Restaurant Review: So Far, So Good
Kyōten charms with simple pleasures
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., Oct. 3, 2014
Lunch: Fri.-Sun., noon-3pm; Dinner: Wed.-Sun., 5pm-10pm
In this buzzfed age of superlatives, saying that a restaurant is good might seem to damn with faint praise. We've almost made it an insult in our thirst for the next big thing, but "good" is not about such white-hot flashes. I say a Rioja is good after an appreciative sip; I say a soil is good while picking the first summer cucumber. Likewise, when I say Kyōten is good, it is not just a measure of the quality of the taste – at least not without qualifiers like quite, sooooo, and very. It's a nod to its assured simplicity. There's plenty to be effusive about, but it doesn't need all that bombast.
That may be an odd thing to say considering Kyōten's grounds, perhaps the most elaborately designed parking space in Austin. Tucked behind a slat cedar fence on East Sixth, the nondescript truck sits on a meticulously landscaped multi-level plot. A low tree shades in the back, bamboo poles divide space, and black rocks crunch under customers' boots. But everything is placed with purpose, the plants are the only thing that are solely for show. It's a neat echo of what to expect once the food arrives.
Depending on the crowd, some dishes can take some time. Resist the temptation to skip the appetizers. There are only two, and they won't spoil your supper. Without the chopped scallions, the hiyayakko ($5) could almost work as a dessert. The house-made tofu is as velvety as any custard, and the soy dashi has a caramel richness. The miso soup ($3) is a platonic ideal, a beautifully crafted version that may out-comfort your mom's chicken noodle. Both are clean and uncomplicated, avoiding squiggles of superfluous sauce.
You won't find painterly touches in Kyōten's sushi either. Save for the spring roll-esque Vietnam des' ($9.25) pile of herbs, greens, kanpachi, and lychee, the rolls keep the ingredients spare. That means that items that could flatline in their familiarity – the ubiquitous Philly ($7.25) and California ($8) rolls – become a reminder of why they achieved popularity in the first place. It's an object lesson in how ingredients can be minimal when they are at their peak. That's real wasabi in the negi tekkamaki ($6) and negihama ($7). That's fresh shiso in the battera ($10.50) instead of a more readily available herb. The menu proudly emphasizes that they use real red crab. This is a meal of italics, not scare quotes.
The slant is, thankfully, in the direction of the fish. Both of the boxed-style sushi selections reveal the chef's training (chef Otto Phan had stints at Bar Masa, Nobu, and Uchi, while Leo Rodriguez worked at Sushi-a-Go-Go and Ramen Tatsu-ya). The surgically cut rectangles of fish are achingly fresh. The aforementioned battera uses a melting saba (mackerel) and the masu-zushi ($10.50) luxuriates in the fattiness of ocean trout. Those pieces are also the most beautiful; the former are mini Rothkos while the latter suggest the striations of a topographical map. Both the saba and the ocean trout reappear in the best of the donburi (rice bowl) dishes – the chirashi bowl ($26) – adding tuna, kanpachi, and eggs in the form of ikura (salmon roe) and onsen tamago ("hot spring" or soft-boiled egg).
The fish dishes are so successful, one wonders why they bothered with the mabo dofu ($9.50). The braised pork hock and trotters make a nice enough foundation with a flirty pop of fermented chili, but the sticky rice tries its best to damper. The suggested adder of onsen tamago ($1) is necessary. Likewise the vegetables, while still rigorously fresh, seem to lack the care used in the fish. You'll never find a brown spot on the avocados, but they are not cut with the same precision as, say, the tuna on the tekkamaki – a somewhat jarring bit of wabi-sabi.
That is, of course, being obsessively nitpicky. But seeing what the chefs are capable of, one wants everything to rise to the occasion. Such small wrinkles are likely collateral damage of working in a micro kitchen. It's likely only a matter of time before Phan and Rodriguez build more walls. For now, bring a bottle of bubbly or Hitachino Nest and toast Kyōten's simple charms. After all, one good turn deserves another.