4060 Maple Rd., Amherst, NY 14226
Web: Kyoto Japanese Restaurant
Rating: [learn more]
Sushi and teppanyaki house with locally par pricing and relatively attractive decor, offering ability to have an "event-style" Americanized meal with a performing cook, or more Japanese fare.
Expensive, with serious questions about the freshness of the sushi and preparation of other menu items. Strong oil smell, odd music permeates dining areas outside teppan room.
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Amherst Japanese Steak Sushi
"Ultimately, the mark of a good Japanese restaurant isn't the size of its menu or the flashiness of its presentation, but the quality of the items served; Kyoto is so-so."
Halfway through our meal at Amherst's Kyoto Japanese Restaurant, we realized that we'd been listening to Kenny G's renditions of White Christmas and Silent Night on the speakers all evening; this was odd, as it was August. And the saxophone music had only let up three times, interrupted by a pre-recorded Happy Birthday song we'd heard before in a Chinese restaurant. If we hadn't heard weirder things during our visits to Tokyo, we might have been too perplexed by what we were hearing to sort through what we were eating. But instead, as we made our second visit to this Maple Road location, we were able to look past a few little weird issues and explore what this substantially Chinese-staffed restaurant - named for Japan's historic political capitol - had to offer. The details are inside.
The Story: Japanese restaurants have been popping up in Amherst and Williamsville at a shocking pace, in recent months introducing the notable "seafood steakhouse" Ichiban and Samurai to complement existing players such as Fuji Grill, O, and Wasabi. If anything, the area now enjoys an abundance of Japanese dining options, though these restaurants are unfortunately all variants on the same two themes: the teppanyaki/hibachi house with performing chefs serving American food off of frying tables, or the traditional Japanese restaurant with a menu of familiar teriyaki, tempura, noodle and sushi options.
As we discovered on our first visit back in early May, when Kyoto opened in a location once occupied by the Bennigan's next to a movie theater, this restaurant does both of these things; there's a teppanyaki room in the center of the space, with highly attractive wooden decorations surrounding the room, then narrower corridors on the perimeter with booths for standard table and kitchen service. If you prefer to watch a steak or some shrimp get fried and tossed onto your plate, you can go for the teppanyaki; otherwise, you can go into one of the quieter side rooms for a meal.
Other than smelling the main room's frying oil while in the side rooms, we liked this layout, but we also noted some hiccups during Kyoto's Grand Opening weeks; the outside of the restaurant looked a bit unkempt, its staff was obviously still learning the ropes, and in addition to our own so-so experience there, we heard a number of complaints about the food. For these reasons, we opted to revisit a little later and see whether anything had changed. While the weeds outside had been cleaned up and the staff was definitely more familiar with their duties, not much else differed from our first visit to the second; the food was basically the same. More on that in the Highs and Lows.
Prices at Kyoto are typical by local Japanese restaurant standards. Appetizers start at $4 (two Spring Rolls) and go up to $10 (broiled Miso Black Cod), with soups ranging from $1.50 (Miso) to $6 (Seafood) and sushi ranging from $3.50 to $15 per individual roll depending on whether you want only vegetables ($3.50) or want more complex mixed fish pieces such as the Angel Roll ($15). Additional kitchen entrees include meat and noodle soup dishes ($11), tempuras ($13-$14), and grilled steak or fish ($15); Bento Boxes, or combinations of one sushi roll, a little salad, a little rice, a few fried dumplings, and a little meat of your choice go for $15 each. Hibachi meals start at $14 and go up to $28, each served with rice, soup, salad, and shrimp. In short, there's absolutely nothing unusual or special about the menu - it's less adventurous than Ichiban's - though for better or worse, it's familiar and "safe."
Highs: Though our opinions of the sushi and entrees varied pretty considerably from item to item, our group was impressed by the freshness and quality of the Sashimi Appetizer ($10), a plate with nine pieces of thick sliced fish - including tuna, salmon, and two others - laid alongside a small dab of green wasabi and some pickled ginger. The menu's description of "sliced vegetable" on the plate seemed a little overaggressive given the presence of little else save for a sprig of parsley and a lone piece of lettuce atop a huge mound of shaved ice, but the dish was entirely satisfying on taste.
Some of the sushi we ordered was legitimately good. Individual pieces of sliced scallop ($3) and egg ($2) were better than pleasant, if not mindblowing, and Spicy Tuna - served as both Hand Rolls and Cut Rolls ($6 each) - was better than the local norm, with a much superior balance of spicing and meat, albeit just a little too heavy on the mayonnaise flavor. Miso Soup, included with the Bento Boxes, was also good in a par sort of way. Presentation of the items ranged from okay to good.
By the time of our second visit, we were pleased that our orders - sometimes a little complex - were delivered more or less accurately, an improvement from the first visit. One of our sushi hand rolls arrived without the requested crunchy fried bits on top, but another had enough to share. The rest of the items arrived exactly as ordered, and thanks to an attentive server, we felt that our drink and food needs were being properly attended to throughout the entire meal.
Lows: While there were a number of good individual items in our meals, comments tended to linger on the ones that had fallen short, and the fact that the menu - while decent - didn't include many of the best kitchen options found at our higher-rated local Japanese restaurants. The centerpieces of the two $15 Bento Boxes that were ordered - Salmon Teriyaki and Beef Negimaki - were judged to be unimpressively prepared, the salmon a bit overcooked and the beef less than completely fresh in taste. Neither of the boxes was packed for their prices, with the meals amounting to several small appetizer-sized portions surrounded by fillers such as rice and nothing special salad. There wouldn't have been complaints had the individual items tasted better, but they left something to be desired.
A more significant issue was a serious inconsistency in the freshness of the sushi. Yellowtail ($2.50) served as an individual piece of sushi didn't have the moisture or taste of a new piece of fish, and the mackerel ($2) tasted downright old, fishy, and chewy. All of us felt that the mixed rolls, including the California Rolls ($4) included in two meals and ordered separately for a third, but also a Shrimp Tempura Cut Roll ($5), lacked in flavor.
Perhaps most disappointing was the Soft Shell Crab appetizer ($7), invariably served elsewhere as a battered, sliced whole crab, its pieces obviously arrayed as legs, claws, and body. Here, the few, small parts were dropped so indiscernibly on a plate that they actually appeared to be pieces of shrimp tempura at first glance, and their batter was apparently heavy to mask the small size of the crab meat inside. Rather than a chili or light, sweet dipping sauce, the Soft Shell was served here with a thick brown Tonkatsu sauce that's just not meant for this dish; the flavors were not terrible, and the pieces not devoid of actual crab, but this was certainly one of the least appealing versions of this dish we've yet had.
We were more split on the quality of the desserts; the green tea-flavored Mochi Ice Cream ($4) was served as two seemingly runny globs of sticky rice and ice cream, but its recipient surprisingly actually liked the unusually "pudding-like" center, contrasting with the typically hard sliceable ball of ice cream found inside. A tempura Fried Banana ($3.50), topped aggressively with whipped cream and too little with honey or chocolate, was plain and boring; pretty much as described, but not as imagined or experienced elsewhere.
As a final brief note, Kyoto does something that may appeal to some patrons, but didn't do much for us: it interrupts the ever-repeating Kenny G. music mid-meal every time someone in the restaurant has a birthday to celebrate, playing a pre-recorded Happy Birthday song loud enough for everyone in the place to hear it. Having not heard it at all before, we heard the song three times in a 20-minute period near the end of our meal, and recognized it as the same track we'd heard in a Chinese restaurant - here minus only a duck noise that previously punctuated each verse. Despite the Japanese-styled decor, note that if you're expecting a traditionally tranquil Japanese dining experience, or a quiet, romantic place for a date, you'd be better off someplace else.
The Verdict: Ultimately, the mark of a good Japanese restaurant isn't the size of its menu or the flashiness of its presentation, but the quality of the items served; Kyoto's menu, flashiness, and quality all fall into the so-so category. On a positive note, our dining experiences here were better than the ones at East Amherst's Samurai, but they don't compare with the nearby Fuji Grill or Ichiban on quality or value, or the more distant Wasabi on plating or quality. If Kyoto was to be substantially less expensive, or its menu were to offer something really dramatically different, it might be worth a return visit; however, the teppanyaki-slash-sushi concept is already better served locally by Ichiban, and the only reason to prefer Kyoto would be its center room decor. We'd call this a competent but not thrilling place to have a decent Japanese meal, and one that we're not planning to revisit any time in the immediate future.