Sheffield’s restaurant row had a glaring omission in its variety of cuisines – until last week.
Bar two Thai outlets, Ecclesall Road was devoid of sit-down Asian restaurants.
You had to head over to London Road for a proper plate of sashimi or teppenyaki.
Eight days ago that changed with the opening of Koko, a modern Japanese.
I’d been staring in the window of the former Relaxation Den beauty salon every day on the way to work, wondering when its transformation would be complete.
It turns out many other people felt the same.
On its third day just two tables were left at 7pm.
“The workmen said they could have got the building done a lot quicker if people hadn’t kept coming up and asking about it”, joked owner Stuart Macfarlane.
Sushi fans may know Stuart from Sakushi, the award-winning eatery on Campo Lane that he launched as an enterprising Hallam student.
Koko caters for a different market from its older sister – more leisurely dining than a quick lunch.
The first thing we noticed, arriving harassed from work on Friday, was the welcome.
Our waitress opened the door and the gentle spa-style music playing was as calming as that which used to be the background to a hot stone massage.
Inside is minimalist, distinctively Japanese and classy in design – with striking black furniture and backlit floating shelves holding bottles of fine Japanese whisky.
There are ceramic plates and not a pair of wooden chopsticks in sight.
The location is ideal for watching the world go by.
It’s especially pleasing that this is a new independent eatery, in a row where various chains have opened.
There’s Nando’s, Pizza Express and Taco Bell to the right, and Carluccio’s to the left – so this feels like the glorious home-grown Sheffield food scene fighting back.
Stuart said the concept came about after he asked his chefs for increasingly adventurous working dinners.
He adds: “What I’m hoping for is that people will try even more authentic and complex dishes.
“We want to cook things that people haven’t tasted before. “Even if they like Japanese food and have been having it for a long time, this is something different.
“This is a different market too – people go to Sakushi because they want to, they’ve driven there as a destination. “Here you might be walking down the road, see the sign outside and come in.
“Also, we’ve been here three days and at Sakushi we sell maybe 80 green teas a day, here we haven’t sold one.
“It’s all been beer and wine, I think we’ve only sold two Cokes as well!”
Guilty as charged. It had been a tough week so I have a fruity rum Koko cocktail.
Service is excellent, and a bottle of white wine arrives speedily afterwards.
The menu is easy to navigate.
“I worked with the chef on this menu and love everything on it”, said Stuart.
“I’ve put on a lot of weight since we started doing it...”
It’s a real struggle to pick from the ‘little dishes’ – so I stay greedy and go for a sashimi selection (£8.50).
Executive chef Jun Hu and his team have more chance to show off the precise presentation associated with Asian food here.
And it is not a disappointment.
The plate looks stunning, with paper thin circles of radish, shredded carrot and spirals of cabbage topped with three types of fish.
I ask for extra wasabi – before realising it is already there, shaped into a perfect little leaf.
The folds of salmon are buttery and the slabs of tuna incredibly high quality.
Sea bass is succulent, topped with orange fish eggs and a dab of nose-tingling wasabi. It’s not a cheap starter but could easily be shared.
He’s a massive Sakushi fan – but lived on creamy Philadelphia rolls rather than raw fish when single – so duck gyoza dumplings it is.
The delicate pastry wrappers contain piping hot rich meat and come with a sticky sauce.
‘Heavenly’, is the verdict.
He sticks to a meat theme with Koko steak.
A slab of sirloin is grilled medium rare in a delectable sauce packed with garlic, cream and a fantastic stock. It has a real depth of flavour, and is good enough to steal spoonfuls of.
Mains come with little extras – including fragrant miso tofu soup, salad and pickled mooli, a kind of giant radish.
The latter’s vibrant yellow colour adds more than its rather nonedescript flavour.
My miso-marinated cod broke apart at the touch of a fork into silky flakes.
It had been well marinated, and the glistening, black thin crust had a hard-to-define, slightly sweet flavour with a savoury intensity.
Superstar haunt Nobu is famous for a similar dish. Here, perhaps the portion of fish could have been larger but with sides it was plenty.
There isn’t a formal dessert menu yet so we shared strong green tea ice cream, hand-delivered by Sheffield’s ice cream queen Yee Kwan during the starters, to finish.
The bill was £55.77 with a 30 per cent off opening offer. Would we go back today and pay full price?
Yes, quicker than you can get out the soy sauce.
Koko Restaurant, 503 Ecclesall Road