Zen and the Art of Entree Experimentation

photograph by John Anderson Kyoto

315 Congress, 482-9010
Lunch: Tue-Fri, 11am-2pm
Dinner: Mon-Thu, 6-10:30pm;
Fri-Sat, 6-11pm

The art of the Japaneserock garden is to isolate individual natural elements in order to elucidate their essential qualities. The effect is unexpected, at once soothing and shocking. Its very contradiction leads toward spiritual, intellectual tranquility. Like the rock garden, Japanese food utilizes the principles of austerity as part of a ritual that is both simple and nurturing. Perhaps the best example of this type of framing is with sushi. The architecture of the sushi on the plate mirrors that of the lone rock towering above its garden surface. Sushi is simple, elegant, cold, and crisp. Beautiful to look at, it satisfies hunger and yet falls lightly on the stomach.

Over the years, Kyoto Downtown has earned a reputation for being the place in Austin to go for good sushi. So I thought it was finally time that I go there and taste for myself what all the hype was about. Located above the Elephant Room on Congress Avenue, this Austin eatery certainly looks different from most Japanese restaurants. The best way to describe the atmosphere at Kyoto is bamboo-modernist chic. The sushi bar at one end is adorned with Japanese textiles, while square pine tables fill up the interior space. A Japanese-style seating area with lacquered wood, tatami mats, and paper screens finishes out the Oriental look. In contrast to this, exposed brick walls -- remnants of the 19th-century commercial building the restaurant inhabits -- frame the space with a bit of local sophistication, making the atmosphere at Kyoto a bit homier than most cookie-cutter sushi parlors. Like the Zen rock garden, the decor at Kyoto is a surprising mix of austerity and comfort.

On a recent trip, my dining companions and I began the meal with two appetizers: a grilled beef and scallion negima roll, and the shrimp and salmon gyoza. Looking back on the meal, of all of the foods we ate that night, the gyoza were the most delicious. Delicate little fish buttons served in a thick, sweetish sauce (I suspect it might have been some sort of pepper aioli), these dumplings tasted not 100% Japanese, but rather like some bold foray into East-West fusion food, a most refreshing and laudable effort on the part of Kyoto's kitchen staff. Alas, the more traditional grilled negima roll was not as successful. The beef was a bit bland and tough, and so, for that matter, were the scallions within. Although it was not wholly without flavor, the negima roll paled beside the sublime dumplings on the plate-next-door.

Our sushi came out next and sadly, since only two of us at the table that night were raw-fish eaters, we were not able to sample the full range of offerings at Kyoto. Still, what we tried we liked. The Yellowtail Sushi ($5.95) had a subtle, nutty flavor; each bite of the fatty Tuna ($4.50) practically dissolved in our mouths; and we thoroughly ravished the salmon, scallop, carp roe, and eel. All of Kyoto's fish was tender, meaty, and market-fresh, not chewy or fishy as it can be in some places.

If the prices seem a bit high, it is important to remember that one order always consists of two pieces, which makes for a reasonable sushi deal. Still, a fish feast at Kyoto can get expensive if you are not careful. My brother has a rule about Japanese restaurants: No matter how much you order, it will always cost about $25 per person. I have found that whenever sushi is involved, this is almost invariably the case. Greedy sushi eaters like myself, then, will probably find the nori rolls (which usually consist of six pieces to the order) attractive. Bite-sized pieces of fish are wrapped with rice, seaweed, cucumber, or some other combination of ingredients, and are usually more filling than plain fish and rice. Although they are not overly creative, I think the nori rolls at Kyoto are nevertheless a reliably tasty way to get more sushi for your dollar.

For those people who don't need to gorge on raw fish, there are some more economical options at Kyoto that should be seriously considered. For instance, the Ten Don ($8.95) is a very satisfying dish involving shrimp and vegetable tempura served atop sticky rice, accented with a splash of soy-based sauce. Paired with their miso soup and washed down with an ice-cold Sapporo Draft, the Ten Don is a meal fit for a samurai. Their Udon soups are also a flavorful path to food satisfaction. Healthy and low-fat, a delicate broth is matched with robust noodles, vegetables, and usually some sort of topper such as a Japanese fish cake, tempura, or sliced beef. Finally, for those willing to pay a bit more for menu items, Kyoto offers an excellent glazed salmon. The generous portion of sweetish, soyish salmon comes with an even heartier serving of roasted potatoes. It is well worth the $15.95 price tag for the dish.

Unfortunately, not all of the menu items at Kyoto are winners. Indeed, on my last visit there I found that some of the entrees were lackadaisically prepared. For instance, I was disappointed with the Yaru Soba with tempura ($8.95). I was expecting cold buckwheat noodles served with sesame seeds, toasted nori, daikon radish, and a gently simmered tamari sauce. What I got, however, was plain noodles served with a thin, uninteresting sauce that was perhaps less than the sum of its parts. The tempura served on the side was cold and soggy, obviously tired from its marathon flight from Tokyo headquarters. The pork Katsu we ordered apparently suffered a similar fate. Typically one of my favorite Japanese dishes, this spiced, fried pork cutlet arrived tough and, again, somewhat cold.

Most of the menu items are served with miso soup beforehand, although on this last trip, the meal was sent out before the soup. Like the tempura on the Yaru Soba, Mr. Miso also must have experienced flight delays en route to the Kyoto table. This seemed to be more of a kitchen glitch, though, as the service at Kyoto is usually quite good -- friendly and efficient without being too pushy.

Overall, I have to admit that I am ambivalent about Kyoto. Although their sushi is delicious, as are a number of their menu items, the kitchen in general seems to have stagnated a bit, perhaps stuck in that same old food rut so many ethnic restaurants face during their lifetime: striving to maintain quality and originality without sacrificing authenticity. It's understandably difficult to strike that perfect balance between innovation and consistency. Still, at a restaurant where the price of a meal for two can start to look more like a Honolulu greens fee, diners should not have to pay for kitchen staff burnout.

Kyoto now has two locations: their original downtown spot and a north restaurant on Braker Lane, which suggests that it obviously has been pleasing customers over the years. Still, I think it is a mistake for this well-established restaurant to rest on the laurels of past successes. As Japanese food acquires a greater following in the U.S., Japanese chefs here are experimenting with different combinations of ingredients. On a number of occasions at restaurants in other cities, I have been delightfully surprised by some genuinely creative combinations -- carp roe and seaweed wrapped in raw salmon served in a light cream sauce, for instance. I saw glimmers of this type of food brilliance in the shrimp and salmon gyoza appetizer. On the other hand, if Kyoto wants to stay authentic, then it should give a bit more attention to quality control on the items which come out of the kitchen. I am sure that no Japanese chef worth his (or her) nori would approve of sending out old, chewy tempura. My final assessment is this: If it's sushi you want, then Kyoto is the place. Nevertheless, although it may look a bit different, Kyoto is, in fact, a rather average Japanese restaurant. And I think Austin might be ready for one with a little more Zen contradiction.

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Japanese Food, Japanese Restaurants, Kyoto

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