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Trying Times

Kyoto's hibachi is a ballet of spatulas and a volley of broccoli.
Peter Calvin

It used to be the Lighthouse Supper Club. The Lighthouse was a restaurant and bar on the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard. It aspired to be an old San Francisco-style dinner house. To that end, the restaurant included a lounge called "Club She." Our Club She adventure included black hot pants on the cocktail waitresses and Southpaw and Saxman on the stage, a two-piece ensemble that crooned Tony Bennett and Derek and the Dominoes with wedding-band aplomb. Also to that end, the dining room was populated with servers dressed in black pants and white tuxedo shirts, untied black bowties dangling around their necks as if anticipating the tawdry.

The Lighthouse dining experience can be summed up succinctly in one episode. After requesting a bottle of Echelon pinot noir, our server first delivered a bottle of pinot grigio followed by a bottle of merlot before he proudly emerged with the correct label. He beamed: "OK, who wants to be the tryer?"

Lighthouse sank. In its place, Kyoto Japanese Steak House rose off its freshwater shoal, which seems mostly composed of mud, concrete and pickup trucks. Kyoto is a word that, like "gay" and "rap," has come to assume a meaning completely different from the one it was once designed to express. A city in south central Japan, Kyoto is now inexorably linked with an international climate treaty. As we know, unabated global warming will lead to planetary devastation of unimaginable proportions; mostly in the form of disaster movies and hyperventilating activists, if current indices are anything to go by. Hyperventilation is nothing to sneeze at. Humans exhale some 2.2 pounds of dreaded carbon dioxide per day, and there are 6.4 billion of us poised to boost those emissions considerably should fits of indignation take hold--a threat potentially greater than a 2-mile-long Hummer motorcade violating posted speed limits. And that doesn't even include the considerable global warming threats posed by Budweiser bubbles.

But we digress. Kyoto the steak house is a maze of compartments. While the Lighthouse christened them with names like Club She, Kyoto has Ninja Lobby, Samurai Village and a nook called Mach's Room. Instead of Southpaw and Saxman, they have hibachi chefs, and aside from a few muffed behind-the-back peppermill catches, the theatrics are just as worthy.

The chef cuts the light under the exhaust hood when he enters. This move adds drama to the hibachi overture, which begins with a ritualized squirt of oil across the griddle. He warns the diners ringing the table to guard their eyebrows before he flicks the flame on a lighter. A conflagration roils across the griddle with a whoosh followed by a shock of blasting heat. He giggles wickedly and flicks the hood light back on.

Hibachi is often a silly gimmick: a forum for low-skilled hacks to doodle with food and fiddle with sizzle. But at its best, hibachi chefs are the Harlem Globetrotters of the flattop with performances that can be inspired. As if in a trance, our chef locks his eyes on a wall spot, just above the head of the woman facing him. He balances a pair of spatulas on his index fingers, in the crook where handle becomes blade, and twirls them like a pair of upended windmills.

Typical hibachi fried rice is a cup of white dumped onto the griddle with onions and other things chopped in. Squirts from plastic bottles follow, exploding the white mound in a fit of sizzle as the foaming brown soy ringing it quickly morphs into a murky steam.

Squirts are still deployed here. But the rice arrives as a pearly speed bump across a large platter with minced onion, sliced scallion and slivered carrot spread over the white like the tuxedo shirt ruffles of yore. The rice is delicious: separate, fluffy, not too oily. Entrée flesh maintains this same level of virtue. Filet mignon is cut into bite-size pieces; perfect medium-rare examples of precise cubist geometry with distinct gray, pink and ruby layers. They're tender and dank, though the seasoning is slight and must face the barrel of a shaker. Mahi mahi is flaky, strongly flavored and moist, bleeding rich, well-seasoned juices with every bite.

Calamari is a pair of flat steaks, creamy white, flecked with pepper and gritted with salt. The chef tops them with a slice of garlic butter carved with a spatula from a spotted bulb of yellow resembling a potato. The steaks are meticulously carved into strips, which in the mouth are tender, chewy and moist. The flavors are respectable, though not suffused with that buttery richness that calamari can sometimes possess.

In hibachi, meat forks and spatulas serve more as percussion instruments than tools for moving food from bowl to griddle, from griddle to plate. Every shake, every toss, every stir is accompanied by the staccato clack of a fork or spatula rapidly slapping something. On another Samurai Village table, a chef slices an onion into perfectly symmetrical rings. He assembles them on the griddle in the shape of a cone, squirts oil down the mound's throat and sets it alight. Flame spits from the vent with volcanic rage, hissing and sputtering. After the flame peters out, he clicks his spatula against the griddle corner, simulating a bell clang, and slowly slides the cone across the griddle, the vent now heaving smoke billows with locomotive vigor. After the smoke dissipates, he catapults a broccoli floret from a cocked spatula directly into the mouth of a little girl seated on the other side of the griddle. Spatulas can hurl, too.

The sushi bar is more sober, though the sobriety is a bit frayed. There are no hot towels delivered to clean hands at the onset--an unforgivable oversight. Plus, orders are muffed: no requested spoon for the kiddy's miso; no requested seaweed salad. In another episode, part of another diner's sushi order mysteriously finds its way to our platter. So it is shuttled back to the kitchen so the offending parts could be removed.

The sushi bar is elevated, which means the refrigerated case hits at eye level. Octopus arms, shrimp coils and fish torsos blunted at the ends from knife play stare down at you--a little creepy.

But this isn't the only Kyoto oddity. Sushi orders are executed in singles rather than pairs. And it's served on glass platters with ripples, a format more appropriate for crustless finger sandwiches than strips of sea eel.

Kyoto sushi blasts a shot straight down the middle of the road. It didn't suck. It didn't inspire. Red snapper, with a crown of bright green daikon sprouts, is mushy and loose. The fish is cool, but the salmon tastes like soap. The rolls are respectable--operable anyway--just not resounding in flavor or freshness. And while the flying fish roe was fluffy and as brilliantly orange as a traffic cone, it slacked into an off-putting fishiness.

There are other things on the Kyoto roster to frame raw fish and griddle performance art. Gyoza, Japanese pan-fried dumplings, rests on a disheveled bed of carrot splinters, shaved red cabbage and desperately stale dried rice noodles. The dumplings are greasy and without any herbal breath, though the pork core is burly and juicy.

Fried crab stick is heinous, not surprising as these kindling-like stalks arranged in a bonfire teepee over a rumpled heap of carrot, cabbage and stale fried rice noodles are composed of surimi instead of crab. Surimi does not fry well, turning spongy and slithering out of the brittle tempura crust, which is smeared with a bright red pepper sauce.

Beef tataki is a mess, unkempt spirals and loops of barely seared beef assembled willy-nilly in a circle over shreds of lettuce flooded in dressing. The meat is faded and chewy.

But Kyoto has more pluses than deductions. Also, there's no hot air or Club She, though Ninja Lobby is a creepy name. The hibachi is fun, and the sushi isn't hazardous. So who wants to be the tryer?

9900 Lakeview Parkway, Rowlett, 972-463-0288. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$

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Kyoto's Japanese Steak House

9900 Lakeview Parkway
Rowlett, TX 75088

972-463-0288

www.kyotosteakhouse.com


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