Jo’burg’s Yamato restaurant fishes for condiments

Why does Yamato, one of Johannesburg's top Japanese restaurants, insist on serving cat food to diners as a pre-dinner treat? If a waitress comes over offering tiny bowls of insipid cooked tuna, send it back and move on to the menu.

The place is at the back of the shopping centre next door to the Thrupps Centre in Illovo and looks over a shop selling men's underwear and a drag theatre and burger bar called Beefcakes.

The menu is large and for one diner at the table next to mine — grumbling to no one in particular — it was “too large”. 

I ordered the 18-piece sashimi (R320), which the chef selects from his freshest fish. 

There were slices of what is probably the best-tasting salmon I have ever had, pieces of deep-red tuna, mackerel interleaved with thin slices of lemon and some incredibly fresh red roman.

The Yamato bento (R220) comes in a lacquered box and will give you a good idea of what a balanced meal should consist of. Besides the bowl of miso soup, you get four pieces of sashimi, boiled vegetables (such as carrot, broccoli, butternut and sweet potato) and tofu, a single tempura prawn and three other tempura vegetables and steamed rice. 

Another excellent combination meal is the ten don (R155): a bowl of steamed rice with tempura and a sweet soya sauce, miso and pickles. 

Japanese-style chicken curry (R105) is only served as a special at lunch on Wednesday but get there early as the place fills up fast.

The house salad (R68) is worth ordering: piles of thin potato noodles, tendrils of carrot, strips of seaweed and lettuce, with a dark, sweet and fishy dressing. 

There are other good fishy things, such as the dobin mushi, a fragrant clear fish soup with small prawns (R42) and the agedashi dofu (R45), big pieces of deep-fried tofu in a fishy broth, with flakes of dried fish.

If you are with a crowd, try the shabu-shabu (R350): you cook your own thinly sliced beef, vegetables and tofu in a little pot of kelp soup. The yamato nabe, a seafood hot pot (R750), has prawns, lobster, calamari and fish. 

I can use chopsticks as well as the next Westerner but I challenge you to try to fit the impossibly huge pieces of calamari tempura (R46) into your mouth. 

I considered calling for a knife and fork but instead just made a mess of the tablecloth.

The service is uneven. The spout of the pourer of soya sauce on my table was blocked and I found it hard to catch the eye of the waiters, whose gaze always seemed to be averted, during the rare moments they emerged from the kitchen. 

There are some delicious oddities such as tofu caprese (R45), in which slices of bean curd and tomato are stacked vertically, instead of laying it flat as Italians do. 

Another is korokke, a mashed potato croquette, with pork or beef (R56). 

Just stay away from that tuna starter.

198 Oxford Road, Illovo, phone 011 268 0511

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