From having been low key for eight years since opening, 2014 has been kind to Kyoto Garden Sushi, in it winning a 5* Smart Casual accolade in the 2015 Diners Club Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide, as well as Best Asian Restaurant in the 2015 Mercedes-Benz Eat Out Awards last month. As a result friend Whitney Wentzel and I had extremely high expectations when we had dinner there last Wednesday evening, which sadly were not met at all!
I was surprised that I could book a table for the following day when I called, being the week after the Eat Out Awards, the Japanese chef taking the booking. I had seen a parking sign with an arrow to the left outside the entrance, and had thought that parking was available behind the building, but was told that it was for upstairs tenants and that we should park at the school down the road, not great on a rainy night. The waiter I asked had no clue about the parking sign outside. Luckily a parking bay became available across the road. At the entrance to the restaurant a candle is lit, and two Noren cloth dividers hang in the doorway. We were shown to a table, sitting next to another couple, so close to each other that we could hear each other’s conversations. There seemed to be some uncertainty about our booking, but it was eventually found in the book. MasterChef SA Season 2 winner Kamini Pather was there too, having dinner with a friend.
The space inside Kyoto is tiny, with no more than nine 2 seater tables, or so it felt. There is no obvious reception desk at which to announce oneself. The decor is lightweight, with Californian shutters to the street, a Japanese umbrella and a bamboo stem in one corner, and a Japanese lantern in another. There are old-fashioned ceiling fans. I had heard word of Feng Shui, but there were no obvious Feng Shui elements. On the right is a bar, serving cocktails, and the chef making sushi, one being able to eat at this counter and observe Chef Koshi Koyana from Tokyo making the sushi. There is an open plan kitchen at a mezzanine level , in which two Malawian chefs prepared all the dishes other than the sushi. Lighting is very low, a nightmare for food photography. The wood top tables have a pair of chopsticks, the reusable kind clearly, as they were not wrapped in paper, and a candle. A shock was seeing the cheap paper serviettes in this 5* establishment!
The waiter looked after us initially, bringing us the menus, and water for me and a glass of wine for Whitney. It was a shock to see the worn A4 paper menu, which did not reflect the 5* status of the restaurant. For the restaurant being uniquely Japanese, and us being first time visitors, we were surprised that the waiter (or owner Scott Wood, who took an hour to acknowledge our presence) did not explain the menu, or make recommendations about the specialities of the restaurant. Our waiter was not knowledgeable about the menu – when I asked him about the Tender Abalone Japanese style (R165) he said it was served raw, but when he went to double-check, he said it was lightly cooked! This happened a number of times.
I found it hard to make a choice from the extensive menu, with minimal descriptions of the items on the menu, untidy presentation, and extreme prices, making us hold back on ordering. Whitney and I both choose the noodle dishes, she with duck (R175) and I with prawns (R165). I ordered a side of mushrooms too (R75)! We waited for an hour to receive our dishes, but tiny (unordered) treats were sent to the table, clearly in retrospect to keep one quiet about the slow service of the food ordered. The first treat was a collection of three tiny bowls, of bamboo, scallops, and mustard cabbage. Then heavily salted edamame beans were brought to the table. Then we received previously-frozen and extremely salty shrimps, described as ‘prawns‘ by the waiter! Every time we had eaten one of these little amuse bouche treats, the dishes would be removed, and Scott would come to our table, without talking to us, and put our chop sticks back on a tiny stand, at a very specific angle, clearly his fixation. When a table becomes free, Scott cleans it himself, and puts the chairs at an angle to the table.
The menu starts with some dishes that are not introduced or categorised, including the Abalone dish, ‘Jewels of the Sea’ (which seems to be a signature dish, and contains oysters, scallop, and abalone, at R155), ceviche (R110), and thinly sliced Wagyu beef (R135). A Soup section offers a range of Miso soups, costing between R75 to R145. ‘The Sea‘ (R135) sounds interesting, with prawns, octopus, clams, mussels, scallops, and seaweed. Six salads range in price from R85 – R155, and all but one contain seafood. The Tempura is highly regarded at Kyoto, from what I had read, but none of the items was of interest, costing R 105 – R175, one not knowing how many items one receives. A Japanese curry costs R115. Mains start at R155, for sautéed mussels, and peak at R290 for a whole crayfish, the list including only fish-related dishes, other than the duck noodle dish. The sushi list is extensive, and contains prices for 2 and for 4 pieces, ranging from R40 (quail egg) to R110 for eel, and Alaskan King Crab, for two pieces.
We knew next to nothing about owner Scott, had heard about his oddness, and that he has been known to show customers to the door if he does not like them. He asked me if I was a chef, and I said I wasn’t. Whitney took out her business card, being a chef. They spoke about Banting, and Scott promised to visit her restaurant when he is off. I asked Scott what had brought him to Cape Town (from Los Angeles in the USA). and he said it is a long story, and he would tell me another time!
After more than an hour the two noodle dishes arrived (Whitney had seen from her seat that the Malawian chefs made the noodles out of a packet, not having made the noodles themselves). When Whitney asked Scott when the food would be served, she was rudely told that the restaurant is not a KFC! My dish had 6 prawns with their tail shells still on, and Whitney’s duck dish came with lots of mushrooms, not having been told so when we ordered the mushroom side dish. Whitney took one bite of her duck dish, and put down her chop sticks, saying it was dreadfully salty and overcooked. I was annoyed that I had to use my fingers to pull off the shells on the prawn tails, and could not believe the after-bite of my dish, Scott explaining to us that it a Japanese spice, but this is not mentioned on the menu. Even worse was the saltiness and odd taste of the mushroom side dish, which Whitney did not want to touch. Whitney did not want a replacement dish, being so annoyed about the long wait for the food, no longer being hungry, and the disappointment in the poor duck she was served. Scott offered to replace my dish with an unspiced one. I agreed initially, but then reconsidered, thinking it could take another hour to prepare it, so I declined too.
Scott opened up more and more, from his very formal introverted communication, or lack of, initially, to sending us a dish of his black sesame ice cream, which I had eyed for a dessert choice. Big was our surprise when the much more relaxed Scott (by now he had taken off his jacket) brought us two photographs of himself taken in his youth at the pool, showing a very well-toned body with well-developed muscles. We did not get why he did this at all, unless it was to impress Whitney!
We must commend Scott for taking both our dishes off the bill, and only charging Whitney for her wine. Despite this generous gesture, we did not get Kyoto Garden Sushi at all. It was disinterested in our arrival and who we were; there being very little small talk with customers, there being no explanation of the menu, crappy in its poor presentation; there is barely any branding on the exterior of the building, which has no 5* quality look to it, especially when they put their Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide Certificate in the window, but had removed it by last Wednesday; it is exceptionally loud when the guests are loud, there being nothing to absorb the sound; the food is exceptionally inedibly salty; and very very expensive. One does not know how Kyoto can justify the prices it charges. Service quality by the waiter was poor, not of a 5* standard. The lack of a website must reflect Scott’s introversion!
Kyoto Garden Sushi, 11 Kloof Nek Road, Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Tel (021) 422-2001 No website. Twitter: @KyotoSushiCT Monday – Saturday Dinner only.