Big in Japan

The freshest local seasonal ingredients, artfully presented and served with gracious and knowledgeable efficiency: these are the hallmarks of the Japanese dining experience. Having just returned from a delicious four months in Japan, I have been scouring Cape Town’s Japanese offerings — leaving fashion sandwiches to the fashionable and eschewing sushi, Thai and Chinese — in search of the Mother City’s most authentic Japanese culinary experiences.

More than just sushi
First let’s acknowledge that in South Africa ‘Japanese’ and ‘sushi’ are pretty much synonymous. In fact, no one even talks about going for ‘Japanese’. And though it’s admittedly hard to turn down a platter of sushi rolls glistening with mayonnaise and laden with deep-fried tasties, people are missing out. Take heed.

Many a Capetonian’s favourite sushi joint Willoughby and Co opened its Japanese kitchen four years ago. Though eighty percent of diners still head straight to rainbow-nation-roll territory, an occasional detour is well rewarded. Dishes like the grilled salmon with miso, seared beef tataki, and hot and spicy salmon tartare could easily be found in any great izakaya (Japan’s hugely popular pub-style eateries). Chef Sam’s most recent summer addition, a brilliant take on ceviche, is a fabulous example of Japanese-South African-South American fusion. Who knew that was even a thing? Now if only we could get them out of that mall—

The serene Kyoto Garden Sushi on hectic Kloofnek admirably manages to evoke something of the atmosphere found in many a Kyoto garden. No blobs of mayo or drizzles of olive oil here: the menu favours subtle simplicity, which is in fact very Japanese.

Unfortunately, difficulties procuring the fresh ingredients key to that palate (the uni and fresh wasabi once on the menu are both no longer) mean that subtle can occasionally border on bland. That said, the seafood miso soup is delicious; the wonderful tempura impressively light and served with a great gingery dipping sauce; and the sautéed Japanese mushrooms truly a little taste of Japan.

Much lauded since its opening, Takumi (Papa San’s new venture) focuses almost exclusively on sushi. There are, however, a couple delicious non-sushi appetisers, such as the nasu miso (eggplant with miso) and the wakame salad. However, the agedashi dofu was disappointingly flavourless, and the tempura batter a bit too close to a koeksister. The rushed service and unfortunate acoustics? Very un-Japanese.

Japanese diner
Though it’s all too easy to spend your life savings on one fine kaiseki meal in Japan, there is a plethora of cheap and delicious fare to be had in the land of the rising sun, usually in restaurants that focus on just that one thing. Cape Town lacks the economy of scale to make one-dish specialty places feasible, but to my surprise and delight, some of those dishes can be found — all in one place.

Recently reopened from its Cavendish location to the CBD, Fujiyama brings what I would call Japanese diner food (think American-style diners) to Cape Town. It’s unlikely that anything here is going to rock your world from a foodie-culinary standpoint. However, tasty and cheap dishes like the Japanese curry with chicken or beef (the meat is battered in panko, a Japanese breadcrumb, and deep fried), the yakisoba (fried noodles), and the tempura udon all evoke the comforting flavours — and reasonable cost — of what is essentially Japanese fast food. Another great surprise was the presence of mochi: pounded rice cakes often served as dessert.

Omakase

Essentially translating as ‘trust the chef’, omakase is a style that originated in Japanese sushi restaurants where diners do just that — invite the chef to serve a multi-course selection of his own design that showcases the day’s star ingredients as well as his own creative prowess.

Nobu, the global superstar of Japanese innovation cuisine, may be incredibly pricey, but a visit to this bastion of luxury is a far sight more economical than a trip to Japan. From the moment one arrives, the hearty greeting of ‘Irsasshaimase!’ and the oshibori (hot hand towel) presented at the table set the scene for authenticity. But it’s the food that does the real work of transporting one across time and space.

Chef Hideki’s special omakase menu changes regularly. However, in all eight courses, not one false note is struck. Highlights included the yellowtail sashimi with mustard miso sauce; raw tuna and tamago (egg cake) rolled in cucumber and served with a tamari dressing and toasted almond flakes; the signature black cod with miso; and the unbelievably rich wagyu beef with foie gras in a balsamic teriyaki.

Nobu embraces world culinary influences, as evidenced by its use of spices and local ingredients. But the panache and perfection of execution, the beautiful presentation of the food, and the excellent service all put Nobu squarely in the realm of what defines a truly great Japanese culinary experience.

Gochiso sama deshita! (Thanks for the feast!)


Go to www.eatout.co.za for more restaurant listings and reviews.

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