For Jason Lee and Makoto Tokuyama, having a joint venture was a long-held dream of theirs since they cooked together as junior chefs – but it wasn’t until 2019 that they set that dream in motion.
In April 2022 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.
Tokuyama’s flagship Ponsonby restaurant Cocoro is consistently recognised among the best in the country. According to him, "waku waku" 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 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 traditional Japanese cooking techniques, but 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. Each dish is plated on characterful ceramic crockery that adds to the artfulness of the food.
The wine list is expansive and 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.
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