The new set menu at Kyoto Garden is exactly what a tasting menu should be. I ate beautiful ingredients I’d never tasted before, in dishes I wouldn’t have ordered. Best of all, the sequence of the five courses told a story, one that built to a grand finish.
Tasting menus can be disappointing: there can be too much food, for too much money. It may seem right to the chef to tell a long story, but anything over five courses and diners is in danger of becoming over-full and muddled, especially if there’s wine pairing involved.
To opt for a set menu at any restaurant is to open yourself to direct communication from the restaurant. At Kyoto Garden, the story is about the beauty and complexity of the sea.
Chef Koshi Koyama is a master who uses fresh combinations and simple cooking techniques to showcase extremely carefully chosen fish and seafood.
It’s also a story of underwater variety and the unexpected. US-born owner Scott Wood prides himself on sourcing the best ingredients, whether it’s King Crab from Alaska or farmed mussels from Saldanha Bay.
The eating begins with a plate of sushi. This is not just any raw fish. The plate features what Wood calls “jewels of the sea”: raw scallops from Alaska; wibbly sea urchin meat from Spain, and lightly grilled eel. Koyama makes his own wasabi and this has been pre-added to the sushi rolls. The dipping soy is delicate and sweet, brakwater-brown, not lacquer-black.
It’s an exquisite plate. The eel is both sweet and smoky –the flesh is pillow-soft, but the tastes are strong: smoked mackerel and braaied crayfish. The scallop is jelly-ish in texture. The wasabi provides a hit and brings out a sweetness in the meat that is almost fruity. The sea urchin is challenging. It’s slippier than an oyster. The colour is rust, the texture is as smooth as melted dark chocolate and the temperature is cold. The taste is rich: meaty, salty and slightly bitter.
Looking around, there’s a sense of old-world luxury. The décor is dimly-lit and sophisticated; Wood himself moves between the tables in a smart black jacket. Sitting amongst the table lamps and smooth banquettes one imagines oneself an urban sophisticate of indeterminate period and location.
A cocktail is in order. Wood is a connoisseur of Japanese hard tack. His signature cocktail, the Dirty Ninja Sakatini, is worth the steep price tag. The saketini is Japanese vodka and gin added to a base of sake muddled with fresh cucumber, nori strips and sweetened rice wine vinegar. The drink is cloudy and cold, with a strong smell of cucumber. It’s dry, of course, but the seaweed imparts a flavour of seaside days; the vinegar provides a late, sweet finish. “Dreamlike” is the correct adjective. It drinks like a very sophisticated ode to the ocean.
The sushi is a hard act to follow, but the tempura oysters – with their impossibly light batter shells and warm, soft centres – rise elegantly to the challenge. The ponzu dipping sauce is, once again, a beautiful compliment, with the umami of the soy and freshness of the citrus.
The cold ramen dish – with plenty of clear stock and lemon – cleanses the palate before the fireworks course: the Maine lobster served with burnt butter.
It’s a humdinger of a main; a culinary ta-da! worthy of velvet curtains, gloved flourishes and hooting applause. The Maine lobster has a darker, thicker shell than our crayfish and the meat is more crab-like, with a fishier flavour. It tastes like the cold-water cousin of our crayfish, which becomes, in comparison, a giant and very sweet prawn.
Koyama’s burnt butter not only stands up to the imported lobster, it elevates the dish. The sauce is super-smoky. In fact, the flavour is charcoal. The burnt taste is delicious because of the degree of caramel sweetness that Koyama manages to draw from the slow-burnt butter.
Call me a typical Capetonian, but the crescendo lobster course – sold separately on the menu for R500 – made me wince. I’m glad I tasted the burnt butter sauce – it’s unforgettable – but I worried about the lobster.
For someone who gave up local crayfish years ago because of sustainability issues, noshing an adult lobster – even a sustainable one – that had travelled across the world to reach my plate felt period in a bad way: it felt old-fashioned.
There is a fine line between luxury and refinement on the one hand and nose-thumbing decadence on the other. Wood assures me that his imported specialities – the flying fish roe, the abalone, the wild Norwegian salmon, the octopus, the Alaskan wild King Crab and the longline-caught tunas – all fall on the right side of sustainability.
I believe him. Kyoto Garden has been open for nine years. As a restaurant that specializes in seafood – won, in fact, this years Eat Out Best Seafood Restaurant award – Kyoto has had to deal with the issue of overfishing and its effect since it opened. There are examples of SASSI green-listed species on Kyoto Garden’s menu: squid, yellowtail; local farmed mussels and oysters.
But what about the air miles?
It’s a separate issue. Yes, overfishing and carbon emissions both damage the environment, but judging seafood sustainability means judging the health of fish stocks – full stop. Distance travelled doesn’t come into it. Kyoto Gardens does not claim to use ingredients sourced within a 10km radius of its kitchen.
In other words, my discomfort at eating imported lobster is down to me.
Luckily, I was back into my comfort zone with dessert. Like a matching bookend to the three sushi rolls, the rectangular dessert plate held three scoops of ice cream: miso, green tea and black sesame flavours. Koyama is an extraordinary chef. There was saltiness to the miso ice cream, bitterness to the matcha-flavoured ice cream, and oiliness in the black sesame flavour. The sweetness that balanced these flavours was never sugary, nor was the creaminess buttery. Ice cream can be a great big gobful of flavour that is short-lived and more-ish. Koyama’s ice creams – and the sakatini cocktail, for that matter – didn’t want to be rushed.
The Kyoto Gardens menu uses the words “quiet refinement” and “elegant simplicity”. There is no doubt that this is what Koyama achieves with his food.
As well as being a lover of Japanese cuisine, Wood is a Japanese whisky connoisseur. The name of his restaurant, Kyoto Garden, is in part a tribute to Shinjiro Torii, who chose the region of Yamazaki, Kyoto, for the start of his Japanese whisky project in 1923. Torii’s whisky, Suntory, was inspired by the Scottish drink but created to “suit the delicate palate of the Japanese and enhance their dining experience”, according to Wood.
Kyoto Garden’s Japanese whisky list features 14 blended and single malt Suntorys. The 25-year-old malts are priced at R2800 and the thirty-year-old is R3000. The Nikka whiskies are more affordable – from R200 to R1200 – with only the 15-year-old costing R3000.
The wine list is tasteful, with recognizable South African labels. Things get more interesting further down the list, with Wood’s ten sake offerings – including clear and unfiltered, raspberry and sparkling – served cold, as a beverage, or warm, with food.
The tasting menu at Kyoto Garden costs R1400 for two people, drinks excluded.
Kyoto Garden Japanese Restaurant: 11 Lower Kloof Nek Rd, Tamboerskloof; 021 442-2001; kyotogarden.co.za