12082 Montgomery Road
What better way to spend a birthday evening than in the company of friends and appletinis at a local sushi bar? It was Lauren's big day, so we fought the northbound traffic exiting the city and met up with her at Kyoto Sushi Bar in Symmes Township to celebrate.
The restaurant is in a small, nondescript shopping center just off Fields-Ertel that also houses a Dominos pizza, Cheezburger Cafe and Skip's Bagel Deli, among others. Had I been passing by without the express reason of meeting my girlfriend, I would have never given Kyoto a second glance. Why? For starters, it doesn't face the road so the only indication it's there is the small sign near the parking lot entrance, and secondly their neighbors don't exactly scream "fine food." On top of that, I'd looked at their online menu and didn't see much of interest to vegetarians, so I considered forgoing sushi altogether and just having a drink before heading elsewhere for food. Once I had stepped through the door and saw an entirely Japanese staff and the spirited activity at the sushi bar, however, I was swayed.
There are several vegetarian-friendly appetizers to choose from: edamame (steamed and salted soy beans), vegetable tempura, and either steamed or fried tofu, none of which run more than $5. I was excited by the opportunity to sample the tempura, since that was a favorite when I studied in Japan as a college student. My host mother could whip up the fastest, tastiest tempura ever, and I didn't think I was likely to taste anything outside of Japan that could touch hers. Mea culpa. Kyoto's batter-fried vegetables took me right back to Yoshida-san's kitchen. The delicate, crispy batter had not the slightest hint of oil residue and the vegetables (sweet potato, taro, asparagus and broccoli) had that crisp-tender crunch signifying deft technique. Very impressive and a steal at $4.95.
I went slightly overboard on ordering sushi after the positive experience of the tempura. The selection of vegetarian sushi options is limited to avocado rolls, cucumber rolls, vegetable rolls (a combination of avocado, cucumber and asparagus), sweet potato tempura rolls and taro tempura rolls. Taro is a potato-like starchy tuber that is a staple in Pacific cultures, and I wasn't too sure how well it would work as sushi, but what the heck. I ordered it, along with the sweet potato tempura and the vegetable rolls.
These options are what is known as urimaki handrolls, urimaki meaning "rice on the outside." The handrolls are formed into a cylinder shape and sliced into six bite-sized pieces. My order of three types of handroll resulted in 18 pieces of sushi, none of which Steve was interested in trying. He opted for an order of hibachi (charcoal-grilled) chicken with rice and was gobsmacked by the size of the portion, which was too large even for his healthy appetite.
Soup and salad come standard with each meal. The iceberg lettuce covered in ginger dressing did very little for either of us, and the miso soup was made with chicken stock, so it was left untouched. The rolls, on the other hand, were out of this world. The sweet potato rolls, which I had approached with trepidation, were by far the stars of the plate.
The sweet potato and taro rolls combine the delight of urimaki with the exquisite subtlety of perfectly executed tempura, topped with a delicate drizzle of Japanese BBQ sauce. Terrific. Fantastic. Awesome. Words just can't do them justice. I wish I could gush about the vegetable rolls as well - and they weren't bad - but were bland little wallflowers compared to their batter-fried cousins.
Although I do not eat seafood, I still find it easy to tell a good sushi restaurant from a not-so-good one. The best sushi bars use only the freshest ingredients; so fresh, in fact, that you'd never know you were eating raw meat at all. And if it isn't fresh you'll taste it in the rice - even in vegetarian selections - because a sushi chef's hands are constantly juggling fish and rice. I'm pleased to note that there was absolutely no hint of fish with any of my choices at Kyoto. Color me impressed.
We were surprised by how busy this little sushi restaurant is. A steady stream of suburbanites stopped in for take-away orders, and we saw three love boat specials (25 pieces sushi, 25 pieces sashimi, and a handful of rolls) being delivered to diners in the hour we were there. And this on a week night.
Even though there isn't a lot for vegetarians at Kyoto Sushi Bar, I'd not hesitate to revisit. The sushi was affordably priced and superb, and the friendly staff was helpful and efficient - a bit too efficient if truth be told, as Lauren's birthday dessert arrived at the same time as the sushi and had to be sent back until the end of the meal. Little hiccups like this are easily overlooked when the food is as good as it is at Kyoto. This place is a keeper.