I know about as much about Japanese food as you can find out about Italian food by eating in Pizza Hut. I have eaten sushi, sometimes ostentatiously Japanese in its immediate preparation, but consistently of a character that will be familiar to British consumers. I have eaten noodle soups described as ‘ramen’, but always in noodle bars that serve a fusion of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Singaporean and other cuisines, again adapted to the requirements of the British market. I’ve eaten wagyū beef, but always on plates made up with British vegetables and sauces. I’ve poured a lot of tamari on home-made stir-frys.
I couldn’t possibly comment, then, on Koyama’s authenticity, but I can certainly attest to the quality of the food to be found in this central Edinburgh restaurant. It has an immediately comfortable ad-hoc atmosphere, professional restaurant-designers clearly never having been near the place; this is reinforced by the very friendly, informally-dressed servers. In my experience such a complete lack of pretension is often a good sign, an indication that the restaurateurs’ attention is on the main event. The menu is a little daunting, as it is extensive, and it’s not immediately clear what exactly you’re meant to do with it… we opted to each order a starter and a main, but I think most of the dishes are planned on the assumption that diners will share them. Before ordering, we were presented with a small bowl of broth each, in the way that an Italian meal might begin with a basket of bread: this seems a very civilised custom, although of course I can’t say whether it’s a Japanese tradition or a local innovation!
I began with kimchi, a portable term for pickled or fermented vegetables, which I understand are as much a staple of food in Japan as they are in Korea, where the word originates. My plate offered a variety of crunchy textures and subtly distinct flavours, and was more sour than sharp. I also had one of Spawn’s tempura oysters, which was a revelation: the flesh of the oyster had become ethereally insubstantial, but its flavour had intensified, and the effect was like eating a battered fragment of the experience of being at sea. Spouse and Spawn both chose sushi, specifically dragon rolls, for their main, which were plated in a spectacular ophidian sine-wave, topped with thin avocado slices carefully arranged to resemble scales. I didn’t try them, but they both enjoyed them a great deal. My main was pork ramen, a richly-flavoured milky bone broth containing a variety of goodies, some anticipated, some surprising – including what I think was inari, pieces of a very thin omelette apparently sweetened with honey. The whole experience was delicious and entertaining, although of course I wasn’t able to bring any appropriate expectations to the meal.
Koyama’s pricing is very reasonable, considering how many of the ingredients presumably need to be imported, and the obvious skill involved in their preparation. It has a welcoming, slightly-scuffed atmosphere, and the kind of menu that invites repeated visits over an extended period. As Spawn lives very nearby, I think that’s almost certainly on the cards. Koyama serves its food with a kind of unselfconscious theatricality that makes eating an event, and whether or not the experience is one that would be recognisable to Japanese diners, we certainly felt that we had been briefly immersed in another culture.