Calamari teppanyaki with fried rice.
Calamari teppanyaki with fried rice.
Chawan-mushi, a savoury egg custard.
Chawan-mushi, a savoury egg custard.
Beef teppanyaki with fried rice
Beef teppanyaki with fried rice
The salmon and avo poke bowl.
The salmon and avo poke bowl.
Tempura prawns.
Tempura prawns.
Daruma

Where: Pearls Mall, 6-8 Lagoon Drive, uMhlanga

Open: Sunday and Monday noon to 9pm, Tuesday to Saturday noon to 10pm

Call: 031 561 1342

Daruma Japanese restaurant has been a landmark on Durban’s fine dining scene. And then it suddenly upped and moved to uMhlanga.

I hadn’t eaten here in more than 20 years. Back then I remember it more for the sake than the extensive range of sushi that included crayfish, eel or sea bass. You almost got the impression if you wanted some obscure fish caught by hand under the light of the full moon, they might be able to supply it. But we enjoyed the fresh sushi and sashimi. Even if we weren’t adventurous.

After being part of the Elangeni Hotel setup for so long, I was looking forward to trying the new venue at the Pearls. It’s a large, smart, modern restaurant decked out in teals and greys and livened up with orchids. It is industrial chic rather than specifically Japanese, although these banners of cherry blossom hanging from the exposed concrete beams speak to its origins.

And then there’s the teppanyaki table on the side which was packed with well-fed diners.

There are two things that haven’t changed in the 20-year hiatus though. The food is still eye-wateringly expensive and the menu is still thoroughly confusing.

Back in the late ’90s when the average main was still well under R100, the bill came to more than R250 a head. And we didn’t eat that much. I think the sake was all we could afford. We stuck to sushi then because we couldn’t work our way around the teppanyaki menu.

Today, starters may take in the likes of roasted edamame beans, or deep fried tofu or a Japanese omelette. There are spring rolls, chicken wings, yakitori chicken, crispy calamari, sweet and sour hake, or salmon skewers.

There’s even a salmon head on the menu. I threatened our party with this and all got the cold shivers. Our charming waitress, who helped take us through the menu, even confirmed that it came with the eyes in.

You can also create your own salad from what is essentially a basic Greek, adding a variety of Asian delicacies, from egg to pickled veg, to noodles, to prawns and chopped octopus.

Then there is the sushi. Ngiri, maki, Californian rolls, hand rolls and sashimi are all available whether with the more prosaic tuna, salmon or prawn, or the exotic eel, flying fish roe, beef, or even vegetarian crabstick, whatever that may be.

We wanted to try the tempura prawns. These were sold as three per portion (R155) but as we were four, we asked our waitress if a fourth could be added. Yes, came the reply, for an extra R35. They were very good, the batter super light, and the prawns tasty, but at R47.50 a prawn, we were limited to just one each. I wrote about a local eatery last week that does excellent tempura prawns at R78 for four.

We tried the crispy fried chicken (R72), five small nuggets of chicken that were pleasant enough without being memorable. One foodie said that a fast food version probably had more flavour. The chicken was served with a decidedly odd cold mashed potato. It tasted as if someone had made potato salad with too many gherkins and then mashed it.

We enjoyed the tuna sashimi, five smallish pieces of tuna with all the trimmings (R115). And then came the chawan-mushi, a savoury egg custard steamed with a piece of chicken and mushroom, R52. This was another odd dish. The decidedly wobbly custard was pleasant but insufferably bland. It would have been helped if there were more mushrooms in it. It had the feel of something you might feed an invalid.

For mains, three of us went for teppanyaki - calamari (R165), tuna (R195) and beef fillet for myself (R198). It took us a while to work out that the dishes didn’t come with fried rice and this had to be ordered separately, R30 for a half-portion and R49 for a full. Although the menu said they were served with vegetables or chips - odd that. We couldn’t quite get our heads around this. We all went for half rice.

None of the dishes came with a hint of vegetables in the mix. It would seem you have to order those separately too. The calamari was pleasant enough, while my steak was fine although more medium than medium rare. The tuna was grim, overcooked and grey and tasting of nothing but salt and soya sauce.

The other member of our party went for the salmon poke bowl which was the best dish at the table even if somewhat overpriced at R185.

Food: 2 ½

Service: 3 ½

Ambience: 3

The Independent on Saturday