Herald rating: * * * * 1/2

Hiroshi Miyata, owner of new Sake bar 601 in Morningside. Photo / Babiche Martens
Consuming professional that I am, let me say up-front that I’m not a huge fan of much Japanese food. We ate it twice last week. The second time was really, really good.

Maybe it’s feeling out of depth with how the menu works or how much to order (it’s always too much). And it’s no use asking your waitress. Either she understands the menu but not English, or has marvellous diction but no communication skills.

The meal arrives in an exquisite laquered box that should hold the Crown Jewels (and if you’re not sure what you’ve ordered, may), or a bonsai arrangement where you’re not sure which bits you nibble and which are decoration. The first place was like that. I thought one item on my tray was a twig. Jude thought it was a dried snake, but she had her glasses on. Either way, I poked but did not ingest.

By the way, do many women who gorge themselves thin on sushi and sashimi, condemn whaling and douse themselves in Eau de Whatever know that a key ingredient of perfume is whale sick? No? I thought not.

The second place is called 601, for the plain and simple reason that it’s at 601 New North Rd, in the Morningside shops. Remember those words, plain and simple.

It’s stark, white and infinitesimal. If it seats 20 at the tables, couches and bar, I’d be surprised. That’s why it pays to book. The first time we fronted, I hadn’t. Fortunately the equally welcoming Winehot is two doors down.

Hosts are Hiroshi Miyata, previously chef at Katsura in the Rendezvous Hotel when he wasn’t surfing at Piha, and Gen Ogata from Tanuki’s Cave, a delightful maitre d’ who’s as far from anyone depicted in paragraph 2 as you could wish.

The tight menu is in Euro format. Another mark for plain and simple. And yet another for the wilfully un-fussy presentation. None of that tosh about food as edible origami – it’s served neatly and elegantly on little white plates that seem to be moulded from foil picnic platters.

There are a few beers and fewer wines on the list. There are a few more sakes: light-flavoured rose did for me, sweet plum wine for Jude. “All the ladies like it,” promised Ogata, and she did. Twice. Because this is a neighbourhood place, they follow the civilised custom of BYO on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Miyata and Ogata aren’t only the bosses, they’re the whole staff. Ogata explains the dishes, offers advice and takes the orders; rather like an infomercial gadget, Miyata slices and dices and chops and cooks in the open kitchen, and chats with the customers.

Kumara chips, scented with sesame seeds, and a plain and simple salad dressed with a subtle vinaigrette born of sesame oil and umeboshi vinegar, made a refreshing start. Jude ordered sashimi – snapper, salmon and tuna that were possibly still quivering.

We shared, as with my curried snapper skewers. Curry rather overpowered the fish, I thought.

601ChefHiroshiMiyataSurfBoardThe rather Westernised mains include steak, corn-fed chicken, fish, lamb leg steak or tofu (I refuse to call bean-curd “steak”), cooked as you want: my steak wasn’t wagyu but still tasty, quickly and expertly cooked. Jude’s prawns may have arrived wrapped in the most sublimely executed tempura in Auckland: light, crisp, savoury. On the side, bowls of sticky wild brown rice, stronger-tasting and more interesting than the gunk in so many other places.

You can’t ignore a dessert called “moffle”. Miyata’s invention is a cross between traditional “mochi”, or sticky rice cake, and a waffle. You spoon red bean puree or blueberries and cream into the segments, and chew.

This feast, and drinks, set us back the whopping sum of $88, and by this time it was only a question of 4 or 5 stars. The two women at the next table eyed our moffle and thought they’d have one too, even though they had to get to the movies in town. “It’s our first time here,” said the one in the blue top, “but we’re going to spread the word.”

“So are we,” said Jude. And here it is.

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Soon to be Sake Bar 601 – the licence hadn’t come through at the time of writing – 601 joins Winehot (see review at left) a couple of doors down in affording great eating in the otherwise nondescript Morningside shops.

Chef Hiroshi Miyata, formerly of Katsura at the Rendezvous Hotel, assisted by manager Gen Ogata who came from the delightful Tanuki’s Cave, offers a tight menu that’s big on flavour, along with blackboard specials.

For the standard mains you can take your pick from steak, corn-fed chicken, market fish, lamb leg steak or tofu steak and choose how you would like it prepared: panfried perhaps, the fish sashimi’d, panfried or in tempura. All come with fresh salad and tasty Japanese dressing.

Our first impression was that we had the best miso soup we’d ever tried, with loads of vegetables as well as the usual strips of nori.

For sushi to start, we asked them to surprise us and surprise us they did. Fried sushi of smoked fish and cream cheese was a moreish first for us. The California roll was as fresh and chipper as you could wish.

And likewise all the other dishes we tried. The tempura of salmon along with some vegetables including green beans and eggplant was light and crisp – and remained crisp throughout the meal – whereas it can so often be closer to chip-shop batter.

For dessert you will find the novel “moffle”, a cross between mochi, or sticky rice cake, and waffle, served with organic azuki bean paste, whipped cream and fruit – strawberries when we tried it. Another light and crisp treat.

601ChefHiroshiMiyataTableLike the menu this bright almost surgically white cafe is small and cleanly formed. It would pay to book for dinner and you will be rewarded with some morsel gifted from the kitchen.

It’s boring to be constantly reminded of these tight times, but with the likes of a set including main, miso soup, coffee and dessert for $15, you won’t need to tighten your belt in any sense here.

We were bemused by a big surfboard standing up against the wall, but it turns out chef is a bit of an expert at Hawaiian paddle surfing. Some people display skill in more ways than one.

Jan 2009
by Toni Mason


Sake Bar 601 is run by just two people. Hiroshi Miyata, ex-Katsura in the the Rendezvous Hotel, is the chef, working in the open kitchen right by where you eat, and Gen Ogata, ex-Tanuki’s Cave, is the maitre d’. It’s simple and white, with just a few tables, a couple of couches, some bar stools and a bit more seating in the courtyard out the back. The menu is short and the wine and beer lists even shorter, although the sake options are rather more fulsome.

This bright, breezy neighbourhood sake joint in the unimposing strip of shops at Morningside seems like a perfect spot to pop in for an impromptu meal out. Don’t risk it! The tiny restaurant is more than likely to be full – we suggest that you book ahead.

Apart from snaffling a seat, there is another advantage to making a reservation. Diners who book are rewarded with a complimentary appetiser that arrives on the table in a beautiful lacquered box, like treasure.

The menu at 601 is concise, covering Japanese standards – sushi, sashimi and tempura – as well as more Western-style selection of grain-fed steak, corn-fed chicken, market fish (tempura or panfried), lamb leg steak and tofu steak all prepared as you wish, with a Japanese touch. Or for something more innovative, look to the blackboard specials, which change daily.

The kitchen runs down one side of the room, allowing an uninterrupted view of chef and owner Hiroshi Miyata.

This peek into the engine room adds to the restaurant’s friendly, no fuss vibe, like you have just stopped by for a bite at a mate’s place, albeit a mate with some pretty fancy cooking equipment.

For a full culinary show, sit at the bar sipping selections from the sake list (it is more extensive than the small wine list on offer) and watch Miyata’s creations emerge one plate at a time.

His prawn tempura are like biteable prawn clouds that come perfectly seasoned and crispy without leaving the faintest grease spot on your tongue. The teriyaki chicken, with skin on for extra flavour, is juicy and slathered in sticky sauce. The tuna sashimi is freshly fetched from the Fish Market and has a flawless velvety texture. Even a simple garden salad packs more flavour than expected, pepped up by a delicate sesame dressing.

For desert there are just three choices – ice cream, fruit or Miyata’s curious invention – the moffle – a waffle made from mochi (sticky rice cake) served with red azuki bean paster, berries and cream.

An elegant but unassuming neighbourhood cafe that serves exquisite food.

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