The other week I was reading an interview with Nobu Matsuhisa, the multi-Michelin-starred chef behind the famous Nobu chain of Japanese restaurants. I got two questions in before deciding I wasn’t really interested in anything he had to say.
The reason I took the snap decision to just skim the rest of the article instead of reading it properly was down to Nobu – and I know this will sound strange – making it very clear how much he loves rice. You see, I just don’t get rice. I don’t understand how it’s something people can enjoy; how it’s anything more than just dull filler to bulk out a dish.
So, in light of not having much time for reading at that particular moment, I decided if Nobu wasn’t going to talk about a food I find appealing, I didn’t care to hear any more.
The first thing I did when I got back from my meal at Yuzu on Thursday night was dig the interview up and read it from start to finish.
I’d heard a lot of good things about Yuzu, a fairly recent Japanese addition to Manchester’s Chinatown, before my visit. Most of the praise was for the freshness of the ingredients and the supremely polite staff, with the odd mention of ‘fantastic value for money’ thrown in. Not much was made of the rice*, but that wasn’t particularly surprising. Why would anyone waste sentences talking about confetti substitute? The best you can hope for is that the bland grains don’t distract from the food you actually want to eat.
But, inconveniently, the rice at Yuzu was a distraction – a massive one. That’s why I’ve been banging on about it for the last 300 words! I’ve been able to think of little else since.
It was sort of – a little bit – bloody brilliant.
I’m not entirely sure what it was that made it so delicious, or at least, I don’t think I’m capable of putting it into words. It certainly wasn’t that different to every other bowl of rice I’ve had before. It just seemed to be perfect in three (presumably) very important areas: texture, temperature and salt.
I definitely won’t be so dismissive of it again.
The rice was part of our final dish of prawn, salmon and tuna sashimi**, all of which was wonderfully fresh and sweet. Kyotoya in Withington offers a cheaper and more generous sashimi platter, but this was of vastly superior quality, with the tuna particularly good. A small dollop of past-its-best, flavourless salmon roe felt a little out of place, but I could forgive it.
Prior to the sashimi, the food had ranged from solid to very good. Pork yaki udon was cleanly cooked with decent noodles, though the pork was slightly dry and bland and there was nothing special about the pitiful amount of vegetables it came with (I think Kyotoya might have spoilt me in that area).
Chicken katsu, with an excellent golden bread crumb coating but slightly dry meat, was enjoyable as far as chicken nuggets go; the yakitori with sauce, a char-grilled kebab of chicken thighs and spring onions, was of a level you’d find at a merely decent takeaway.
Gyoza was the best of the small plates by far, the prawn dumplings absolutely beautiful, although it probably deserved a better sauce than the meek combination of soy and chilli oil that was served alongside.
The bill for the five courses – easily enough to stuff the two of us – plus four bottles of beer came to a little over £40. For the quality of the food on offer, I think it’d be fairly difficult to do better than that in Manchester city centre.
The staff were indeed supremely polite and the authentic-feeling dining space was very pleasant. As we got up to pay the bill and leave, my wife spotted a specials board with deep-fried whole sea bream listed on it.
“Now there’s a good excuse to go back,” I said.
Dining Room: 3/5
Overall score: 46/100 (Good)
Note: I’ve returned to Yuzu several times since this first visit and each time has been better than the last. I’ve revised the score up on my Restaurant Ratings page accordingly.
*Andrew Stevenson’s review is an exception. You can read it here.
**The sashimi was meant to include scallops but they didn’t have any in.
Reviewing a restaurant just a few weeks after I last visited and reviewed it feels a little strange to me. In the past (see Mark Addy), I’ve simply tacked a few comments about the revisit on to the end of the original post because there’s not much more I need to say – certainly not enough to write a whole new article.
But Kyotoya last night was the first meal I’ve had since setting up the blog where I’ve bothered to take pictures,* so I figured sod it, let’s give it a go!
There were two dishes I was desperate to eat on my second visit to Kyotoya: the shichimi chicken breast I adored so much last time and the spicy whole sea bass, which I’d heard good things about. Being a budding fatso and in the position of choosing food for the whole table of three, I also ordered the shichimi salmon and shichimi beef, and the house special fried rice and fried noodles.
The salmon arrived first, alongside a delightful beansprout salad. I’ve never used the word ‘delightful’ to refer to anything featuring beansprouts before, as I’ve traditionally considered them an abomination. But there was nothing soggy or gritty about this salad; nothing so stringy you could floss your teeth with it. This was just supremely fresh and crisp, and the perfect foil to all the meat we were about to consume.
(I did take a photo of the salad, but it was crap, so I’ve left it out.)
The salmon itself was moist and full of flavour, but had a little bit too much soy sauce on it for my tastes. I don’t know what else to say about it, which probably says enough. I’m glad I ordered it, but I don’t think I would again.
While we were busy eating the fish, the beef arrived, cooked nice and pink in the middle and with wonderfully crisp fat. Going off its appearance, I was expecting it to chew like a rubber band, but it was so tender you could pull it apart with chopsticks and it melted in the mouth. Unfortunately, it was salted to the point of mummification, which held it back from being the dish of the night for me.
The rice, noodles and chicken came more or less together. A wanton dusting of black pepper spoiled the rice to the point of unpleasantness, but the noodles – with prawns, salmon, bok choi and assorted veg – were lovely. The chicken was every bit as gorgeous as I remembered it; so succulent, so juicy, and so, so, so addictive.
After we’d demolished the shichimi, it was time for the main event – the spicy whole sea bass**, which was stuffed with a leek, lightly battered and deep fried before being dressed with a spicy sauce. I don’t think there are many more exciting things in a restaurant than being presented with a whole fish to share, and this definitely looked the part: an angry monster fish, roaring up from a blood-red lagoon. Every diner in the restaurant turned their head as it was brought out; it was stunning.
If I’m honest, it didn’t quite live up to expectations. The meat was a touch overcooked and it didn’t pack the flavour I’m used to with sea bass. That said, the sauce was spot on and the crispy skin was incredible; there was a great big dose of happiness with each salty, crackly bite.
We’d eaten far too much food by this stage, but we still managed to polish the fish off, autopsying it until every shred of flesh was found and devoured. Despite the faults, I’m struggling to think of a single restaurant dish in Manchester which comes anywhere near this in terms of value for money. For £12, it’s an absolute cracker.
On the whole, this meal was a sizable step up from my first experience of Kyotoya. There were far more highs from the food and the lows were all fairly minor. There were no service issues to speak of and I’ve even grown slightly fonder of the dining room, thanks to a seat that allowed me to watch the kitchen and kept me out of the path of the hurricane winds which blow in under the door.
The improvements did come at a price. We visited at 6pm – too early for me – when the place was pretty much empty, and we spent around £6.50 more per head, although admittedly this was for far, far more food.
Nevertheless, I think it was a price well worth paying. Even at £20 per person, including wine and beers, Kyotoya is a bargain. And now I’ve revised its scores up, I make it the second best East Asian restaurant in the city.
Dining Room: 1.5/5
Overall score: 41/100 (OK)
*I should apologise for the standard of the images. I can assure you that in real life, the salmon didn’t look like the chicken and the sea bass wasn’t served on a plate of gore. At the moment, I’m just experimenting with photos using a crappy cameraphone. Once I’ve worked out what I’m doing – and whether it’s something I want to continue doing for my restaurant reviews – I’ll upgrade to a proper camera.
**Do bear in mind if you go and want the sea bass (they do a sweet and sour version as well), you’ll need to pre-order it.
As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.
TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)
- Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.
I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.
I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.
2. Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]
3. Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]
4. Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]
Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.
(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)
5. Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).
I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.
It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.
(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)
6. Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]
7. Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]
8. Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]
9. Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]
10. Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]
This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)
1. Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]
2. Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]
Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.
3. Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]
When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.
4. Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]
5. Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]
Sometimes you come away from a restaurant struggling to work out where the meal went wrong. The food’s good, the service is good, the ambience is good – even the company is good – but the overall experience is pancake flat.
“Meh, it was OK,” you tell a friend when they ask you how it was afterwards – and you secretly hope they won’t press you to elaborate. Explaining why you don’t like something when you don’t really have a reason takes way too much effort.
Kyotoya, a tiny Japanese diner tucked away on a Withington side street, is not a restaurant that fits into this category in any way, shape or form. If truth be told, it’s actually the antithesis of all I’ve described.
Bear with me for the next few hundred words while I slag off the multitude of things it does wrong and try to explain exactly why it is that I can’t wait to go back.
Kyotoya reminded me a little of the cafe in Coronation Street, only Roy and Hayley have better taste in décor and they don’t arrange the tables to look like the aftermath of a fight between two sumo wrestlers. It’s small and drab and student canteen-y and if you end up sitting directly in front of the door like I was, you’re going to need to wear your coat for the duration.
The ‘service’ on offer made a mockery of the word. Each person’s dish was brought out separately, with what seemed like an age in between. My sister-in-law’s plate of six dumplings was empty by the time my sashimi platter rolled out. If a pregnant lady was this late she’d need to be induced.
The only thing you could rely on with the service was that the food would turn up at least 10 minutes after you started wondering how long it takes for starvation to kick in. Over the course of the meal we learned if you want something from the staff, the only way of getting it is to stand up, walk over to the counter and ask. If we’d waited for them to do the rounds, I think we’d still be there now, a week later, dying of malnutrition.
There were a few problems with the food as well. The tuna and salmon sashimi lacked flavour, the latter so much so that it tasted of nothing at all. My seafood yakisoba could’ve been named a vegetable yakisoba for all the fish it contained. Two rings of octopus, two small prawns and some incredibly tiny pieces of tuna do not a seafood dish make. You get more in a Spar economy fish pie.
Yet, while any of these issues alone would normally have me vowing never to return to a restaurant, and all of them together would typically leave me seething, I exited Kyotoya with a big smile on my face, looking forward to my next visit.
Why? Well, first off, besides the above, some really great food was put down on the table. The octopus sashimi was excellent; sweet, succulent, sublime. The prawn sashimi was almost as good; fresh as a daisy and gorgeous with a bit of pickled ginger and wasabi.
Chicken dumplings and salt and pepper spare ribs were several cuts above anything you’d expect to find in a joint like this. The noodles – between us we tried three different types – were all wonderful. Even the veg that dominated my yakisoba was good. The freshness of the ingredients and the clean way they’d been cooked – there was nothing greasy at all about this food – made me very happy indeed.
The star dish was chicken with garlic; a chicken breast that had been marinated – perhaps even poached – in coconut milk, with a garlic and soy dressing. It was beautifully moist and incredibly moreish and I was extremely envious that it wasn’t me who’d ordered it! It’s the best bit of chicken I’ve had all year.
The second reason I’ll be heading back is because it was so easy to put the service issues down to a culture clash and take them with a pinch of salt. The staff were supremely friendly, polite and generous. Asked if we could have another bottle of white wine, they said they only had a quarter bottle of it left, but we could have it on the house. While we sat waiting for the bill, they wheeled out complimentary plates of ice cream for us all. Small gestures, but ones that made me feel very welcome.
The third and final reason is the price. It was dirt cheap. The bill was the sort that makes you open your eyes wide in disbelief before checking through to make sure nothing has been missed off. 14 dishes (including the ice cream) plus a bottle and a quarter of wine and three beers came to £67.50. That’s £13.50 a head, a total steal given the quality of some of the dishes and the portion sizes. They gave the five of us more food than we could eat.
Kyotoya probably isn’t a place worth going out of your way for – I couldn’t imagine anybody coming away from it thinking that they’ve had a really special meal. However, the food is so good in parts that if you live in the area, you should definitely make the trip. At the very least, give their takeaway service a spin. If I lived around the corner, I think I’d be there every week.
Manchester’s not particularly well known for its Japanese food, but with certain dishes, Kyotoya might just produce the best the city has to offer.
And it does so at prices too good to miss.
Dining Room: 1/5
Overall score: 36/100 (OK)
(I revisited Kyotoya a few weeks later and upgraded its score. You can read the latest review here.)