A Journey Into Japanese Cuisine - Discovering Kyoto

Kyoto Japanese Restaurant

315 Congress Avenue, 482-9010

Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm;

Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm;

Saturday, 5:30-11pm Believe it or not, I got the bug to visit Kyoto Restaurant while on the road in central Mexico. After a month in Cuernavaca, I'd finished all the books I'd brought and came across a copy of Shogun, the James Clavell saga, which I remembered only as a fluffy TV miniseries with Richard Chamberlain and bad bald caps. The book turned out to be more than a good read. For a would-be vegetarian drowning in a sea of pork bits and beef tripe, it was nice to imagine eating rice and soy sauce for 1,000 pages. And as I plowed through the book while rolling across the mountains of Puebla and Veracruz, I fantasized about returning to Austin to explore its best known Japanese restaurant.

I must confess that, before eating at Kyoto, my experience with Japanese food went little beyond the occasional sushi or miso soup. But unlike the mutton-chomping Captain Blackthorne of Mr. Clavell's story, I was not completely unprepared for the oceanic flavors of the island cuisine. Having grown up on Neapolitan seafood and devoured much shellfish throughout coastal Mexico, I'd eaten plenty of squid and raw fish before venturing into Kyoto's menu. And - also in contrast to the "barbarian" Westerner of the novel - I was accompanied by a friend who knows something of Japanese culture. Thus, at least I knew about Kyoto's menu policy before dining there.

As in many Asian restaurants, Kyoto does not offer the same menu to all of its customers. Non-Japanese non-regulars tend to get the Americanized version, which emphasizes familiar items such as tempura (lightly batter-fried vegetables and meats), teriyaki (meats in a sweet, seasoned sauce), sukiyaki (a light beef and vegetable stew flavored with sugar, soy sauce, and sweet sake), and of course, sushi, which has managed to establish itself in this country's mainstream through the gateway of California. Japanese patrons, on the other hand, are more likely to receive The Other Menu, which lists, bilingually, a wider variety of traditional dishes, including noodles, soups, and char-broiled fish entrees.

Of this latter list, my favorite item was far and away the tako nuta ($5.50) appetizer - a carefully arranged bowl of fresh seaweed, cucumber, delicately sliced octopus, carrots, and onion. The contrasting textures and distinctive flavors made each bite of its chilled, unseasoned ingredients a sensuous treat. Intriguing in texture as well but not quite as tasty was the oshinko ($3.95), a colorful, pickled appetizer consisting of bright yellow radish, jalapeño-green sea cucumber, and translucent red seaweed, which left my tongue with a strange feeling that was neither tingling nor numbness.

My waiter highly recommended another selection from the Japanese menu, the zaru soba ($8.25). Soba is the renowned, gray-brown, buckwheat noodle historically associated with Tokyo and northern Japan. (Udon, made of wheat, is the other famous Japanese noodle; it is rooted in Osaka and the southern part of the island.) Served cold, topped with shredded scallion and shaved bonito, with an order of tempura and a light, piquant sauce on the side, soba becomes zaru soba. Although this dish is said to be quite popular in Japan, Kyoto's version did not do much for me. The noodles were not particularly flavorful, the sauce was short onwasabi (the green horseradish best known as a sushi condiment), and the tempura, which can be surprisingly light, was a bit greasy for my liking.

Both healthy and full of flavor, on the other hand, was the yose nabe ($11.95), a type of seafood vegetable soup. Thick onion slices and whole scallions gave its clear broth a subtle sweetness that mixed well with the bean thread noodles, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, white fish, silken tofu, shrimp, fishcake, and scallops that crowded its tureen. Slurping away (Japanese do not eat soup with a spoon) in Kyoto's traditional dining room, my shoeless feet jammed beneath the knee-high table, I showed my appreciation for the chef's delicious soup by making lots of noise while downing the broth, a culinary compliment in Japan.

Feeling inspired, I ordered my boldest selection from Kyoto's Other Menu: three char-broiled komochi shishamo ($6.25). (Shishamo is a smelt-like fish, and "komochi" means "pregnant," so you get the picture.) Biting into one of the fat, blackened whole fish, I found it to be pleasant, the taste of the charred meat enhanced by the exotic flavor of the tiny white eggs. Mixed with the accompanying shredded cabbage and white rice, the shishamo made a tasty, fitting finale to my Japanese adventure.

Looking back on my days in central Mexico, I wonder if Kyoto met my expectations of Japanese dining. After all, a fancy long imagined is seldom fully gratified. The restaurant - with its tasumi mats, sushi bar, and Japanese art - has an authentic and pleasing decor, as well as sufficient service and some fine food, if you know which menu to ask for. The dishes excel in their presentation and carry the hefty price tag that helps perpetuate the mystique of Japanese cuisine. But, just as when I rented the dramatized version of Shogun and re-watched Richard Chamberlain and his gang of Seventies samurai adversaries, I must admit I'd expected a little something more. n

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