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.
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.)