Smile Politely

Kyoto has campus class

I recently made plans to meet a friend for lunch at Kyoto, not expecting to be overly impressed with this new campus restaurant. A high-end Japanese restaurant in Campustown just seemed oxymoronic. In my mind I couldn’t help but picture grocery store-level sushi with basic, perfunctory Japanese entrees. My friend is a classically trained chef from a prestigious culinary school, so I figured he would be pretty critical and we would spend the better part of our lunch picking apart the offerings. I have never been so happy to be so wrong.

The atmosphere at Kyoto is classy but casual. It’s not the kind of place where one needs reservations or a nice outfit. It is clean and elegant, with comfortable booths and tables, softly lit with tea candles. The front window has bamboo-style blinds obscuring the view of pedestrians and the McDonalds across the street, creating a welcome, darkened ambiance. The music playing in the background is modern and upbeat. We are instantly greeted by a friendly staff member at a host stand, and shown to a cozy booth. We immediately feel relaxed and transported away from the hectic insanity that is Green Street.

The staff was very eager to make us comfortable, greeting us with chopsticks and menus. We ordered hot tea and water to drink and a calamari appetizer ($7.95). The calamari was some of the best I have ever tasted. It was tender and extremely fresh. My friend agreed that this is a perfectly executed dish, which was no simple task, as calamari is not easy to prepare correctly. It was served with a light brown sauce that complimented the clean, fresh taste of the squid. This appetizer was exceptional; I will definitely return to order this again.

We also took advantage of their lunch Maki special (two rolls for $8.95); we chose a tempura shrimp, avocado, and cucumber roll, and a spicy salmon roll. The tempura shrimp roll was nicely prepared and organically presented with the crispy tail perpendicular to the plate. The crunchy shrimp was a pleasant texture contrast to the chewy rice, creamy avocado, and crisp cucumber. The nori-wrapped rolls were shingled side by side, standing up, for a striking presentation, which was artfully juxtaposed with the vibrant red spicy salmon roll; this dish looked almost too good to eat. Almost. I enjoyed every bite, especially the crispy, succulent, sweet shrimp tail. I could have eaten a whole plate of shrimp tails, but, sadly, there was just one.


For my entree I ordered a teriyaki salmon bento box ($10.95) and my friend indulged in the sushi/sashimi combo ($25.95), which he generously offered to share with me. The bento box was served with a simple house salad dressed with a rice vinegar vinaigrette, a California roll, steamed white rice with black sesame seeds, a generous portion of high quality salmon served with teriyaki sauce over sautéed onions, and two light, deep fried shrimp tots. The salad was a variety of crisp lettuces topped with a light, tangy dressing. It served as a perfect palate cleanser for the more complex flavors of the meal. The salmon was an expertly prepared piece of fish; it was a great example of a high quality ingredient being treated with care and craftsmanship, and the subtle teriyaki sauce blends perfectly with the sweet sautéed onions and moist, delicate salmon.

The bento box was a very reasonably priced, sophisticated, flavorful lunch which surpassed my expectations, but my friend’s sushi/sashimi combo was far and away the star of the meal, blowing my expectations out of the water. The combo was preceded by a complimentary cup of miso soup; the bonito flake flavored broth was both light and complex, with a slightly smoky flavor. Small pieces of soft tofu and crunchy green onions added nice texture counterpoints to the soup. The soup was very good; our only criticism was it was a bit tepid. We quickly forgot about the soup once the sushi/sashimi platter arrived. It was visually stunning and remarkably fresh; truly an indulgent treat. The server informed us the owner has the fish flown in daily, and it is cut and prepared fresh for each order. I can’t remember ever enjoying a superior example of fresh sushi and sashimi anywhere. The beautifully presented combo platter consisted of 5 pieces of sushi: cooked shrimp, raw red snapper, salmon, white and red tuna; 9 pieces of vibrant sashimi: 3 pieces each of red snapper, white and red tuna; and a fantastic spicy tuna roll. The red snapper was amazing — buttery, light, and exceptionally fresh. The salmon was tender and very rich; both of the tunas were light, clean, and simply outstanding. I cannot stress enough how fresh the fish offered at Kyoto was, with an exquisite texture that absolutely melted in our mouths. There was no “fishy” flavor and no tough, chewy textures often present in lower quality sushi. This sushi was top-shelf quality: light, clean, and elegant.

I understand that people aren’t necessarily clamoring for more Asian restaurants on campus, but Kyoto is on a different level than most of the food in town. This is a fine dining experience of the highest order, packed into a quaint, casual little campus oasis. Don’t let the location deter you; Kyoto is definitely worth making a trip to campus. We are incredibly lucky to have an unpretentious restaurant of this caliber so conveniently, centrally located in Champaign-Urbana. I highly recommend making Kyoto a regular stop for both lunch and dinner. 

Kyoto is located at 611 East Green Street, Champaign, and open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

All photos by Jim Singer. 

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