by Monique Gunther
Chicken karaage and potato croquettes in New Zealand
Nestled between houses on a suburban street is a dining experience you will never forget. It is a small restaurant that transports you from a quiet New Zealand street to another world.
Even before we reach the restaurant door I feel as if I am in another time and place. The carpark is lined with large bamboo gently swaying in the wind, the ramp is decorated with an authentic bamboo fence. The windows are packed with Sake bottles of all shapes and sizes and a Japanese noren (fabric divider) hangs at the door.
Stepping into the building it feels like I have just stepped into a restaurant in Kyoto. The interior is traditionally dark and dimly lit, furnished with dark wooden tables and chairs.
The waiting area, corridor and walls are all decorated with tasteful curios from Japan. We can hear the chatter of other diners and a delicate, but enticing smell wafts from the kitchen as we wait to be seated. We are soon greeted with a friendly ‘konichiwa’ and shown to our table.
The menus is extensive, and as explained to us by the waitress, is designed for sharing. It is a pleasure to read, with beautiful photographs to help explain the many exotic sounding dishes. The only dish we are all familiar with is sushi, so we take our time reading about each and every dish. After much discussion my husband and I are able to select four dishes. These will be brought to us one at a time.
Waiting for our first dish, we are able to soak in the atmosphere. Beyond the bamboo screens I can hear the relaxing sound of a water feature. We gaze around the room, looking at the amazing array of kimono, photographs, posters and other interesting curios.
Before long our impeccably presented waitress appears with our first dish- chicken karaage. The dish is everything the menu promised; delicious deep fried succulent chicken. The dish looks as wonderful as it tastes with a small side salad complementing the chicken. Our empty plate is quickly taken away and we sit in anticipation of our next dish.
The second dish arrives, and is even more beautiful than the first. We are presented with okonomiyaki, a vegetable fritter and unlike anything I have ever eaten before! The fritter is topped with chicken, mayonnaise, finely diced spring onions and a paper thin crisps.
These tasty crispy morsels are so finely cut they are slightly moving with the heat from the fritter. The dish is placed in the middle and we admire it briefly before each slowly using our chopsticks to taste each different element. We then both eat a segment each, with all the flavours combining deliciously. Our conversation ceases as we simply concentrate on the wonderful dish before us.
Next, our potato croquettes arrive. By this stage we were aware that the croquettes would be nothing like any croquettes we had eaten before. This is another great dish to share between two. Soft, tasty potato coated with a crunchy breadcrumb. This is served with a sweet brown dipping sauce, Bulldog sauce. Once again the dish has a small, artistically arranged salad which looks and tastes wonderful.
As soon as we are finished our waitress quietly appears and takes away our plates. Our chopsticks are replaced with traditional Japanese spoons. She disappears and then almost immediately returns with our final dish, beef curry served with rice and pickles.
The bowl of curry is placed between us and smells divine. We serve ourselves small servings each. This spicy dish does not disappoint. It has just the right amount of spice and is the perfect way to finish the evening. Delicious as it is there is no way we can finish it, we are both full and feeling very satisfied.
Yatai truly has been a fantastic dining experience. I am slightly saddened as we step out of the restaurant, my back turned from the intriguing bamboo and noren as we head to our car and back to suburbia.