its onion, potato and carrot. Tasty but very mild, this curry was the sauce for two pieces of expertly judged chicken katsu (crumbed and deep-fried breast). The garnish is a tiny portion of crunchy, sweet-sour pickled daikon (at least I think it was daikon - it having been dyed bright red).
I can see I'm going to have to try the dinner menu here, as well as returning for lunch - and not just on pay day at Le Cordon Bleu when I'm feeling flush.
Tatsushi sells takeaway boxes of sushi, you see, and at $4 for four fat slices of California roll, he undercuts his Chinese and Korean competitors by a full dollar.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Prawn Tempura Udon Noodle Soup Set
This lunch set combines two of my favourite Japanese dishes – the lovely fat squishiness of udon noodles and the crispness of tempura. I'm not quite sure of the order in which one is supposed to eat this set, but who cares? Tatsushi's dashi, as we've seen, is old-school, his noodles are perfect, while his tempura is absolutely classic. Part of the joy of an open kitchen is being able to watch Tatsushi prepare the tempura batter to order and deep fry the prawns, pumpkin, aubergine, asparagus and onion. In no time they come to the table, crisp, crunchy and stacked like kindling for a bonsai camp-fire. An accompanying dipping sauce, redolent of shoyu and mirin, is so delicious you feel like picking up the bowl and drinking the dregs – in fact, I did.
TATSUSHI 99 Victoria St
Ph: 472 3928
Open for lunch Tue-Sat 11.30am-2.30pm, dinner Thu-Sat 6pm-late.
Price range of lunch mains: $12-$15
Drinks list: ***1/2 Cost: $30 for two (excluding sake)
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