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Published: Thursday, 10/12/2006

Restaurant review: Kotobuki ****

Ethnic dining is nothing new to Toledoans. Chinese and Mexican restaurants are so prolific, they're mainstream.

Why then, are Japanese restaurants a little more, well, exotic?

I suggest it's the intimidation factor. Many Japanese restaurants promote sushi to a point where it's easy to believe that's all they serve, and for some people, sushi is a dining barrier not to be crossed.

But sushi-fancier or not, there's plenty to enjoy about Japanese food, as witnessed by the extensive menu at Kotobuki on Monroe Street in Sylvania.

Yes, the names of the dishes are exotic - shumai, oyako-ju, and nabe yaki udon, to name a few - but Kotobuki provides extensive descriptions under each item, and most of them sound so appetizing, it's hard to decide what to order.

In business for more than a decade, Kotobuki is one of the storefronts in the Promenade Shops strip center. The restaurant is tastefully decorated, with wooden arches and wood designs on the walls evoking feelings of rice-paper screens. Japanese print fabric valances over various doorways and bright maple-looking tables and chairs are key elements to the understated but inviting design.

The first thing that a diner may notice is that the tables are set with napkins and chopsticks. Not to worry. Servers cheerfully offer forks to the less adventurous or dextrous.

Look closely at the appetizer list and you will find something as mundane as chicken nuggets. (They're called tatsuta-age or kara-age, depending on the batter, and each costs $4.50.) We chose negi maki ($4.95) and Kotobuki shrimp ($6.25). The former is thinly sliced beef rolled around green onion, then charbroiled and topped with teriyaki sauce. The latter is a large pan-fried shrimp topped with a tangy sauce of Japanese pickles and mayonnaise. Both were delicious, with the sauces complementing the beef and shrimp, and they made us want to order a complete meal from the appetizer list.

Instead, we headed to the main section of the menu, where we tried, at various times, a bento ($15.95), steak teriyaki and shrimp tempura ($19.95), and chicken karashi yaki ($17.95).

If anything could be said to be a disappointment - and it would be a stretch to say that - it would be the chicken karashi yaki, which is skinless, boneless chicken breast pounded thin and charbroiled, then topped with a mustard sauce. It tasted good, and the thin cutlets were still juicy, but the mustard sauce bordered on the ordinary. It would be a fine meal for the less adventurous diner.

Bento, the menu says, is a Japanese word meaning lunch box, and the bento meal consists of futo-maki sushi, korroke (a potato cake), tempura, and salmon teriyaki, each served in its own compartment in a beautifully lacquered box. The components seemed to be carefully selected to give an overview of Japanese food. The tempura batter was delicate and lightly applied to shrimp and vegetables, then deep-fried, as was the korroke. The futo-maki featured faux crab, pickled radish, and boiled egg around which was rolled rice and nori, a thin, black seaweed wrap that held it all together. It was a gentle introduction to sushi, which made us decide to come back and take the plunge into a complete sushi meal.

Sushi, according to the menu, actually means vinegared rice, and it can be served as nigiri, individual cakes of sushi rice topped with fresh seafood; maki, which are rolls of nori and sushi rice with a center of fresh seafood and vegetables, generally sliced into several pieces (such as the futo-maki); and temaki, which are cone-shaped rolls of nori, rice, seafood, and vegetables.

We chose unakyu (eel and cucumber); yum-yum roll (avocado, faux crab, and cucumber, all tempura fried), soft-shelled crab, maguro nigiri (raw tuna), and a firecracker roll, which featured shredded crab atop quarter-sized rice rolls.

It's a fallacy to think that all sushi includes uncooked fish, but some does, and frankly, we weren't overly fond of the maguro. I'm told raw fish is an acquired taste, and Kotobuki's fish was so fresh that it's easy to see how one would be willing to acquire that taste. But the yum yum and soft-shelled crab rolls, both featuring cooked seafood and interesting combinations of ingredients, were delicious and will stay on our radar for a future meal.

The restaurant is open for lunch, offering smaller versions of the evening's main courses. It also features a limited but reasonable selection of beer and wine, plus coffee, soft drinks, and ginger tea.

The small foyer would make mobility equipment tough to maneuver, but inside, the aisles seem wide enough and the restrooms are a generous size.

Contact Bill of Fare at: fare@theblade.com.



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