During my first visit to Furusato Japanese Restaurant more than six years ago, a single thought went through my head: “Mmm, I might bring my sister here, she’d love it.” Because, I already did.
A showpiece sushi bar welcomes you immediately when you walk in, creating a direct connection with the heart of the restaurant right in its front-of-house. The itamae-san, sushi chef, effortlessly churns out edible art and genteel plates of raw fish, in front of a crescent-shaped display case that serves as the perfect backdrop to this sushi-making stage. The chef greets everyone who walks in through the front door with a smile or a reassuring nod, which somehow gives you a sudden jolt of confidence to order something daring, hard to pronounce, and unfamiliar to your stomach.
The interior hasn’t changed much except for new picture windows and maybe a new coat of paint here and there. The expansive space is open and inviting. Traditional Japanese fabric dividers, Noren, in navy and emerald, hang in doorways and from structural beams, adding an instant dose of Japanese ambiance. Beautiful paper parasol umbrellas hang upside down from the ceilings, and neutral-coloured wallpaper features elements from nature. You can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of warmth that rivals your own home when you’re having a meal at Furusato.
“You haven’t come in a while.” John, who’s been working at the restaurant for more than six years, noted as he showed us to our table. “Welcome back. Home, is always the best.”
Furusato always feels familiar. Perhaps it’s the menu, which hasn’t seen much change in years aside from an increase in prices and length in pages (just the Teppanyaki section commands six pages). Some of the food is inspired by the culture of Japanese taverns, Izakaya. These sometimes raucous places serve delicious food that have huge flavours that usually include some sticky sauces and passionate grilling. My craving for smokey, savoury and sticky guided me straight to Furusato’s Grilled Salmon Jaws. Now that’s cooking, with a capital C.
Asian dishes often get the short end of the stick when it comes to translating names into English – they always sound strange. The Grilled Salmon Jaws certainly tasted exponentially better than it sounded: glazed with a glistening Teriyaki Sauce, caramelized tender pieces of cheek and smokey fatty pieces of flesh flaked away from the bone with ease. In seconds, my companions who had initially doubted my judgement for ordering “Anything Jaw,” found themselves sucking the bones, one by one. The salmon jaws certainly had received the full umami treatment, perhaps even a swim in mirin. We swoon over the sticky sauce as I thought about how I was ready to order more. We all were.
The Chilli Prawns, one of their new specials, arrived on Furustato-branded china. Smothered in a tomato-heavy sauce, the prawns were half a minute from perfection – they were just seconds overdone, not enough to find it offensive, but enough to notice a slight rubbery texture in the meat.
On the beautifully arranged platter, the Blowtorched Salmon Nigiri was certainly a crowd pleaser. The small fluffy lump of sweetened and vinegared rice was topped with a star ingredient – beautifully marbled salmon. The lines of fat were rendered slightly and the meat was barely seared from the direct heat of a blowtorch. Magically, the raw salmon morphed into a smokey delicacy – Nigiri that melted in your mouth. The Spicy Tuna Roll failed to wow our palates thanks to fried batter bits that were slightly softened by a heavy hand of sauce.
The star of the meal was the Beef Sukiyaki, which was like Asian fun at your fingertips. It’s one of those hot pot dishes that takes ignorant eaters by surprise. It’s a beautiful thing: bubbling, steaming, interactive and full of flavour. Cooked in a shallow skillet, my favourite “One Pot Wonder” offers rich flavours, seasoned with soy sauce and sugar, and tends to be sweeter and less savory than Shabu Shabu. Shiitake mushrooms, daikon radish, tofu, and potato noodles complement thin slices of beef that have been cooked from the steam. If you like the raw egg dip, strategically add some veggies, mushrooms and scallions, along with the thin slices of beef into your beaten raw egg sauce. If not, feel free to crack the eggs into the bubbling broth for some extra savouriness.
The warmth from the Sukiyaki reminded me of home and how diverse Japanese cuisine really is. There’s so much more than sushi and sashimi. It’s unavoidable. Even if you’re a self-proclaimed foodie, as people, we usually have a limited understanding of the diversity of the world’s cuisines and cooking traditions. But what better place to expand that understanding than at one of the most consistent restaurants in Nairobi’s blossoming restaurant scene?