Fusion cuisine is a well-established expectation for fine dining establishments, and most claims of unique culinary cross-over are dubious. Not so regarding Japanese-Peruvian, however; a culture tied to a 200-year trickle of Japanese emigrants to the most westerly country in South America, That culinary evolution has led to a reinterpretation of traditional Peruvian dishes — think a melange of ceviche and sushi, sashimi and spicy sauces, tempura and tubers — meriting its own name, Nikkei (Japanese for diaspora).
Now, Cape Town has its own eponymous Nikkei restaurant. Located in the former premises of a Moulin Rouge-like cabaret on Bree Street, patrons continue to be captivated by a sense of theatre: bursts of laughter syncopate with the house music; the waitresses, in hibiscus-pink kimonos customised for the practicalities of dining service, float gracefully about their duties like a flamboyance of flamingos — a visual feast in its own right.
Dramatically, a bonsai appears at our table. Near its tiny trunk rests the amuse-bouche, an edible oyster shell, guajillo chilli-cured linefish, beetroot custard and leche de tigre foam.
Leche de tigre features in quite a few of the menu’s dishes. Directly translated as tiger’s milk, it’s the basic Peruvian ceviche cure, comprising lime, onion, chilli, salt — and fish juice, the run-off from fish preparation, which Peruvians often drink in a shot glass.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not on Nikkei’s cocktail menu, which appropriately balances pisco-based drinks with those featuring sake. There are also multiple Japanese whiskies available, renowned as some of the world’s best, and a range of piscos listed as a “library”. That’s not pretentious: pisco is a particularly pure spirit made in an array of styles from South American grape varietals, and is becoming the new darling of bartenders and connoisseurs. Never having had one, I decide to try a pisco sour, a cocktail considered Peru’s national alcoholic drink. It comes beautifully presented in a ceramic cup, the cellulose and lime foam a pillowy cloud. I’ll try it again, but to my palate it lacks a punch.
A set menu solves dilemmas when almost everything appeals. Nikkei’s eight-course offering is called Omakase, Japanese for “Leave it up to you”, a contented resignation allowing the chefs to create. But we continue to deliberate, intrigued by unfamiliar descriptions and ingredients such as togorashi (a seven-spice mix), hamachi (Japanese for yellowtail), corn flowers, and ancho (a type of chilli).
We are indeed familiar with ceviche, the technique of “cooking” seafood by means of citrusy marinades, which anthropologists believe originated on Peru’s Pacific coast some 2,000 years ago. It’s decided then: a seafood night.
Nikkei’s diverse menu is an opportunity to be adventurous, so our starter selections include shrimp crudo — raw shellfish served in a melon gazpacho, flavoured with ancho oil and garnished with chive flowers. The colours are exquisite, the sideshow ingredients delightful, but the shrimp’s texture isn’t in my comfort zone. I’m keener on the citrus- and kelp-cured sea bass accompanied by a yuzu emulsion, red pepper salsa and ginger dressing.
Why is tofu often sneered at? It’s versatile, adapts to the concept and core flavour of any dish, and is wonderfully textured. Our third starter, crispy citrus tofu with green garlic aioli, is a knockout. Sharing plates is great way to sample widely, but it’s flawed when you both agree on the best dish. There are too few pieces, so we halve the last one.
For second course we choose a further selection of piqueos (small plates) and robatayaki, the far more elegant Japanese equivalent of a small braai brought to the table. I’m a sucker for seared tuna, so I have more than my fair share of that plate. The Asian flavours of sesame and ponzu dominate, but there’s also lime and jalapeño, and dainty dollops of smoky guacamole.
The Peruvian spiced lobster tail in a nori roulade is the most genuinely fusion dish, the nashi pear gel augmenting the lobster’s sweetness, the nori adding brininess and crunch, and the tiger’s milk giving tang.
The shrimp skewers arrive in a theatrical whirl of smoke; just as we admired neighbouring diners’ robatayaki dishes, now all eyes are on our table. What’s not to love about shellfish on charcoal, dressed in smoked pepper, honey soy, peanut and coriander? Only one thing: the dish is a disappointingly small match for its dramatic presentation and mouthwatering aroma.
Sweet-toothed diners may feel Nikkei’s desserts seem sparse. They needn’t worry. No longer willing to share, I opt for miso caramel chocolate fondant and my wife chooses green tea rice pudding with peach brûlée, lacuma sorbet and a lacuma tuille. What does lacuma taste like? I inquire about this native Peruvian fruit. She sees through my ruse, inching her plate away from me. “Sweet potato and caramel,” she says blissfully.
I know some of the world’s best chocolate comes from Peru. Still, my fondant, served with sesame ice-cream and an intricacy of pears — gels, compressions and foams — is sensational.
It sums up the Nikkei experience. The food, atmosphere, hospitality, and spirit of creativity combine to transport diners to different worlds.
Nikkei, 87 Bree Street, Cape Town 021 109 0081