When Jason Lee and Makoto Tokuyama started planning their new restaurant, the world was a very different place. The pair say having a joint venture has been a dream of theirs since they cooked together as junior chefs 20 years ago – but it wasn’t until 2019 that they set that dream in motion.
In April they opened Waku Waku, an elegant contemporary Japanese restaurant in East Auckland’s upmarket Remuera village.
It takes a bit of hunting to find – off the street, down an alley and around the corner inside the 1050 Remuera precinct at 415 Remuera Road. It joins several other businesses, including Italian restaurant Spiga, cafe Tosca and hair salon Hare and Hunter. Construction is still underway in the precinct, a relatively new addition to the area, with Waku Waku awaiting what will be a roughly 40-seat pavilion, main bar and dedicated sushi and sashimi station. A more intimate 18-seat dining room is already up and running.
Tokuyama’s flagship Ponsonby restaurant Cocoro is consistently recognised among the best in the country. The chef tells Broadsheet that while he received plenty of offers to be involved in other venues over the years, the timing was never right – until Lee reminded him of their shared goal.
“I met [for a] drink with Jason a couple of years ago, and then he [started] to ask me again about our dream, to make it come true.”
When asked what “waku waku” means, Tokuyama chuckles. “It means ‘heart pumping’.” “Cocoro” translates to “heart and soul”, so perhaps Waku Waku could be seen as its more excitable sibling restaurant.
Co-owner Lee owns 18 casual Japanese eateries across New Zealand and Australia. The duo has appointed Lucas Lee as head chef; he’s worked in the kitchens of now-closed fine diner Clooney, The French Cafe under previous owner Simon Wright, modern Korean restaurant Gochu and under Tokuyama at Cocoro.
According to Jason Lee, Waku Waku is designed to be approachable and family-friendly – which suits its Remuera neighbourhood setting. Tokuyama says it’s more casual than Cocoro, but “high end” casual.
It’s certainly a sophisticated interpretation of casual. After dark, the interior glows with pale, bright light, shining in contrast against its black walls, pillars and ceiling. Underneath a striking floral decoration are two group-sized tables with smaller tables around the edge of the room. The kitchen is semi-open, allowing diners to catch glimpses of the cooking process.
The menu centres on what Lee describes as “authentic Japanese cooking techniques”, with each dish plated on characterful ceramic crockery that adds to the artfulness of the food.
Chef Lee’s experience cooking across cuisines has made its way into dishes that playfully yet elegantly fuse Japanese flavours with others from around Asia and Europe. In the snack section, for example, there is truffle sushi with mascarpone and pancetta, karaage chicken with tapioca and smoked yuzu mayo, and a puri pastry (traditionally Indian) with a creamy filling, salmon caviar and ponzu.
In the Nama Mono section (meaning “from the water”) there are fresh Te Matuku oysters and a selection of sashimi. Entrees can be ordered individually or as part of the chef’s choice platter, such as a flavourful Wagyu tartare with flying fish roe, celery, garlic and soy. The chawanmushi egg custard is silky, savoury and rich, with blue cheese and a beef cheek topping.
Mains follow the same melding of styles – among the selection there’s beef sirloin with garlic puree and pickled daikon, tonkatsu pork with parmesan cream and baby cos, charred lamb shoulder with shiso and cauliflower, and a daily vegetarian special.
The wine list is more concise now than it will be when the rest of Waku Waku is completed, but there are around 25 available by the glass and a bottle list by request. It spans New Zealand organic and biodynamic names such as Gisborne’s Millton and Central Otago’s Sato, along with well-known producers Man O’ War and Cloudy Bay. There are also French, Spanish and Italian drops, plus a selection of boutique beers and sake.
415 Remuera Road, Remuera, Auckland
(09) 520 0243
Tuesday to Sun 5pm–11pm