Twenty-five years ago, when there were far fewer Japanese restaurants in Virginia, Henry Wang, a Chinese immigrant and trained Japanese sushi chef, opened Kyoto Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar in Chesapeake.
Wang’s Japanese restaurant is now in Short Pump, offering a creative array of sushi rolls with adventuresome ingredients and fun flavors that excite the taste buds. Juxtaposed with the sushi, other dishes seem to lack the gumption and flair. Sushi takes the limelight here.
We arrived on a Wednesday evening at 7, with the intention of feasting on an array of rolls on the sushi side of the restaurant. As we sat down in the empty dining room, we heard excited “oohs” and “ahhs” and an applause coming from another room — the hibachi half of the restaurant. The menu includes traditional sushi and hibachi entrées (from teriyaki chicken to teppanyaki filet mignon), as well as noodle dishes (udon, soba and ramen) and donburi (Japanese rice bowls).
A cozy six-seat sushi bar, array of tables and beverage bar make up the sushi side of the restaurant. The bar was offering $1 saki bombs and has glasses of house wine for about $5 each.
Appetizers include deep-fried tofu ($5.25), veggie and shrimp tempura ($6.95), boiled squid with ginger sauce ($9.50) and chicken or beef skewers ($5.25-$6.50).
We started off with the yakisoba ($5.95), stir-fried noodles served with fresh vegetables. Strips of carrot, onion and cabbage added a pleasant crunch to the noodles. Using our chopsticks, we unearthed a few puny mushrooms that were undercooked. The warm noodles, lightly dressed in an oil that had hints of toasted sesame to it, were well-flavored, but in the end, we wanted more vegetables.
The gyoza ($5.95), six beef dumplings, were pan-fried so the dough was crisp and charred. Stuffed with beef, minced onions and carrots, the pot stickers were served with soy sauce.
For entrées, we decided to order an array of sushi, which was presented beautifully on a large platter. The sushi menu includes maki (cut roll) and temaki (hand roll shaped like a cone). Ingredients range from traditional — with unagi (eel), ika (squid), fish and shellfish — to more Americanized rolls, such as the California ($4.50). Wildly creative sushi, such as the Spicy Volcano, Green Spiral and Pink Panther, caught our interest.
Eight large Pink Panther ($10.95) maki rolls were stuffed with crispy shrimp tempura, sweet crab, lettuce and avocado, and then wrapped in pink soy paper topped with white special sauce and smelt roe (fish eggs).
Too large for chopsticks, the Pink Panther called for a firm grip. The lettuce gave the roll a surprising springy and clean taste and crunch, and the avocado a creaminess. A homemade tangy lemon sauce made from pineapple juice, lemon, sugar and mayonnaise, along with brightly hued roe, added finishing touches of sweetness.
We snacked on a simple avocado roll ($3.50) wrapped with seaweed, in between our more creative rolls.
The Green Spiral ($8.95) was by far our favorite roll. Maki-style, six pieces of thinly sliced tuna were wrapped around crabmeat. Bite-sized morsels of seafood danced in our mouths. The crabmeat — crunchy, creamy and spicy — had pizazz, and the tuna was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Accompanying the sushi, a crisp seaweed salad mixed with nutty sesame seeds was topped with smelt roe that popped like little bursts of sweetness.
The Spicy Volcano ($9.95), an aesthetic presentation of six temaki pieces arranged in a circle with parsley shooting out of the center, was created to look like an erupting volcano. Spicy mayo and Sriracha sauce drizzled down each cone, mimicking the appearance of flowing lava. Stuffed with tuna, crab and avocado and deep-fried, each piece had a pleasant balance of sweet and spicy, yet was a little cumbersome for the mouth.
Noodle dishes, though, could use tinkering with flavoring and ingredients. The ramen ($10.50), a hot noodle soup with chewy roast pork, boiled egg, bamboo shoots and scallions in a delicate miso (fermented soybean paste) broth was missing a brackish quality and called for more pork chunks.
After opening the original Chesapeake location in 2000, Wang expanded to Williamsburg, and then sold both locations recently to put his energy into opening a Kyoto Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar in Short Pump.
The new sushi bar and hibachi grill venue already has seen its fair share of setbacks, though: after signing a lease in August, Wang’s business partner and former culinary student, Ching Wei “Phillip” Fan, died in October. A November opening was then pushed to early January, and Kyoto’s liquor license was delayed as well.
But despite the restaurant’s recent adversity, Kyoto’s sushi is resilient, and so is Wang.
Unlike 25 years ago, when Wang opened his first Japanese restaurant, hibachi and sushi bars are commonplace. But while holding onto his traditional Japanese training, Wang has also adapted his culinary training to American tastes — our craving for wild, creative sushi rolls.
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