1080 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City ; 801-487-3525
Terrific tempura, good sushi and excellent service have ensured long life for this charming Japanese restaurant.
Cuisine: Japanese, Sushi
Hours: M-S, 11:30 am-2 pm; M-Th, 5:30-9:30 pm; F-S, 5:30-10 pm; Su, 5:30-9 pm
Liquor: Beer & Wine
Recommended Dishes: Tempura, tonkatsu, pan-grilled mackerel.
July 12, 2006
Kyoto: A titan of tempura and teriyaki
By Mary Brown Malouf
"The thing is," said my dining companion, as we strolled through Liberty Park, "I don't feel like I just finished a Japanese meal."
I knew what he meant. That feeling was my whole reason for suggesting an evening walk in the park after dinner at Kyoto.
Meals have their own peculiar aftermaths. For example, everyone knows what it feels like to have just finished Thanksgiving dinner — all that turkey tryptophan dulling your nerves, the soft textures of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie lulling your senses.
A typical Japanese meal involves fresh, clean flavors that usually leave me refreshed and vitalized, not weighed down as I was. Plus, the ordered sequence of smaller courses forces a ceremonial leisure on the act of eating that is pleasingly serene, in comparison with the usual competitive dining pace of American meals. (Where is it written that he who finishes first wins?)
Kyoto held true to all these expectations, but this is one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in Salt Lake City — maybe in Utah — and the dominant culture and unfortunate (in terms of seafood) geography have had their effect on the kitchen, mostly in terms of proportion.
The pleasing sparseness of dairy products and animal fats, the pervasive taste and smell of the sea, the earthiness of the beans and noodles and the wild variety of textures encountered during a Japanese meal were less evident at Kyoto. Instead, dinner was dominated by tempura and teriyaki, the fried and the sweet both being more congenial to American palates and less dependent on imported groceries.
Kyoto is utterly charming: The manicured miniature gardens outside shelter a dining patio surprisingly secluded considering its streetside location. Inside, the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity prevails — paper lanterns giving diffused light, pale panels providing privacy, Japanese prints for mild decoration. We were there for the full-meal deal, so we eschewed the sushi bar in favor of an enclosed pseudo-tatami table whose sunken floor allowed our 6-foot-tall diners to stretch their legs instead of crossing them — another deviation from Japanese tradition to American comfort.
Our full-kimono-clad Japanese server, though, had to kneel every time she brought us anything, perching her tray on the bench and passing out the multitudes of little dishes — of wasabi, soy sauce, pickled ginger, etc. — that are components of Japanese sauce-it-yourself style. Her solicitude throughout the night was a testament not just to her dedication, but to her limberness. This is much more difficult than a hash-slinging gig.
We started by checking off sushi and sashimi from a special list. The regular menu only offers, rather confusingly, a choice of sashimi ($15), described as raw fish with green mustard, or sashimi moriawase, assorted raw fish with green mustard ($30). And it only lists five types of sushi, so be sure to ask for the special list. As usual, we over-ordered and ended up with platters of salmon-skin rolls, hamachi (yellowtail), unagi (eel) and tekka maki (tuna) ($4.50). Plus, we asked for agedashi tofu ($7.50), light-textured tofu curds battered and oh-so-lightly fried, served in a dashi broth, and edamame, boiled and salted soybeans, a snack I always wish I could order instead of popcorn in a movie theater.
So, by the time the rest of dinner arrived, we felt as if we had already had dinner. The best sushi is clean and almost shockingly fresh, like a dip in the ocean. Kyoto's was not that, but there was nothing wrong with it except that absence of excitement. Kyoto's kitchen shines when it comes to frying — the tempura was ethereal. This was feather-light, nearly greaseless and deeply golden.
Face it, a platter of ebi tempura ($17.95), with fried shrimp and fried onion rings piled 8 inches high, is a menu item Dairy Queen should offer. Although frying is a low-end restaurant's shortcut to a flavorful meal, being one of the easiest ways to make frozen food palatable, when done correctly, frying is sublime and requires just the kind of precision that Japanese kitchens are famous for.
The batter must rest the right amount of time, the oil must be crystal-clear and it must come up to full heat over and over again, requiring a nail-biting patience from the fry cook. Kyoto has this process down and tempura shows up, alone or in combination, in 10 of the 28 dinner entrees (assorted seafood $17.95 and vegetable $15.95).
Teriyaki, a slightly glutinous marinade of mirin rice wine, soy and sugar, appears in eight. I often find teriyaki too sticky-sweet for my taste, but it is one of the most popular Japanese dishes in this country, one of the few that have made their way onto fast-food menus. Kyoto glazes steak ($19.95), pork ($16.50), chicken ($14.95), salmon ($16.95) and eel ($10.95 as an appetizer) with the sauce. The special of the night, halibut ($17.95), was also heavily coated. Compared with the superlative tempura, the teriyaki disappointed — the meats and fish were slightly overcooked and overwhelmed by the sauce. Better were the tonkatsu ($16.50), three big slices of fried pork cutlet (loin), evidently breaded not battered, served with another soy-sweet dipping sauce, and the sanma shioyaki ($14.95), thick, oily pan-grilled slabs of mackerel whose flakes fell apart at the touch of a fork. This might be too strong a fish for some palates, but with the slivers of crisp cabbage and daikon, the excitement of textures and contrasts made this our favorite entree.
Every entree portion was dauntingly enormous, and every dinner also came with — besides its own particular bowl of sauce — a bowl of miso soup, steamed rice and the usual iceberg salad with shredded carrots and a gingery dressing. This was Utah-sized Japanese food, and someone in my party suggested Kyoto could aptly be renamed Tempura-rama, because it was all we could possibly eat — and definitely more than we should eat.
Hence the post-prandial walk in the park, time to digest and reflect. Once, Salt Lake City had a thriving Japantown where the Salt Palace is now; the Japanese temple is still there on 300 West and holds Japanese cultural celebrations regularly. Kyoto is a genuine keeper of that culture, but it is also in Salt Lake City and it caters to this culture, too.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.