It is easy to unfairly stereotype national or regional cuisines — Italian being synonymous with tomato sauce, Cajun equaling cayenne, and so on. It’s hard to do so with Japanese food.
Yes, there is sushi, which seems to have taken center stage. But sweet teriyaki and crisp tempura dishes are a wholly separate spectrum, and then there is hibachi cooking, where Tokyo meets Las Vegas.
Derek Chang’s Koto restaurant takes these dichotomies to a visual level. The starkly minimalist entry area, with its large, sliding glass doors and blue, barely decorated walls give way to dark wood and a more traditionally decorated dining area and sushi bar, then a larger-than-expected, dark hibachi area. Walk around, and you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve somehow stepped into another restaurant. Or two.
All of them have their moments.
There weren’t many other diners there when we made a lunch visit, and we suspect the $12-$14 price range, which won’t appeal to the budget-conscious, is the reason. That said, the lunch bento boxes provide generous portions, so diners are unlikely to go away hungry. We didn’t.
The tempura shrimp ($12) bento box featured two large shrimp that had been magically straightened, battered and fried with a crisp, delicate batter, as were several vegetables, and were served along with a small bowl of rice, salad, two snow crab rolls, two spring rolls, and a tangy tempura sauce. Particularly for taste buds trained to expect spice in fried seafood batter, these shrimp needed the sauce, but that is to be expected. You don’t go to a Japanese restaurant expecting cayenne. The snow crab roll – white rice surrounding a crab mixture – had a pleasant flavor and shouldn’t be objectionable to diners who have a westerner’s suspicion about anything that looks like sushi.
The sashimi ($14) bento box came with two pieces each of tuna, salmon and white fish. Like most sushi restaurants, the menu doesn’t elaborate on which particular type of white fish is used. Of the three, the tuna had the freshest taste. Its texture was soft, and it melted away in the mouth. The salmon was chewier than my guest would have liked. As its forgettable name would imply, the white fish’s flavor did not stand out, but its texture was pleasant.
On our dinner visit, we decided to explore a variety of the menu, which includes a hibachi section in which a chef prepares rice, protein portions and vegetables on a large, sheet metal grill for customers, and provides some entertaining banter and visuals for all those assembled. The show — acrobatics with kitchen tools, flying and spinning eggs, seeing if customers can catch pieces of food with their mouths, turning a cone of raw onion rings into a flame-shooting volcano — varies little from restaurant to restaurant, but it’s enjoyable even for those who’ve seen it before, and especially for those who haven’t.
And the food turns out quite good. It arrives to your plate hot — obviously, since its travel time from the grill is approximately one second — and is never dried out or overcooked from waiting on other parts of the order or being left on the grill unattended. Prices range from $15 (vegetables only) to $29 (filet mignon) for one meat item, and $23-$33 for two-meat combinations. The dinners include mushroom soup, salad, vegetables, fried rice and a two-piece shrimp appetizer.
We sampled the chicken, shrimp and steak (medium rare), all of which were seasoned with salt and a soy-based marinade, and all were moist, tender and succulent.
Some in our group chose to order from the dinner and sushi menus. The restaurant accommodates this, but the food all arrived long before the hibachi cooking was done, which meant we weren’t eating at the same time. Even if everyone in the party is eating from the hibachi, expect the meal to take longer than if ordering from a standard table. If possible, such restaurants don’t seat diners until they have filled as many seats as possible around the hibachi. Then again, you’re there for a show as well as food, so take this into account.
The shrimp teriyaki ($20) was quite good — well-prepared and glazed, along with steamed vegetables, in a sweet teriyaki sauce and served on a sizzling hot plate. We were less enamored with the katsu red snapper ($18), as it was fairly bland without the thick, tangy and sweet katsu sauce. The fire dragon roll ($14) was far larger but similar to the rolls that accented the bento box — snow crab mixture, with sliced avocado, but also topped with barbecued eel, which added an interesting zip to the mostly mild flavors.