From left, futo maki, shiitake roll, KotoBuki roll, and Toledo roll at KotoBuki Japanese Restaurant.
KotoBuki is the grande dame of Toledo's Japanese restaurant scene. Long before most Toledoans knew their sushi from their sashimi, KotoBuki's chefs were carving out a name in what would become a market crowded with far-east eateries ranging from the sublime to the substandard.
Good sushi isn't cheap. Relying on raw fish requires an attention to freshness bordering on obsession and a familiarity with techniques that chefs spend years learning. My first bite of sushi was at KotoBuki soon after it opened. Almost 20 years later KotoBuki continues to offer truly excellent cuisine, and the tables remain consistently packed with loyal patrons hungry for reliably exceptional and exciting meals. The little restaurant on Monroe Street has accomplished the formidable feat of remaining current without compromising its reputation.
My companions and I started dinner with something a little different than our standard (and beloved) age dashi tofu ($5.50). The battered and fried tofu in a dashi-based sauce is some of the best we've enjoyed. Instead we tried the negi maki ($5.50), which just didn't work for me. The thinly sliced beef was of exceedingly high quality and the green onions were so fresh and crisp they could have been picked and blanched minutes before arriving at the table. But the size was small and the flavors a little too meek.
KOTOBUKI JAPANESE RESTAURANT * * * *
Address: 5577 Monroe St. Sylvania
Category: Dressy casual.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner: 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are accepted.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Average price: $$$.
Credit cards: AE, Diners Club, Dis, MC, V.
Web site: kotobukitoledo.com.
Ratings: * * * * * Outstanding; * * * * Very Good; * * * Good; * * Fair; * Poor.
Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants. The Blade pays for critics' meals.
I went full force for sushi. The sampler-style plates are great, as are the bento boxes. But penciling in your order on the sushi menu invites some more creative options and sets you apart from the sushi neophyte.
I believe futo-maki rolls are a good barometer of the chef's talent. The fat stuffed rolls with crab, egg cake, and crisp vegetables fall apart easily. The best futo-maki rolls maintain their composition but still feel tender and inviting. KotoBuki's futo-maki ($5.75) features rice that's a little looser but with a pop of briny flavor. Easily my favorite in the city, the roll feels hearty and comforting with an unassuming beauty.
KotoBuki offers a fairly wide selection of "special" rolls. Ranging from modern classics to chef's specialties, they're big, bright, and bold. The KotoBuki roll ($12.95) features creamy bright green avocado with crisp cucumber and luscious crab, topped with smoky grilled eel and crunchy sesame seeds. Luxurious and indulgent, the roll is one of my favorites. Minimalist it isn't.
The Toledo roll ($12.95) arrives with a bright orange cap of spicy tuna, laid over shrimp, crab, and avocado. The taste is assertive and a little spicy.
I make a point to always add at least one vegetarian roll to balance the big raucous special rolls. The shiitake roll ($4.25) perfectly encapsulated the woodsy aroma of fresh shiitake mushrooms. The CAA roll ($4.95) featured crisp cucumber and asparagus with bright green avocado.
For every sushi aficionado, there's the dining companion who can't stomach the stuff. My fish-phobic spouse endured the soft shell crab appetizer ($7.95) on our first date 16 years ago at KotoBuki before alerting me that while I loved the crisp and briny treat, he was less enthusiastic. He opted for yaki soba with chicken ($12.50) on our most recent visit. The pan-fried noodles and crisp vegetables come glazed in a mildly smoky sweet sauce. Also worth noting is the spectacular zaru soba ($9.95) with chilled nutty buckwheat noodles garnished with sliced nori and a light dipping sauce with just enough dashi to evoke the mild clean aroma of the sea.
Lunch was very fast and friendly. We ordered yaki-niku ($8.95), thinly sliced and grilled beef with a mild sesame sauce, rice, and vegetables. KotoBuki's lunch specials come with miso soup and its house salad with a light ginger dressing. The beef was tender and flavorful and arrived with a generous portion of crisp steamed vegetables.
As Asian eateries have come and gone, KotoBuki hasn't lost its luster. Once seeming so exotic, the restaurant has become a venerable Toledo tradition. And, like the grande dame it is, it's maturing beautifully, remaining vibrant, relevant, and experienced.
Golden Lily alert: The new location at 2223 South Reynolds Rd., north of Heatherdowns Boulevard, has opened. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, and the phone number is 419-385-3883.
Contact Bill of Fare at: email@example.com