Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kyoto Sushi Bar: It's not just for breakfast anymore...

Before I grew a pair in college, I wouldn't have touched a plate of sushi with a ten-foot cattle prod. It seemed to be reserved for the food elíte, the group who would use créme fraiche and truffles. Adventuresome, odd, and marginally disgusting, I would have never even considered it save for the fact that some of my fraternity brothers used it as a sort of masculine badge-of-honor. At that point, I realized what I needed to do: I needed to choke down some sushi, and act like I liked it.

Of course, choking it down became savoring, and acting never really took place at all: I immediately gravitated towards the perfectly zen mix: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, crunchy, soft, tender, chewy, creamy, oily: a sensory overload that is as much pleasure as it is challenge, even a little pain (bringing in Sriracha and Wasabi).

Finding a flawless sushi restaurant is a daunting task, and one I'm still chugging away at. My default was always Nakashima's in Appleton: as far as I'm concerned, despite the silliness of the hibachi, the combination of ambiance, food and service still place it among my favorites.

As the American palette warms to more authentic flavors from the East, we're being treated to more and more sushi bars in the Metro Milwaukee area, and lucky, lucky us! The sushi aficionados from such cultural melting pots on the Coasts would probably scoff; that's fine by me. True, we're landlocked. Fresh fish to us is anything that came out of the ocean in the last week, not the last few hours. True, a lot of the flavors, presentations, even the names are botched and gringo-ized, but I accept that. One thing about American culture is that it has the ability to absorb outside influences, reconstitute them, mutilate and meld them, and output something both old and completely new, a hybrid of American sensibilities and external traditions. We don't routinely ape other cultures, we assimilate. Good, bad, or otherwise, this is the nature of the nation.

Kyoto Japanese restaurant in Greenfield is one of those sort of multiplexed animals: recognizable for it's semi-traditional Japanese fair, but also distinctly American, and there is no better example of this than the all-you-can-eat made-to-order sushi extravaganza known as Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights.

The restaurant itself is situated in a strip-mall only a flew blocks away from Southridge Mall, tucked in with a salon, and Stan's footwear. An unusual location for a sushi bar, to be sure, but it seems to me that the best restaurants are often located in strip-malls like this: lower rents mean more resources to spend on staff, decor, or better yet: better ingredients and lower end-user costs. Either way, I've reconciled the fact that it isn't housed in a fancy, stand-alone box, and find the whole situation kind of charming, in a kitschy way.

The interior is spartan, with a basic drop-ceiling, formica wood tables, a few wood booths, black urushi lanterns, and a wall lined with the sushi bar itself. The space is filled with canned koto music, punctuated from time to time with the dulcet tones of "Happy Birthday." The whole operation reminds me a bit of old George Webb restaurant. Certainly not the most luxurious of environments, but I'm learning to embrace the idea that a coat of paint and some Ikea light fixtures does not a perfect restaurant make. The best food, it seems, comes from the most unlikely of surroundings.

The menu for this distinctly American twist on sushi is extensive enough. A full page, tightly packed, is laid out on the table before you, listing off Nigiri, Maki, House Special Maki, and Appetizers, to start. The appetizers include some old standbys, like Edamame, Gyozo, Shrimp Dumplings, and yakitori.

The AYCE sushi includes a cub of miso soup and a salad, the former most likely being the instant variety, the latter being standard iceberg lettuce with a ginger dressing. I can stand to live without the salad, but I can't pass up the miso soup. There's something about the salt-acid of the miso, slick and slippery seaweed, crunch of the green onions, and squish of the tofu cubes that puts me in the mood. Call me a simpleton. Kyoto's miso is of the white variety, and isn't anything out of the ordinary, but it is tasty as far as miso soups are concerned, and I'm okay with that.

I started the extravaganza off with chicken yakitori. Which is sort of a misnomer -- while marinated and skewered, I'm pretty sure that's where the similarities to the traditional form end. My yakitori was deep-fried, resembling more the teriyaki chicken you'd get from a Chinese take-out place than true grilled yakitori. Is this laziness? Is this necessity? I certainly didn't see a charcoal-fired grill anywhere in the restaurant, and I'm guessing there wasn't one lurking somewhere back in the kitchen, so this might be a case of substance over style. Regardless of the reasoning, it was still incredibly delicious... only mildy salty, with a hint of soy, garlic, and sesame oil. Crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.

We stuck with mainly maki rolls on this visit, ranging from the very basic (shrimp tempura or spicy tuna) to the more baroque (spider roll, with softshell crab, or fried oyster roll), to the downright silly (magic roll, dragon roll, snow white roll, which are all in essence just re-arrangements of shrimp tempura with different slices of tuna, salmon, or eel). Each roll arrived arranged cleanly and simply on the plate, some with a dusting of toasted panko, some with a squirt of eel sauce or spicy mayonnaise.

Instead of focusing on each individual roll, I think it's a lot easier to understand some sweeping generalizations. First, some of Kyoto's ingredients aren't the best out there. A few pieces of fish I ate were stringy with connective tissue, the shrimp can be a bit, well, shrimpy, and I once had a red clam nigiri where it was so painfully obvious that the red clam had been frozen and thawed multiple times that it was almost impossibly to chew. However, many of the fillings in the rolls are top-notch, and their combinations/ratios are spot-on. One clear winner for me was the fried oyster roll -- not something I would necessarily consider as "true" sushi, nevertheless it was insanely decadent, the oyster having a wonderful crunch on the outside, a smooth mild creaminess in the center. The salt of soy sauce brought the whole roll to another level, achieving that wonderous gestalt effect when everything comes together all in one small bite.

I happen to be a big fan of spicy tuna rolls, too, however it's been my experience that one spicy enough for my tastes is hard to come by. Kyoto, however, has hit the sweet spot for me -- I could actually see a few flakes of red pepper mixed in with the chopped tuna, and though simple, the roll's flavors were big enough to stand on their own, keeping my attention drawn, and making me want to eat the whole roll in one sitting.

From Magic Maki, to Boston Rolls, Tempura Shrimp, and everything in between, the sushi just kept coming... except when it didn't. You see, there's a lot of wait staff running around the restaurant. And a lot of little tables to watch over. And it would seem to me that none of the wait staff actually have their own tables... all the staff works all the tables, which resulted in some of our sushi coming in only a matter of minutes, some (like Joe's Snow White roll) taking nearly 15 minutes to be delivered. Meanwhile, at least three individual waitresses asked if we had gotten the roll yet.

Add to this confusion the fact that all the sushi for you table is put on the same plate, and it can be, at times, very difficult for you to understand the wait staff, and you have a recipe for disaster. I'm no sushi expert, and there are times that the House Special Greenfield Roll looks exactly like a Dragon Roll to me. Hell, most of the time I can't even remember what I ordered by the time it arrives.

These are not major gripes, mind you. But in what already seems to be a slightly chaotic atmosphere, these little trip-ups lead to me to wonder if the back kitchen is as loose as the front of the house.

Of all of the dozens of different kinds of sushi Joe and I consumed on our trip, I think my only two disappointments were the rolls that never had any right to exist in the first place: the chicken teriyaki roll, and the chicken tempura roll...

Both rolls were stuffed to the gills with thin slices of white meat chicken, a generous wedge of avocado, and drizzled with eel sauce. The teriyaki chicken had brief flashes of that brilliant concoction of soy, ginger, garlic, and mirin that I love so much... but those flashes were mostly trampled upon by the gummy texture of the chicken itself, and the pasty fattiness of the avocado.

The chicken tempura roll was an equally large let-down: the moment the plate came to rest on our table, I noticed something was awry: tempura is a thin, barely browned deep-fried battering technique, and the chicken forming a sort of crown on the end-slice of my roll had been dredged in panko bread crumbs and fried. The first bite confirmed my fears: too-crunchy, mouth-shearing crust, coupled with fryer grease, all rolled up with avocado. There was very little flavor, save for the fattiness, and what was there wasn't particularly pleasant.

However, I felt compelled to eat the whole roll, as there is a very important rule to be followed at Kyoto's AYCE soiree: any sushi left on the plate will incur the market price for that roll being added onto your bill. So, even if you don't like it, for the love of Pete, choke it down. Or at the very least, have someone sweep it into their purse when the waitresses aren't looking!

Kyoto isn't the most chic Japanese restaurant in town, or the most authentic. It's not the cheapest, nor the most reliable, nor the most delicious. It's America's favorite, though: instant gratification, and lots of it. Order, eat, repeat. It's quick 'n' dirty sushi for competitive eaters. It's an opportunity for your mom to try the Roll of A Thousand Mysteries in a semi-safe environment. It's a chance to have all your favorites, but pay the price of a quarter of them. I'm not saying Kyoto isn't good: quite the contrary. I absolutely love it. But, like most things (or people) in my life that I love, I also am willing to accept some flaws. If nothing but the best will do, well, good luck finding it in Wisconsin. But, if you have a hardcore sushi craving, and it's a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday night... well, Kyoto might have the only cure for you...

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B-
Loud, cramped, and from time to time, a little like living in a tenement with paper walls, but it has its charm. At least we get nicely-wrapped silverware, a cloth napkin, and a warmed, gigantic wet-nap to engage in the proper hand-cleaning ritual before we eat.

Prices: A+
Oh, gripe all you want. A $23 meal isn't cheap. But if I told you that you could buy a new BMW for around $5k, would you gripe, because $5k is a lot of money, or would you see it for the enormous deal it is? Come hungry, eat like crazy, watch as your bill would have ordinarily added up to way more than $75 a plate. $30/head with tax, tip, and a bottomless soda is just about as good as it gets when sushi is involved.

Service: B-
While the entire wait staff was attentive, they were also mildly absent-minded. Be prepared to do a lot of guesswork when your food comes to your table, and just keep reminding people if it seems like that Snow White roll is taking a little too long...

The Food: B+
With a few bummers here and there, I can't give it a perfect score. But I also can't complain all that much, because despite the lackluster chicken maki, there were some stellar rolls which more than made up for it (namely, the oyster roll).

The Details:

Kyoto Japanese Restaurant
(414) 325-1000
7453 W Layton Ave
Greenfield, WI 53220

Kyoto on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Triumphant Return of Eating Milwaukee

I know, I know, I know.

It has been over two months since we've posted a new review, and that's completely my fault. Well, not entirely.

We here at Eating Milwaukee have had a bit of a run of bad luck lately, with some family challenges, job loss, new jobs, housing loss, new apartments, and the occasional cat-related disaster:

But enough of excuses...

We'll have some new reviews up for all of you who haven't forgotten us, and for those of you celebrity followers (you know who you are, cough, cough) we'd like to thank you for taking the time to read our humble, less-than-consistently-updated blog!

We recently took a field trip to El Paisa in Bayside, and the review *should* be posted by this time tomorrow, barring hell, high water, or a hot date (my money is on the high water). They had some fantastic home-made guac:

And we even had Dinner And a Show when the Bayside Police pulled over a Prius in the parking lot next door!

So, in conclusion, we're back, and we're hungry. Thanks for not giving up on us!