“It’s a garden in a busy city,” says Scott Wood, as a frantic Tuesday morning on Cape Town’s Kloof Street rushes by outside the windows of Kyoto Garden Sushi. “I want people to wander off the street into this quiet peaceful space, and take a breath.”
With minimalist décor and a suitably Zen ambience, Kyoto Garden Sushi certainly lives up to its name. But that’s perhaps as far as it goes. For while Scott and chef Koshi Koyama certainly offer superb sushi – perhaps the best in the city – there’s far more to this humble Japanese restaurant than artfully sliced sashimi and perfect rice.
Turn back the clocks to 1974 and a younger Wood, he’s now 66 and fond of the mystique a pair of dark glasses can bring, was just beginning his love affair with sushi in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Years in the fashion and restaurant industries sparked a deep sense of wanderlust that then led him through Europe, across India and the Himalayas and, eventually, to Africa.
“I first came to Cape Town in 1996, but it was only when I came back here in 2006 to buy a house that I walked past the space here,” explains Wood in a low American drawl. “I never thought I’d open a Japanese restaurant, let alone in Africa, but once the decision was made I thought OK, I’m going to do something different. Let’s have a little variety. Let’s do some of the weird things that I like to eat; roe and scallops, octopus and real crab.”
His plan was to head back to LA after two years, but nine years on and Wood is still in the Mother City. And Kyoto Garden Sushi is more popular than ever. Last year it was fêted by EatOut magazine as the best Asian restaurant in the country.
Perhaps the biggest misconception, and Wood would be the first to admit the ambiguous name, is that there’s far more to Kyoto Garden than the sushi.
While there’s no teppanyaki or yakitori on offer – the scent of burning oil and charcoal would be out of place in this clean, serene space, says Wood – the wide-ranging menu wanders the length and breadth of Japanese cuisine. Although few of the dishes could be labelled Japanese classics, perhaps the magic of Kyoto Garden Sushi is the chefs’ ability to combine quintessential Japanese flavours like dashi, nori and miso into something altogether unique.
A starter of rice paper rolls of prawns and scallop is all fragrance and subtlety, while the fantastic ceviche of fresh line-fish tips a hat, Nobu-style, to South America. Soups follow starters, and here ‘The Sea’ is the standout, a clear broth of prawns, clams, octopus, scallops and seaweed. The miso with mushrooms, seaweed and tofu is excellent too.
Salads and tempura will tempt you to delay the arrival of main courses, with the Japanese coleslaw a revelation in what can be accomplished with cabbage, crayfish and the right seasoning. Tempura vegetables are perfectly light and crisp, enhancing the flavour of the vegetable rather than obscuring it in batter and oil.
Seafood dominates the main courses, and while the prices are high the quality is superb.
The dish ‘Alaskan Night’ is a fine example, with seared Alaskan salmon, giant scallop and Alaskan King Crab. The steamed fish in a bamboo pot is another crowd-pleaser, with the delicate flavours and elegant simplicity so typical of Japanese cuisine.
“Whenever I go to Japan I find new inspiration,” says Wood. “It might not necessarily be for another dish, but I find new ideas, new flavours, new ingredients.”
While the Japanese cuisine is more than sufficient reason to visit Kyoto Garden Sushi, Chef Koshi has built a formidable reputation for crafting some of the best sushi in the city. Which, Wood says, perhaps isn’t hard.
“A fashion sandwich? What is that! It’s like eating a pile of white bread!” he exclaims, bemoaning the ‘new wave’ sushi most diners are accustomed to. “A tempura California roll? I’m sure it tastes great because it’s deep-fried, but I’d rather have the purity of a perfect nigiri.”
Purity is a good word for the sushi here, with most plates built on the trinity of perfect rice, fresh fish and a hit of wasabi. Sashimi and nigiri rule the menu, with an array of fresh fish that wouldn’t look out of place in the bustling alleys of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.
Although the menu already extends to everything from miso-glazed eel to scallop and fatty toro, “we want to add more dishes to the sushi menu,” says Wood. “Our hand rolls are amazing… it’s all about the quality of the nori on the outside. The islands of Japan are so rich in different seaweeds, so we try and use the best we can get our hands on.”
The same applies to the impressive collection of Japanese whiskies behind the counter. At last count over 20 Japanese blended whiskies and malts were on offer, from a barrel-aged Nikka single malt to the impressive Karuizawa 21-year-old single cask. Don’t miss the single malt from the Yamazaki distillery, which last year won the title of world’s best whisky for its Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013
While the clean, delicate flavours of sushi are often better left to shine through on their own, perhaps with a whisky digestif, a noodle-laden miso-broth pairs beautifully with the caramel notes of the Hibiki 21-year-old blended whisky, named World's Best Blended Whisky at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards.
In the end, it’s all about balance, and that’s something Kyoto Garden Sushi excels at: the delicate equilibrium of rice and fish in the elegant nigiri, or the dance of dashi and miso in an umami-rich broth of duck and Japanese noodles. Beyond the windows the cars on Kloof Street keep rushing by, while inside this secret garden a world of Japanese flavours awaits.