Friday, February 12, 2010

Kotobuki Japanese Cuisine

Picture it: A bedraggled Dutchman who has traveled extensively around the world, and has thus far lived in seven different places on three continents; he continues to travel and explore—a Magellan for the new millennium, if you will. Of all the places he has called home, the four years that he lived in Japan were some of the best of his life. Having soaked up as much of the Japanese culture as he could during that time, some of his fondest memories are of the palatable and inventive cuisine. He misses true Japanese food and wishes he could find it more often than he has these past few years. Who is this man? He is my husband, Maarten. And he’s still hungry for Japanese food.

When he lived in Atlanta, he was able to satisfy his desire for sushi at Yakitori Jinbei, an authentic-styled Japanese restaurant that I introduced him to a couple of years ago in Smyrna, GA. He would later go on record as saying that it was the most authentic Japanese restaurant he has experienced since  leaving Japan. Those are pretty high marks. But could he find above average sushi right here in little ol’ Stamford?

We would soon find out.

Friday night was cold…very cold. But it’s okay; that seems to be the thing here. I was very well aware of my husband’s penchant for sushi, so when he arrived home from a busy day at the office, I once again suggested we go out for dinner. I’m getting pretty good at that whole avoidance of cooking routine. When I initially mentioned a Japanese restaurant, he bristled slightly. Our exchange went something like this:

     Maarten: “I’ve already had sushi this week.”

     Valerie: “Okay, well I thought you might want to take a look at—”

     Maarten: “No, I’m going to be stubborn. No Japanese.”

     Valerie: “But, . . .”

     Maarten: "Can't you hear, lady?!? No Japanese food; end of story."

     Valerie: "But honey, sweetie, love of my life . . ."

     Maarten: “I said NO, woman!”

     Valerie: THWACK! (the sound of my hand connecting with his face)

     Maarten: “Okay honey, whatever you say. Japanese it is. Can I buy you a car?”

Okay, it didn’t quite go like that, but perhaps you can see where this is heading. We eventually went out for Japanese food at Kotobuki Japanese Cuisine.

Kotobuki is a rather small restaurant, and one could take in a view of the entire place merely by standing inside the front entrance. Maarten liked the looks of it immediately. He was especially pleased that, behind the tiny sushi bar, there were Japanese chefs working diligently preparing fresh sushi, in his mind, especially for him. And this was the man who, just one hour prior, was so adamant that he didn’t want Japanese food? Guess I showed him.

The menu was rather impressive, with soup/salads/sides, three different classifications of appetizers (Tempura Appetizers, Appetizers from the Sushi Bar, and Appetizers from the Kitchen), special rolls, teriyaki dishes, tempura dishes, katsu dishes, a la cart dishes with rice from the kitchen, a la carte sushi and, finally, the sushi and sashimi selections. In short, there was a lot to choose from. After experiencing a rather dismal cup of miso soup at another restaurant a week prior, I was still heavily in need of my miso fix, so we both ordered a bowl. As I am rarely satisfied with a mere bowl of broth as a starter, I also selected the Yakitori as an appetizer. In my mind, I so wanted the taste to take me right back to Smyrna, GA where I would walk into Yakitori Jinbei and the Chef/Owner would yell from the kitchen Irasshaimase! (which translates as “welcome” ), I would sit down at my favorite table and order the most phenomenal Negimi (their yakitori version of a grilled chicken skewer with onion) and just sigh with contented happiness.

We placed our orders for the starters, I ordered a large Kirin Ichiban to wash everything down, and then we focused our attentions once again on the menu for our entrĂ©es. After going back and forth between the Steamed Salmon in a fish broth based sauce with a hint of soy sauce and sweet sake and the Chicken Sukiyaki, I threw conventional caution to the wind and ultimately ordered the Salmon & Chicken Teriyaki Combination. Despite his weak protestations that he didn’t want sushi, Maarten ordered six different types of the very sushi that he dramatically declared he did not want: Dragon Roll, Tuna, Salmon, King Salmon, Eel and Egg, none of which would come anywhere near my lips.

The Miso Soup arrived and, from a purely aesthetic perspective, it looked the way miso soup should look. The soy bean broth itself was as hearty as broth could appear and it smelled divine. The soup was teeming with seaweed and scallions and the flavors were phenomenal. It never ceases to amaze me how something so relatively simple could be so delicious and make you crave more. After I scooped out and ate every last piece of scallion, every shred of seaweed, and every single cube of tofu, I lifted the bowl to my lips and slurped the remaining broth down my throat like it was cold and refreshing water to quench my parched throat while crawling across the dry and arid Sahara in the scorching mid-day sun. Yeah . . . it was that good.

Unfortunately the Yakitori was a-whole-nother story altogether. Yakitori is supposed to be char-grilled, but these chicken skewers didn’t have that fresh from the grill taste. Sadly, it was run-of-the-mill chicken smothered in their version of a thick teriyaki sauce. There was one bright spot, however—the chicken was very tender and juicy and the two skewers were an ample portion for the price, with each skewer alternating chicken meat and scallion. I would have loved to see the teriyaki flavoring grilled into each skewer to seal the flavors in as opposed to smearing it on top of the chicken post-cooking, as if it were an afterthought. Overall, it wasn’t too terribly horrible, but I’ve definitely had better.

Shortly after the soup bowls and empty plates were cleared from the table, our entrĂ©es arrived. While I am not a sushi eater—never have been, never will be—I must admit that Maarten’s platter was a cluster of vibrant colors and textures and it looked exquisite and artistically prepared. As the old saying goes, Maarten’s eyes were too big for his stomach and he feared he wouldn’t be able to consume all of the food. But boy did he ever give it that old college try! He even tried to coax me into tasting some, but, honestly folks, raw fish just is not what I want in my body at this point in life. Even the planks of omelette were somehow tainted by being on the same plate as the rest of the food and, sadly, I held my prejudiced sushi views against that egg as well. In the long run, Maarten will see that it’s a good thing that I don’t eat sushi; imagine how much less food he would have on his plate with me around!

The Salmon & Chicken Teriyaki Combination was also aesthetically pleasing. It arrived still sizzling on an iron pan and the sound alone was enough to be appetizing. I was a bit put off, however, by the salmon skin that was attached to part of the fish—even though it was grilled and crispy—but that minor repulsion was easily remedied by peeling it away from the filet. After that, all was right with the world. Everything on the plate was resting in a thin lake of liquid teriyaki sauce, which I initially thought would be overpowering, but it wasn’t. The chicken was very tender and savory, as was the salmon. The glorious note about the salmon, however, was the crisped edges of the fish that held so much of the flavor concentrated in one or two crunches. Even the soba noodles were delicious and I pretty much forgot about the bowl of rice that was served with the dish. Who needs rice when you have noodles that good? Kotobuki’s portions are large—even for a trooper such as me—but I managed to eat every last thing on the plate; everything, that is, except for the broccoli that was tossed on top of the noodles. Sushi isn’t the only thing I won’t touch . . .

Dining at Kotobuki was a great experience for me. After trying the Yakitori, I was afraid to live in complacency and believe that the rest of the meal would be tasty, but I was proven wrong. True, it’s no Yakitori Jinbei, but I’m terribly biased on this point because I loved—and still do love—my favorite Japanese restaurant in the place where I lived the past 20 years of my life. I still maintain my objectivity, however, and believe that the food at Kotobuki is definitely worth the trip.

Would I recommend Kotobuki? I sure would. The selection is large and varied, and the food is very, very good. So what if the Yakitori isn’t the best around? The rest of the menu more than makes up for that little malfeasance.

Is Kotobuki a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? The prices here are very reasonable and if you’re a sushi connoisseur like my husband, you can fill up from $1.75 a piece. They also have sushi “packages” with set selections like “Sushi A” which includes eight sushi pieces and tuna roll for $15.95. Not bad, heh?

What about atmosphere and ambience? Having never been to Japan, I’ll take the word of a man who lived there for four years. The restaurant looks like it was imported straight from Japan in its authenticity. And while it didn’t register with me at all, my husband swears there was music playing in the background but I didn’t hear it. To me, that’s a good thing; subliminally pleasing and non-intrusive.

Kotobuki Japanese Cuisine 475 Summer Street, Stamford, CT 06902 (203) 359-4747 or (203) 327-8889

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