Open Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, Tuesday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for dinner, Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Mondays. V, MC. Reservations accepted. Prices: $3.30 to $5.95 for luncheon specials, $4.95 to $8.95 a la carte. Appetizers at dinner, $2 to $5; main courses $4.50 to $9; full dinners, $11 to $14.95.
Kyoto is the sort of place you might drive by for years and never visit, on the principle that any restaurant located on a strip of U.S. 1 better known more for its gas stations, $20-a-night motels, and fast food joints can't be serious. Attached to the Virginia Lodge, a motel whose unwary guests must find it both baffling and miraculous, Kyoto seems to have survived its nearly comical location by serving a broad selection of Japanese dishes. The fare, while rarely outstanding, is generally good and certainly good value, particularly at lunchtime.
The decor is simple and muted, the single large dining room lit by both Japanese- and American-style overhead lights, all but one of the windows covered with Japanese screens. One's awareness of P.I.E trucks speeding by on the other side of those roadhouse windows somewhat diminishes the sense of coziness, but the graciousness of the kimono-clad waitresses and the otherworldliness of the Japanese music playing in the background help sustain the illusion that you are, however briefly, in a somewhat different world.
The appetizers are generally well enough prepared to warrant experimentation, although Yakitori (broiled skewered chicken) was a bit dry the night we ordered it (except for the chicken livers, which were just right). Hot bean curd, quite bland by itself, is transformed by the dipping sauce that comes with it. Sea urchin (namauni), which the Japanese consider a delicacy, is overwhelmingly delicious to some people (vaguely like an unusual vegetable with a mushy consistency), while others take a second bite largely out of a sense that it's probably one of those tastes that needs cultivating. Tamago, on the other hand, is comfortingly familiar: a slightly sweet layered omelet. One of my favorite appetizers was ikura oroshi, beautiful large salmon roe, as salty as it is fishy -- no drawback to a caviar fan.
If you order a full dinner, you get soup and a Japanese version of seafood salad -- both of which can also be ordered a la carte. The menu lists two soups: suimono, a clear broth, a miso shiru, a mildly pungent bean-paste broth that Kyoto prepares very well. Kyoto's sunomono, a vinegared seafood salad, is a lovely dish combining shrimp, cucumber and seaweek -- although, like many Japanese dishes, in such a delicate portion that it barely whets the appetite.
Among the entrees fried foods fare better than broiled; dishes cooked in broth -- which at their best may strike the Western palate as subdued -- are not always at their best. The tempura is excellent, the fresh large shrimp dipped in a light batter and fried to perfection, the vegatables crisp and delicious. Kyoto could make a fortune merchandising its "onion rings." Ton katsu, strips of pork cutlet served with a commercial barbeque sauce on the side, is a filling portion of familiar meat -- more satisfying for meat cravings than the bland sukiyaki, with its skimpy portions of flavorless beef, or the noodle soups on the dinner menu, which are of interest chiefly for their noodles.
Cooked fish dishes are espcially disappointing, the broiled teriyaki salmon too dry and salty, the salt-broiled version (shioyaki) is less so, surprisingly, but not something I would order again either. The problem may be that the fish Kyoto cooks is not as fresh as the fish it serves raw.
Those who have never tried sashimi (thin slices of raw fish filets) or sushi (raw fish and other tidbits, served on a bed of vinegared rice which is quite habit-forming), may find Kyoto the perfect place to do so, because you can share an order knowing there are plenty of less exotic dishes to fall back on if you don't join the crowd of converts. Sashimi may be ordered as an appetizer or a main course, the prices varying depending on whether you stick to tuna, the queen of the line, or include trout and flounder in an assortment. With sushi, the selection is even broader -- including squid, octopus, shrimp and salmon as well as the fish filets. People who come expecting a sushi bar will be disappointed because the sushi, while beautifully presented and perfectly fresh when we ordered it, was prepared out of view. However, you can either customize your order or ask for an assortment, either as nigiri shushi (slices of fish on bite-sized mounds of rice) or as norimake (rice and fish rolled in seaweek and sliced into bite-sized rounds). Incidentally, sashimi should be eaten with chopsticks, sushi held between the thumb and forefinger.
Nabemono -- food prepared at the table -- is not a high point of the meal at Kyoto, and isn't even always prepared at the table. The sukiyaki we ordered at lunch came steaming from the kitchen. Yosenabe ordered at dinner was better -- bits of chicken, fish, and Japanese cabbage perked up by treasures such as fish cakes and mochi, a New Year's rice cake that gets all gummy and delicious in broth. If you are hungry you might do better to order shrimp, chicken, or pork cutlet donburi ("served on a bowl of rice"), or the somewhat more expensive unagi donburi, a barbequed eel dish surprisingly palatable even to the leery, who are generally impressed by the boned eel's unusual smoked flavor.
Prices are considerably lower at lunch, when one can order noodle dishes that aren't even listed on the dinner menu -- including mori soba, cold yam noodles which reach their full greed-making flavor when dunked in a lovely dipping sauce served on the side.
The dessert selection is minimal: a slice of slightly oxidized Neapolitan ice cream, a piece of fresh fruit or a plate of Yokan, a gelatinous red bean-paste dessert that somehow suits the end of a Japanese meal but probably won't satisfy real dessert lovers. Kyoto's full bar offers wine, cocktails and a handful of special drinks with names like Geishi and Gujiyama (a bow, I suspect, to guests at the motel), but most of the regulars seem happy with Japanese or American beer, or Japanese tea.
Kyoto is refreshingly courageous as a local outpost of authentic cuisine. If you're in the neighborhood, it's worth a stop.