Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Would you think me crazy if I told you that the best place to go for onion rings in Salt Lake City is a Japanese restaurant? Well I'm here to say that it's true (and that the jury's still out on whether or not I'm crazy). But if you want crispy onion rings with a light and delicately deep-fried crust - Kyoto is the place to go...offering what I consider their house specialty: tempura to die for. It may sound strange that the highlight of a Japanese restaurant is its fried food given that in general Japanese food is thought to be lighter and healthier, but the adaptation of Japanese food in America has laid the way for heavier versions of traditional Japanese dishes that we've come to know and love - more or less - as Japanese-American comfort food.

Kyoto offers a range of items from traditional sushi to entrees covering the basic Japanese-American dishes such as sukiyaki, teriyaki, tonkatsu, and tempura. The entree portions are huge...a definite influence from American culture. The sukiyaki at Kyoto is served in a large, deep bowl laden full of a flavorful and slightly sweet soy sauce infused broth with thin slices of beef and other accoutrements. This beef stew of sorts is great on a cold night and is familiar enough for most people to enjoy their first time having it. The most popular Japanese-American dish, teriyaki, is done exquisitely at Kyoto. The choices for teriyaki abound at Kyoto - chicken, salmon, halibut, and beef all populate the menu as options for the sweet sauce. Any teriyaki meal is served with one of the above proteins, properly cooked with a light coat of their house made sauce which isn't too sweet...yet sweet enough. The teriyaki entrees are served with an American style green salad with a bright and sharp ginger dressing, steaming hot and salty miso soup, white rice, and Kyoto's famous vegetable tempura. It adds up to a huge pile of food on your plate - the definite American part of the Japanese-American equation.

Another traditional entree that many Americans rarely venture into is tonkatsu, a thinly pounded pork cutlet, lightly breaded and fried. And as alluded to earlier, where Kyoto truly shines is in everything fried. The thick cutlet is moist and tender yet incredibly crisp. The flavorful piece of meat is accompanied by two sauces, a sweeter, almost fruity-hoisin like sauce and more of a tart, sour, horseradish type sauce. As with all the entrees, the tonkatsu comes with salad, soup, rice, and a heaping serving of tempura. The light and crispy crust on vegetables such as onions, sweet potato, and carrots makes their tempura pretty amazing. If a deep fried product could be described as airy, the tempura at Kyoto certainly fits the bill.  

What's interesting about Kyoto is their approach to sushi. With such excess demonstrated in their Japanese-American style entrees, the exact opposite is found in their sushi selection. Here you won't find the unique and creative funky rolls that newer, trendier places offer to attract more of the teriyaki-going types to try sushi. But you do have an option of some pretty standard maki rolls, as well as the traditional sashimi and nigiri. The plates are artfully presented and the offerings are quite delicious. The sashimi is high quality - the cool, clean taste of each raw fish wakes the palate with each bite. The distinct flavors of raw salmon and hamachi are light and fresh; without a sauce or side dish, the fish is served truly naked - and only the quality of the fish dictates its rich flavor. The texture and taste of sashimi is truly luxurious. It's interesting how something so simple and unassuming as raw fish can make you feel like a king. In the face of the heaps of food you get with an entree, the sushi selection is a model of restraint...which to me is more indicative of true Japanese cuisine. So if the standard entree with all the goodies sounds like a bit much for a night out, show some restraint and get a plate of sashimi and some miso soup - that alone should be enough to fill you up nicely.

A few years ago, I vacationed in (or should I say I ate my way through?) the Japanese cities of Kyoto and Tokyo. Interestingly, aside from sushi, most of the food I had in Japan was very unlike any version of the Japanese-American food I've ever had in the United States. I ate in many noodle houses, had many soups, a lot of seafood (both cooked and raw), ate raw egg over hot rice for breakfast, and frequented food carts selling various wood-fired treats on sticks.  I don't remember ever leaving a meal in Japan feeling like I'd eaten too much and I didn't have teriyaki even once. So what does that mean exactly for the Japanese-American food popularized in the U.S.? I mean, did we American's bastardize Japanese food to the horribly sweet caricature of chicken teriyaki? Well maybe a little - but to be honest, I really do love chicken teriyaki when it's done right.

The beauty of the American melting pot is that we can take aspects of other cultures and integrate them into a more (forgive the food pun) palatable form. Western palates are very different than those in Japan and all we've done is taken what we like and run with it....hence we now have a nation full of teriyaki lovers. But I'm hopeful that we can grow in the next several years and adopt more of the traditional Japanese foods that we don't often see here in the U.S. The food in Japan is really amazing and truly more healthful than much of what we eat in the states; it would be a shame if the American public misses out on this. I think it's a matter of putting our own spin on this traditional fare as a means of introducing it gradually to our taste buds. I mean really - if you had told people fifty years ago that serving raw fish and seaweed would gain massive popularity around the U.S. they might have thought you were crazy. But today in addition to the nation full of teriyaki eaters, we now have a nation full of sushi eaters too. I for one am looking forward to the slow incorporation of new and different Japanese-American dishes among the masses. But as we all know, change comes slowly. So until then, I'm going to enjoy my huge plate of airy, heavenly onion rings at Kyoto...

Kyoto ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
1300 South 1100 East

Kyoto Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Kyoto Japanese on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Savory Palate

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to try a dish made by a young Thomas Keller when he was a green cook just starting out? Or curious to have a peek at what Bobby Flay's cooking was like when he was in culinary school? If so, now you've got your chance to see what aspiring cooking school students are dishing out. The International Culinary School at the Art Institute in Draper has opened a student-run establishment called 'The Savory Palate'. The restaurant is open to the public only two days during the week and dining at the restaurant is by reservation only.

The restaurant is run by students who are enrolled in a "restaurant class". Students who take the class are actually getting course credit to work in the restaurant. The student-chefs rotate through all aspects of kitchen prep and hot/cold line work executing dishes in a timely manner, as well as working front of house service as the host/hostess, servers, and bussers. The rationale for such a restaurant class is a great idea. It gives students a chance to get some experience with cooking on a restaurant line - which is presumably where the majority of students will end up right after they graduate. The experience also forces students who are training to be chefs to become servers - a position that most cooks will never normally have. It really gives the students a chance to see all aspects of a functional restaurant and give them a broad perspective of what it takes for a restaurant to be successful.

The Savory Palate is a small dining room adjacent to one of the school's teaching kitchens. The students are in a veritable fish bowl as the wall separating the kitchen and dining room is made of glass. The students are on display being watched eagerly by their waiting customers. The Savory Palate serves up a 3 course meal for $12.95 with choice of starter, entree, dessert, and beverage. The menu rotates and is based on dishes the students have mastered in a previous course called American Regional Cuisine.

I began my lunch with a sweet onion tart. To be honest it looked like something a culinary student might make. The tart itself was good - sweet, caramelized onions were baked atop of a crisp puff pastry dough and served with a roasted tomato sauce. The tart pureed sauce nicely balanced the sweetness of the onion and offered a nice creamy texture to the crunchy crust. I also tried the fried tomato with blue cheese and roasted red pepper sauce. This was also nice - crispy and chewy with a nice contrasting sweetness in the sauce. Not a bad start at all.

For my entree I had the smothered pork chops with orange-scented sweet potato and roasted butternut squash. The plating - again - was very much what you'd expect from culinary students. It was a nicely composed plate of the sweet potato which was piped onto the plate and browned, atop which the pork chop sat with sauteed onions and mushrooms placed on top. Roasted squash was delicately placed around the edge of the pork chop. My first impression of the dish was that it wasn't bad flavor-wise but definitely was not the most memorable of dishes. The pork was a touch dry and the food came out a little lukewarm...but really overall - it was a great effort.

People at the table commented on how the orange in the sweet potato was too over-powering but I actually found the flavor to be quite nice, adding some dimension and depth to the monotonous sweetness in the potato. What would have really made the dish for me though would have been a sauce to bring all of the elements on the plate together. A sauce would have tied things together nicely as well as provided some moisture to the dryness of the pork. The other entree option was the pecan-encrusted catfish served with the slow-cooked greens and the same orange-sweet potato. To be honest, I didn't try it but it got pretty good reviews around the table. Again, people seemed to like it but weren't swearing that it was the best meal they ever had.

For dessert I ordered the chocolate-banana parfait but was informed while we were eating our entree that they had run out. So I got the pecan tart instead. The tart was very good - crunchy pecans surrounded by a sweet, gooey filling overwhich a large scoop of whipped cream lay. It was a nice ending to the meal. Also ordered at our table was a fruit tart. Again, very culinary school looking. Sweet dough upon which vanilla pastry cream sits, on top of which various fruits are placed - a very classic French style pastry. Also quite good. Our server came by and actually dropped off a complimentary chocolate-banana parfait as well as a complimentary mango cake.  I guess she realized they actually weren't out of the chocolate-banana parfait - or perhaps she just realized that I was having lunch with one of her culinary school instructors and she wanted to make a good impression. Either way it worked out for me. The chocolate-banana parfait was awesome. Nice banana cream, fresh and bright tasting, married with a deep chocolate mousse - airy but firm. With four desserts to finish the meal off with, who could complain? You know what they say - your company may forget about dinner, but they'll always remember dessert.

Believe it or not, I've actually had meals at various culinary school restaurants before. Living in the bay area for a really long time, I've had the pleasure of dining at the student run restaurants of the Culinary Institute of America (Greystone campus in Napa) as well as the California Culinary Academy (in San Francisco). Comparatively, The Savory Palate does seem a bit dated in terms of menu items and plating as well as a bit remedial in terms of technique but despite this, the food seems to fit the Utah demographic pretty well. So it does seem like the restaurant is catering to its potential customer base and it's a pretty good value at $12.95. All in all I had a good experience at The Savory Palate. Not the most cutting edge food I've ever had, but decent home cooking turned up a notch...not to mention that our server was great and really exemplified a good model for how service in any restaurant should be. Here at The Savory Palate you get a good glimpse of what these young culinarians can do now. With the training these ambitious students get at the Art Institute - coupled with a few years of experience in a "real" restaurant kitchen - I'm sure we can expect great things in the future from this next generation of talented chefs.

The Savory Palate at the Art Institute of Salt Lake City
121 W. Election Road
Draper, Utah

The Savory Palate at the Art Institute on Urbanspoon