It was over a bowl of ramen in Hong Kong that creative foodie inspiration struck.
Liam Millard and Ryan Christensen were travelling overseas for the Rugby Sevens and had stopped for a meal and a beer at a Japanese Izakaya.
As they were eating pork ramen they got to talking about pork and watercress (boil up) from Aotearoa and the thought came to them – Māori Japanese fusion.
The friends, both born and raised in the Bay of Plenty, then developed the concept into a wholly original dining experience – Izakai Bar and Eatery – and since opening in Mount Maunganui in May 2019, the restaurant has quickly established itself as a not-to-be-missed dining destination.
“When people come in, they feel like they’re the first ones to discover it,” says Ryan.
“Initially people can be a bit confused about what it is, then they get that first dish sat in front of them, like the Ika Mata – fresh yellow fin tuna, with coconut panacotta, fish roe and passionfruit dressing – and then they’re like ‘wow, okay I was expecting something very different’.”
The paua and prawn gyoza is another popular dish. “When people try that, we often hear them say that’s the best gyoza they’ve had in their life.”
Both Ryan and Liam are foodies and have used their individual skill sets to create Izakai. Ryan is passionate about travelling, discovering new flavours, wine and cocktail knowledge and customer experiences. Liam cares deeply about whanau (family) and manaakitanga (looking after people), showcasing his Māori heritage through a unique dining experience.
“The discovery is fun for people and fun for us. We want people to ask about the menu and our servers are given the knowledge to answer the questions,” says Liam.
“We’ve fused together both the flavours and the ideologies from the two cultures – even our name comes from izakaya and kai, making the connection between Japanese and Kiwi cuisine.”
Once people discover Izakai, they often return. The menu is given variety through the seasons so there will be new dishes to try and cocktails like the Buzzy Cuzzy (based on a Japanese sour but made with hyper-local ingredients like honey from Pāpāmoa) to sample.
With Izakai’s popularity well and truly established, Ryan and Liam are working on their next move.
“Let’s just say we want to bring our gyoza to more people,” says Ryan.
“The fun part is when people take their first bite. It blows their minds. We hope it’s down to Liam and I being so passionate about what we do.”
Check out their website here.