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