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SOCAL STYLE: Restaurnats

Kyoto Raises the Bars

January 11, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

The Omni Hotel, already host to the excellent Korean restaurant Seoul Jung, has just opened Kyoto, a Japanese restaurant. Located on the mezzanine, beyond the elevators and piano bar, the stylish new Kyoto offers hotel guests, many of whom are Japanese tourists looking for a taste of home, studiously authentic sushi and tempura bars. Of course, the un-Americanized cuisine will no doubt also satisfy those fans of Japanese food who live here.

Open weekdays only, Kyoto is fresh- and contemporary-looking, with honey-toned hardwood floors, pedestal tables and sleek wooden chairs. Behind the pale maple sushi bar is a stunning 600-gallon saltwater aquarium filled with white coral and iridescent tropical fish that appear blissfully unaware of what those exotic creatures in Armani and Chanel are scarfing down at the sushi bar. Across the way is the tempura bar, all the requisite vegetables, mushrooms and seafood attractively displayed. There's also a casual dining room in the back and a small, free-standing teahouse for private parties.

As at any top-flight sushi bar, the best way to order here is to put yourself in the hands of the chef, asking him to choose what's best. When chef Horii Hitoshi makes a sashimi platter, it's never simply the usual toro (fatty tuna belly), maguro (tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail). One day, it includes finely sliced conch and giant clam, plus rose-streaked striped bass and beautiful maguro. Then he serves butterflied raw shrimp nigiri-zushi, as pristine and sweet as any I've ever eaten, followed by the shrimp heads, which have been fried at the tempura bar. Ochre-colored uni (sea urchin roe) is wrapped in a tall sash of crackling green-black nori. Hitoshi offers nigiri-zushi of hamachi and unctuous Spanish mackerel, then changes the pace with a fresh crab and asparagus roll. The latter fascinates the Japanese couple seated next to me. When I point out the word for asparagus on the menu, they exclaim that they don't have that in Japan and instead bite into a hand roll of natto, the fermented soybean delicacy that puts off most Westerners because of its slimy texture.

While the sushi is very good, the tempura is even better. I recommend sitting at the tempura bar and, again, asking the chef to do what he likes. One day, a friend and I begin lunch with a refreshing salad of crisp Japanese cucumbers and strips of milky squid in a tangy miso sauce. We watch as chef Masafumi Takehara stirs batters in stainless-steel bowls and dunks picture-perfect vegetables and seafood first in batter and then in clean, hot oil. When he sets asparagus spears into a lacquered basket lined with paper, they don't leave even a drop of grease. Frying has enhanced the flavor of the asparagus; the spears look as if they've been dipped in sea foam. Smiling, Takehara offers thumb-sized hot green peppers and a slice of starchy sweet potato. Then come fresh shrimp and king crab leg sheathed in a more opaque batter that creates delicious whorls and knobs of crunchiness. We eat everything put in front of us until we are about to burst. Highlights? A Japanese eggplant slashed to resemble a tea whisk. A white fish from Japan related to smelt that is pressed against a shiso leaf. A fritter (kara age) of asparagus and tiny bay scallops and, when we mention it, natto, a special version that, because it's fried, loses much of its sliminess and has a more pronounced cheese-like flavor.

In addition to sushi and tempura, the lunch menu offers simple but well-prepared cooked rice and noodle dishes, a few elegant bento boxes (I recommend the Kyoto box, which opens like a girl's vanity to reveal black lacquered shelves of artfully arranged morsels) and a handful of specialties such as rich glazed black cod. At night, the dinner menu is limited to what's available from the sushi or tempura bars, which makes Kyoto a good choice for pre-theater dining.

Sometimes, though, communication with the Japanese-speaking staff can be confusing. Kirin beer may show up instead of Heineken. And the restaurant's hours seem lost in translation, too. I arrive one night to find Kyoto inexplicably closed. On another occasion, I call ahead to ascertain how late the restaurant is open (9 p.m.). But when a friend and I rush over just before 8:30, the staff refuses to seat us. There are only two other diners at the sushi bar, but the staff murmurs something about reservations and that the sushi chefs are too busy. Fearless when hungry, my friend sits down anyway; the genial sushi chef is gracious enough to serve us, so I reassure him that we won't dawdle. Especially when he tells us his day started at 5 a.m. at the fish market. A small party is just finishing at the tempura bar, and after it leaves, the staff begins cleaning up around us. We finish our meal in just 45 minutes.

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