Kyoto Garden Sushi has been having a good month. Four weeks ago it was rated five stars by Rossouw’s South African Restaurant Guide. This week, Eat Out voted Kyoto Garden SA’s Top Asian restaurant. Not bad for a gently-lit restaurant in a side street with a vibe that tends to quiet, not grandiosity.
The sign on the outside window says “Sushi and Tempura Bar”. It’s true that the sushi is sublime: handmade cream-coloured pickled ginger ; handmade wasabi with just the right amount of lumpiness and open-textured sushi rice. The tempura, too, is impossibly light and crunchy – unless you have tempura battered scallops, as I did, submerged in miso soup like a vastly superior wonton.
But what counts here is the fish. In almost every dish on the menu, fish is king. Fish is an excellent ingredient to showcase mastery. It is not possible to create a truly gourmet fish dish without skill, knowledge – and most importantly, the simplicity that is evidence of both.
As a raw ingredient, fish is a subtle symphony combining the freshness of salt water, the melting texture of uncooked flesh and the light meatiness of wild muscle. To honour an ingredient of such natural refinement and beauty is to enhance its flavor without losing the balance.
Chef Koshi Koyama does this and more. He starts with the fish and broadens out to the dimension of landscape. That might sound fanciful, especially in the very grounded context of this minimally decorated restaurant, but bear with me.
The seaweed, seared salmon and shitake mushroom salad tastes like a rock pool looks: twinkly with salty high notes; deep notes like shadowy rock; fluidity and flashes of flavours so distinct they are like the paintbox colours of darting fish: coral, emerald, bottle green and orange. “It’s so simple, but so overwhelming,” my friend Anne said.
Koyama and owner Scott Wood offer a masterclass in composition. For a main, Anne ordered the sliced squid in lemon and squid ink sauce. We should have guessed that the presentation of these black and white elements would have brought tears to Esher’s eyes. The squid body sat whole in the pool of black sauce, the top half of its body sliced so precisely it was as if it had been segmented by Nature herself.
Our rhapsodic appreciation of the food was interrupted when Wood came over for a chat. He told us that the squid was loligo vulgaris reynaudii, our local squid. I was pleased, as local squid is almost impossible to buy. The vast majority of it is exported to countries that are prepared to pay handsomely for its soft, sweet flesh. Wood insists on the best, he told us.
It is disappointing then that Wood and Koyama don’t consider many other local, sustainable fish to fall into that category. The deep-sea giant Alaskan scallops, the salmon roe, the clams, giant Alaskan crab, wild Alaskan salmon, farmed Norwegian salmon, langoustines and prawns which the menu also features are obviously all imported.
Our waiter, whose service was unimpressive, had to go to the kitchen to find out that the tuna used for the tartare was local bigeye, longline caught (putting it on the SA Seafood Initiative’s orange list). Diningout.co.za meanwhile claims that Kyoto also serves bluefin tuna, a species threatened with extinction. One hopes this isn’t true. To be fair, Kyoto’s mussels and oysters are not only local, but also sustainable.
The food at Kyoto Gardens sets a gold standard in terms of fish cookery. The dishes demonstrate not just genuine respect for ocean creatures, but also inspiration derived from the watery environment. Reacting more decisively to the issue of overfishing would seem to be the next logical step for this otherwise impressive establishment.
Kyoto Garden Sushi 021 442 2001; 11 Lower Kloof Nek Rd, Tamboerskloof
Daisy Jones is author of Star Fish, a cookbook about sustainable fish. She has written restaurant reviews for Business Day and various guides.