When my family lived in northern Virginia and my kids were little, any mention of going out to dinner was met with please to go to the local Japanese restaurant where the chefs cooked in front of you. The little kids just loved the show, with the flying food and goofy jokes. We have a number of those restaurants in Syracuse, but my recent trip to Koto Japanese Steakhouse on Erie Boulevard East (with a second location in Carousel Center) was a treat that lived up to all of our memories of fun times with our kids, yet also gave us a delicious meal and sent us home with leftovers. More about those later.
As the four of us walked in, we received a big hello from the bartender and the host, and a warm greeting from Will Cheung, the manager. When I asked Will what he wanted folks to know about Koto, he emphasized that people needed to know that his Japanese restaurant was about more than just sushi.
At Koto, you can choose between the hibachi experience, the bar
experience, a table experience or dinner in the tatami room. This is the
traditional low table where your legs rest in a little cutout space
below floor level. The tatami room has two tables that can accommodate
up to eight people each. The entire menu is available here, so if you
want the hibachi food they will cook it up for you in the kitchen and
you can skip the show and dine privately.
Koto also has a back room that can accommodate up to 40 diners. There was a birthday party going on while we were there and, judging by the balloons’ numbers that passed by, somebody had just turned 25. Or 52. Whatever. Happy hour is Mondays to Thursdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., when selected appetizers and sushi rolls are half-price.
We were seated at the hibachi table and joined by a family in town for a son’s graduation from Le Moyne College. Miranda, our waitress, a graduate student at Syracuse University, duly checked the new grad’s ID and then offered us all a refreshing beverage. As part of the Japanese beer experience, Koto carries Asahi (Japan’s No. 1 beer), Kirin and Sapporo on tap and Hitachino White Ale by the bottle.
Will brought out some Samurai Ale for us to try. This is a
Japanese-style brew, generally dry and light, but made in Colorado. The
beers came out in assorted-sized glasses but Miranda assured us that no
matter what size they appeared to us, the beers were all the same
volume. She apparently had made the bartender measure them out to her
satisfaction. Adorable and, apparently, very scientific.
Will had me try a white wine from Spain called Oroya, crafted specifically to be consumed with sushi. I agree, it went great, and not for a second pretending that I am any wine expert, I liken it to a dry pinot grigio.
For starters, we tried two appetizer specials and two sushi rolls.
The Fantastic Roll, which lives up to its name, was an eight-piece roll
containing shrimp tempura, seared tuna, spicy salmon, cucumber and
avocado served with the chef’s spicy sauce and the eel sauce. The
Sashimi Sampler included striped bass, fluke, salmon, tuna and red
snapper. We enjoyed the Wasabi Calamari, delicately fried panko-crusted
squid served with a sweet and tangy cocktail sauce. The unusual Lobster
Moto Yaki was a combination of lobster meat, grilled onions and
mushrooms bathed in a rather spicy aioli sauce and served in the lobster
Per tradition, presentation was paramount and Will told us that every three months or so he is looking to put new items on the menu to keep things fresh and new. He brought us one of his newest creations and we loved it: cream cheese, asparagus and crab, wrapped in a piece of wafer-thin chicken and then deep-fried.
At this point you must be thinking, “Surely these people are not going to continue eating?” But in fact we did, after being assured that Koto provides rollout service to their customers. The hibachi meal starts with your choice of soup or salad. I recommend the salad as the dressing is creamy and so very tasty. You get your choice
of white rice, brown rice, fried rice or noodles to accompany your other choice of shrimp, scallops, steak or chicken or some combination of the foregoing. And then the show begins.
Our chef, Yuki, entertained the table with an onion volcano, a smiley-face set on fire (watch your eyebrows) and fried rice in the shape of a heart that beat when he slid a spatula underneath. I passed on the competition involving the little Dutch boy who would pee water from across the table into your mouth while the seconds were counted. Good thing, too, since I found out on the way home that it wasn’t water. And I was driving.
Two sauces are served with the meal: a brown ginger barbecue sauce and, per Yuki, “yummy-yummy” sauce, not to be missed. I personally wait for the vegetables and my rice to be served and then dump this pink, creamy, savory sauce on top and mix it all together. Yummy-yummy. The carmelization, especially on the scallops, looked and tasted fantastic.
Dessert was completely out of the question at this point, but Koto serves tempura-fried cheesecake, ice cream or banana and a couple of items flavored with green tea.
So, about those leftovers. One of those little kids who loved the hibachi experience long ago in Virginia is now a 20-year-old man with an appetite to match his youthful metabolism. Those leftovers never even made it to the fridge, and the next morning the guy who is not prone to much in the way of commentary told me how good they were, with a big hint that he wouldn’t mind if mom and dad treated him to dinner at Koto. Anytime.
The Koto Japanese Steakhouse on 2841 Erie Blvd. E. (445-KOTO (5686); kotosyracuse.com) is open for lunch Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturdays, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner hours take place Mondays through Thursdays 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Fridays, 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Saturdays 3 to 11 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 10 p.m.
The Koto location at Carousel Center’s food court on the second level
(479-KOTO (5686); kotosyracuse.com) is open for lunch: Mondays through
Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Supper is served Mondays through Thursdays,
3 to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 3 to 11 p.m.; and Sundays, 11 a.m.
to 9 p.m.