The Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo must be the closest commerce has come to a man-made wonder of the world. A vast warehouse with almost 2000 stalls, you see old women with mobile phones clamped to their ears while calculating on abacuses. There isn’t a fish lurking in a remote bay or river estuary of the world that can’t be accessed in 48-hours through its network. On display is every imaginable fish, from the salted entrails of sea cucumbers to giant blue-fin tuna, which on the sushi table are worth over a million rand each!
Having just witnessed the immense rape and pillage of the world’s oceans, I felt a pang of guilt and considered going back to vegetarianism. Well that is until I stepped into a restaurant just off the market, and was served some nigiri a moment after its last heartbeat. The truth is we don’t have anything like this in our local sushi places. I doubted then if I’d ever eat sushi again back in Cape Town.
After the mid-90s boom, numerous South African restaurants began to serve sushi. I count 47 in Cape Town and 35 in Johannesburg. But we completely lack other Japanese cuisine styles. For ten days in Tokyo I could eat in a different style restaurant every night. At an okonomiyaki restaurant, you sit communally, often with strangers, around a hot iron plate. You order raw ingredients and are given a jug of batter. Using a spatula, you cook for yourselves, what turns out to be a kind of filled pancake, eaten directly off the hot-plate.
Then there’s Japanese pizza. The place I tried had English on the menu and at first I thought they must have had a rotten translator. The combination of toppings was bilious. Some of the pizzas had spaghetti on them, and mayonnaise or lettuce leaves. My Japanese friend’s pizza was a shock. It looked almost normal, with large shelled shrimps neatly curled on top, threads of red bell pepper and cubes of white fish. But it was pitch-black! “They use squid ink instead of tomato,” he explained. “Is it better?” “No, we like the colour.” Soon his tongue and the interior of his mouth were stained deep black.
While most local Asian restaurants also serve Thai and Chinese dishes, Fujiyama in Seapoint and Benkai in Greenpoint concentrate on a Japanese only menu, with sushi, teppanyaki (fish, meat or chicken grilled on a teppan hot plate), yakitori (kebab), tempura (vegetables or seafood deep fried in batter) and Japanese noodles (udon and soba). Incidentally, tempura actually originates as an interpretation of Portuguese dishes from the 16th century.
Fujiyama still has teppan tables at which you can sit. When it opened 15 years ago it was the headlining act, but these days it looks rather unkempt and neglected. I used to take people to business lunches there to gain an unfair psychological advantage. Few South Africans then knew anything about sushi. I’d mischievously watch the meat-and-potatoes guys’ bafflement at the menu and their struggle to eat with chopsticks. It worked as a strategy. They over compensated by showing how much money they could spend.
The faded red awning and the cheap placemats at Benkai put you on your guard. But the chef is one of the older itamae (Japanese sushi chef) in Cape Town. As far as price goes, Benkei is good value. The Benkei platter (R99) includes free miso soup, lots of California roll, assorted nigiri and tamago (sweet, rolled egg omelette). They also sometimes run ‘all you can eat’ specials.
The Codfather in Camps Bay is one of the few establishments left with the conveyor belt and colour plate price-code system. The last time I ate there however the rice was hard and dried out, something no self-respecting sushi establishment should allow.
Other restaurants with very good reputations in town are Willoughby & Co, Tank and Haiku.
The beautifully designed Kyoto Garden Sushi laid out in beechwood is an aesthetic oasis in the midst of busy street. The owner, who hails from LA I believe, brings together Japan and West Coast pizzazz and sophistication. Obviously a perfectionist, everything is done with skill, knowledge, style and an attention to detail not often found these days.
The wine list is short, but hand-picked and not wanting. The house white is stunning, as is the Quando Sauvignon blanc (R32 a glass). To my taste the bar serves the most delicious cocktails in town. A dash of wasabi in the Asian Mary (R36), a variation on the Bloody, makes all the difference. He also stocks some pricey, but prize-winning Japanese whiskeys. I preferred the less smooth 12-year-old Suntory (R55) to the rounded 18-year-old (R65) measured in metric tots, definitely not North American servings.
It’s the only place I know in town that serves real wasabi from the grated root. Apparently wasabi was originally used as a condiment because it has antibacterial and antibiotic qualities (not a bad idea when eating raw fish). The green stuff you get in almost all establishments, the world-over, is a mixture of wasabi powder with horseradish and mustard.
Kyoto’s menu can be slightly restricted at times because of their insistence on freshness so a number of options may not be available if they weren’t top notch at the market that day. In addition to sushi they serve salads and main courses with a Japanese character. I highly recommend the ‘special fish’ (R110), which comes steamed on a bowl of rice flavoured with the chef’s sauce.
Desserts are as innovative as the rest of their dishes, and the green tea crêpes (R34) are close to perfection. Newcomer Kyoto may yet become the title holder.
Where to eat sushi: a pick of the best in Cape Town.
Benkei, Paramount Place, 105 Main Road, Green Point. Tel: 021 439 4918.
Fujiyama, The Courtyard, 100 Main Road, Seapoint. Tel: 021 434 6885.
Haiku, 33 Church Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 7000.
Kyoto Garden Sushi,11 Kloofnek Road, Cape Town. Tel: 021 4222 001.
Tank, Cape Quarter, 72 Waterkant Street, Green Point. Tel: 021 419 0007.
Willoughby & Co, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront. Tel: 021418 6115.