All images: Claire Gunn
Walking into Kyoto Garden Sushi transports you immediately to a place that is calmly ordered, and for a moment, you forget about the bustling streets outside jam-packed with bearded hipsters and awash with craft beer. You forget about the struggle to find parking, and the working week that has brought you to this Friday evening.
Owner Scott Wood welcomes us at the door with a warm smile, and with a pleasant efficiency, shows us to our table. The soft light of dozens of tea light candles light the small dining room. the open sushi bar preparation area is manned solemnly by Chef Koshi Koyama, with a bartender carefully measuring out priceless tots of Japanese whisky.
We start the evening with a cocktail – for me a Japanese take on a Cosmo, which was fruity and pink, but not overly sweet. My partner went with a Midori Illusion which was predictably candy-like, and hazardously green but delicious. We selected a bottle of Oldenburg Chardonnay which was an unknown wine to both of us. Beautiful citrus notes with a soft, elegant nose – it proved to be the perfect partner to the meal that is to follow.
Tonight we are sharing the Kyoto Tasting Menu for two (R700 pp), and surrendered ourselves over to the the chef. Kyoto Garden Sushi has received reviews that describe it as overpriced sushi, some even use the word “exorbitant”, and yes, I agree this is not an everyday kind of meal.
It is priced in line with some of the top fine dining restaurants in the city, and this is a direct indication of the exceptional quality of fresh ingredients served in every course. I can’t remember when last I at eel nigiri – long since vanished from most mainstream sushi restaurants. We ate fresh raw scallops from Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, and salty bombs of ocean-ness: fresh sea urchin. The intensity of it only matched by the suddenness of its disappearance – a strong seafood flavour that almost evaporates on your tongue.
Grilled squid and squid ink was up next – a beautiful, glossy and tendy squid body served on squid ink sauce which is something I have never tasted in isolation before. A little salty, and almost mushroomy, my only regret was that we couldn’t quite appreciate the inky blackness by candlelight!
Tempura leaves and oysters were up next. Fresh oysters cooked in the crisp batter was a quirky touch, and it was a with some relief that we had some familiar flavours for a short while.
The palate cleanser before main course arrived next – a deep bowl of udon noodles in a refreshing lime broth, and piled high with ice cubes. Earlier in the day, a chef friend of mine had reminded me to keep a lookout for this dish – and it was fantastic! Sharing a bowl of noodles and broth between two mildly skilled diners was a bit of a struggle, but it certainly added to the entertainment value of the dish.
Main course was upon us, and what else but a whole steamed Atlantic lobster served with a warm brown butter dipping sauce. The flesh was soft and so flavourful, cooked perfectly and cracked open for us to share equally so to avoid any fighting over lobster limbs! We got stuck in with our hands and little lobster forks, and devoured every last little white and red shred we could find.
Dessert was thankfully, a very simple affair. Three scoops of sorbet, and we sighed with relief at its restrained size as the waiter placed it down in front of us. The three flavours were surreal – ponzu, green matcha and miso. The ponzu was fresh and citrusy and seemed so much more delicious due to its almost mythical status as the japanese citrus (I’ve never actually seen one). Matcha was creamy and a bit more familiar, a beautiful earthy tannin-like flavour that I always love. Miso ice cream was something truly special – a rich caramel flavour, with a distinct saltiness. It also had a toasted nuttiness to it that was exceptional, a very complex and delicious umami profile.
It is not very often that I come across a food that I have never tasted before, and at Kyoto I sampled at least four ingredients that were truly foreign to me. The regular restaurant menu offers some more traditional ramen bowls, seafood dishes and sushi platters but I would not hesitate to recommend the tasting menu to the adventurous eater.
The whole experience at Kyoto created a relaxing atmosphere and from the very beginning they established a trust and rapport with us, the diners, that set the tone for the whole meal. To be able to share interesting and unique food experiences with your guests every day must be a great reason to get out of bed every day.
I have never traveled to Japan (its in my top 5 list for sure!), and thus I can’t judge whether Kyoto’s food was authentic or not, but what I can say is that it was unlike anything I had even experienced in the Mother City.