One of the most unique restaurant experiences was the opening of the new Okamai (meaning ‘home-brewed hospitality’) Japanese Restaurant at GlenWood wine estate in Franschhoek on Thursday evening.  It is a unique marriage of the Umami in the delectable Japanese food created by Sensei (meaning teacher) Deon de Jongh, and the special GlenWood wines created by winemaker DP Burger.

PR consultant Erica Liebenberg and DP welcomed us at the GlenWood reception with a glass of Morena Rose Brut.  The Japanese touch was immediately evident, with Sensei Deon’s wife Rayne wearing a kimono.  We moved through to the tasting room with a welcome fireplace on a still chilly Spring evening, from which we only saw the branding on the ‘noren’ , or hanging cloth, which was the first lesson we learnt in Japanese culture, in that there are no closed doors, denoting the sacred space between the different sections of the restaurant and kitchen. The writing on the entrance noren, replicated on the serviette, was the greeting: ‘We bid you welcome’. Between the kitchen and the scullery and pantry there is another noren, visible in the photograph of Sensei Deon. I slipped into the restaurant while the others were still tasting the wines, and noticed the bonsai on a side table, a collection of ornamental swords, a decorative holder for the swords, and a picture of a Samurai ‘Grand Master long passed’, with decorative lettering written by the Emperor’s calligrapher, with wording ‘The fighting spirit through harmony and respect’, Sensei explained.  He was dressed in a black chef’s outfit, but with Japanese touches.  He has the most charming smile, looking at peace and in harmony, and reminded me of Chef Reuben Riffel. The word ‘humility’ was used a number of times at our table to describe the Sensei.

Sensei Deon studied 16th century samurai swordmanship in Japan, and lived in that country for 27 years.  Once one has passed the highest level of swordmanship, ‘they entrust you to cook’. Sensei studied the Japanese and western style of sushi creation for 15 years.  Erica told me that the Sensei has written Japanese novellas, being collections of stories related to him while he lived there.  He has also founded and run a school of martial arts in New York, is a motivational speaker and life coach, and was awarded a Nelson Mandela Momento for his contribution to social upliftment and better relations, the website states.

Alistair Wood is the owner of GlenWood, which he bought 28 years ago, and DP has been his winemaker and General Manager for 22 years. They share the same long term vision and focus.  Alistair told us that DP is a fourth generation Franschhoeker, and his great-grandfather saw the last elephant leave the Franschhoek valley in 1856. Alistair and his partner Nikki de Havilland were regular customers of the Japanese restaurant which Sensei had opened on the Franschhoek main road, and invited Sensei Deon to open his restaurant on their wine estate when he closed the village restaurant.  They were excited about the good pairing between Sensei Deon’s food and their wines, a good marriage of the umami in both, and ‘between Japanese boutique cuisine on a boutique winery‘, said Nikki.  The word ‘umami’ was mentioned a number of times, and it is the fifth sense, with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, an element discovered by a Chinese scientist 1200 years ago, we were told.  Umami was found to be an ‘indescribable’ taste in seaweed, and described as being ‘addictive’.

The restaurant can only seat 16 customers at a time, because the Sensei prepares everything fresh, and therefore booking is recommended. However, the kitchen is open from 12h00 until closing time, so one is not restricted to only eating there at traditional lunch and dinner times.  While GlenWood wines are served, one can also order Japanese beer and sake.  ‘Oshibori’ is ‘to clean the hands for the meal one is about to receive’, and a cloth was brought to each guest, and after we returned it to a hostess, we were told that the correct way of doing so would be to roll it up as we had received it: ‘By the way it is received you will return it’, we were told.  Nikki invited us to be ‘adventurous’ in our eating.

Before the meal, Sensei spoke an appreciation ‘of the journey of the food before me’, and ‘I honour your journey and my journey for being here’, acknowledging the uniqueness of the Sensei and customer connecting at that time and space.  He also told us that the Japanese customer would meet the chef before committing to the table, to ‘get a feel of his intentions’ which could harm one if the chef has negative energy or is in a bad space. Should the customers pick up negativity in the chef, they would leave.

We started with a Miso soup (R20), and Sensei Deon taught us how to hold the bowl on the tips of our fingers, and drink from it by slurping, this being how soup is drunk by the Japanese. The Miso soup is a traditional start to the meal, keeping the Japanese healthy, and is made with Dashi stock and has chunks of tofu, and was paired with the GlenWood Sauvignon Blanc 2011.  Miso soup is a good preparation for the meal to come, and an excellent way to counter a hangover, we were told. Thereafter we were served a black Bento Box (meaning ‘lunch box’ ) with a red edging, looking very smart, and with compartments inside for the different foods.  The Bento Box contained the following:

*   ‘Edo Unadon‘, eel meal, paired with the GlenWood Unwooded Chardonnay 2011 – there is no such thing as a ‘California Roll’, Sensei said. This dish costs R62.

*   Sashimi, cut and seared salmon, which was paired with GlenWood’s flagship wooded Vigneron’s Selection Chardonnay 2011

*   The Tempura prawn was described as being high in umami, and was paired with the GlenWood Semillon 2010 (4 prawns cost R34)

*   Chicken dumplings were paired with the GlenWood Merlot 2009 (4 chicken dumplings cost R32)

*   Salmon Roses were paired with the GlenWood Shiraz 2009 – this should be made from the tail of the salmon, which contains the sweetest part, Sensei said.

Rice should be prepared a day in advance, we were told. Wasabi only has a three hour life span, and should never be bought in a tube, we were advised.  Wasabi should never be mixed with soy sauce, as it loses its health benefits.  A leaf of ginger should be eaten in-between courses to clear the palate.  Kewpie mayonnaise should be Japanese and not Chinese, being more healthy.  Sushi means ‘finger food’. The meal as we had it, with the Miso soup and Bento Box, costs R170. One can also order Temaki handrolls at R38 – R53; 6-piece Makimono at R33 – R47; 8-piece Uramaki ‘inside-out rolls’ at R55 – R68; 2-piece Nigiri at R31 – R43; 2-piece Inari R 33 – R45; salads from R40 – R48; 4-piece sashimi R50; two salmon roses at R45; and 4-piece fashion sandwiches at R43 – R55.

The dinner was concluded with a Japanese crepe containing thinly sliced strawberry and banana, and cream. We were told to close the Bento Box when we finished eating, and return it to the hostess, to prevent her from having to lean over the guest to clear the table. Traditionally, hostesses were used to ‘eavesdrop’, to obtain secrets from guests eating by overhearing their conversation, information which was used competitively in warfare.  The best time to eat Japanese food is from 13h00 – 17h00, when the digestion and metabolism are at their optimum, Sensei said.  We were advised to eat only 80% of the meal, and then take a breather before finishing the meal.

Alistair and I talked about the new wine range that will be launched, and without giving away any secrets, he shared that he is excited about an idea which came to him while travelling through France for three months in our winter, being that Franschhoek is well-suited to make a Sauternes noble rot ‘sweet wine’ in the style of Chateau d’Yquem.  Watch this GlenWood space!

Okamai is an educational experience.  It serves ‘cuisine based on ‘Wakon-yosai, an ideal of adopting and applying western learning and knowledge in confirming the native cultural traditions, creating a familiar & authentic blend of known and traditional dishes’, the Okamai website relates.  Sensei Deon is most charming, and he makes eating at Okamai a fascinating experience, given the personal attention that he can pay to his 16 guests at a time.

Disclosure: We received a bottle of GlenWood Merlot 2009 with the media kit.

POSTSCRIPT 25/1: Sensei Deon sent an e-mail this evening, announcing that he left Okamai at Glenwood on 20 January: “I trust you all are doing well and had a good festive season. I am emailing to let you know I am no longer at Okamai…I resigned January 1st 2013…and Sunday January 20th was my last day…for many reasons not known to many..and such It need remain to preserve the integrity of others and the code of samurai conduct that mandate my discreetness and reasons :-). The Very Best Regards & Care. Whereto from here?…I do not know…but shall keep you posted..at GlenWood it is business as usual as they have indicated with the employ of a new sushi cook. Thank you Deeply for your past association and support. Kiyomasu Deon Sensei. 076.997.3786”

Okamai Japanese Restaurant, GlenWood wine estate, Robertsvlei Road, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-2044. www.glenwoodvineyards.co.za www.okamaijapan.com Tuesday – Sunday, from 12h00 – 21h00.  Booking advisable.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage