Lisa van Aswegen
An izakaya is a Japanese bar with food; Izakaya Matsuri is so much more. With owner and chef Arata Koga at the helm, you can expect top quality sushi – and it delivers. Fresh fish, perfect portion sizes and interesting options – such as eel, mackerel and octopus – over and above the salmon and tuna, will have sushi-lovers well pleased. Signature rolls include a large tempura and baked roll selection. The aburi sushi is a must, whether in roll or sashimi style: fish is scorched with piping hot sesame oil for a rich, decadent twist, the salmon version is simple perfection.
The rest of the menu is all tapas-sized, and a pleasure to eat your way through: panko pork neck skewers, dumplings and simple seared spinach vie for attention with kimchi octopus and cucumber, softshell crab, or salmon croquettes. Udon noodles and yaki soba complete the Asian picture. The flavours are unfailingly fresh, authentic and utterly moreish.
The wine list mostly has mainstream local wines, but with a decent mix of price points. Rather go for an authentic sake or Japanese beer.
Always friendly and welcoming, with an eye for returning guests. Waiters understand the menu and have good recommendations.
A cosy inside space with red accents and paper lanterns creates an authentic feel. The place to be is in the pedestrian walkway outside, sitting under fairy-lit trees.
It's ice cream for afters: choose from wasabi and black sesame, green tea or deep-fried.
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Sushi is the dominant offering on the menu. And it’s very good. Chef Arata-san makes perhaps the best sushi rice in Cape Town – that magical combination where every grain is on the edge between tender and hard; each grain keeps its own shape and yet is bound together with other equally individual grains in a sticky, non-gluey whole by an excellent sushi-su; the seasoned vinegar that is added to cooked rice to make it sushi rice. But it is the ‘tapas’ dishes that truly distinguish Matsuri from other Japanese options in the city. In Japan, an Izikaya is primarily a place for enjoying a drink after work that serves small plates of food to accompany the alcohol, which is sake, more often than not. And the small plates here are authentic and delicious. Throw caution to the winds and choose the five-dish Zen Sai (appetiser) platter. Options change daily and are displayed on a chalk blackboard. Perhaps steamed edamame beans with a crunchy salt coating, shiitake mushroom tempura, chicken and pork skewers, a spicy tuna centre to an aubergine slice; and perfectly crispy and tender calamari legs. There are three dessert options; all of them ice creams, and all of them more delicious than western palates might think. If you can’t choose between green tea and fudge-like bean paste, deep-fried vanilla with chocolate sauce, and wasabi and black sesame seed, then have a plate with a scoop of each.
There is a good variety of sake options, served hot or cold. And for the less adventurous, there are some Japanese and local beers, as well as a fairly predictable selection of wines at reasonable mark-ups.
It’s affable and efficient. There can be a delay in catching a waiter’s eye when the place is packed, as if often is. But once the order has been placed, it arrives at the table soon after.
In Japan, Izikaya restaurants are often referred to as akachōchin for the red paper lanterns that are traditionally part of the décor. And there are lanterns here aplenty, along with shoji screens and the Wave off Kanagawa, perhaps the most famous of the artist Hokusai’s 36 woodblock print views of Mount Fuji. They soften what might otherwise seem a quite stark and impersonal industrial space.
This is the place to venture off the path you normally tread in a Japanese restaurant. There is a great deal more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, and this is an excellent starting point for that journey of discovery.