Kayuga Japanese Restaurant
1030 Comm Ave, Brookline
Open Mon–Fri, 11 a.m.–1 a.m., and Sat–Sun, noon–1 a.m.
AE, MC, Vi
Beer and wine
No valet parking
I always make fun of restaurants called Maggiano’s where no one named Maggiano is involved, or restaurants called Aubergine that don’t serve eggplant. Kayuga Japanese Restaurant is owned by a couple who are, respectively, Korean-American and Chinese-American. They met, apparently, in another Brookline sushi bar, but neither one is named Kayuga. Nor is it on the menu, since kayuga, in Japanese, means something like "flower/grace elegant beauty." Kayuga is not the prettiest Japanese restaurant around, although it can be very nice in the semi-private, semi-tatami-mat rooms (there is actually a well under the low tables so you don’t have to fold your knees). It’s certainly prettier, if not so obviously named, as its predecessor in this space, Yeah Taipei. (Come to think of it, Yeah Taipei served Japanese food, too.)
Despite all the contradictions, Kayuga is a fine example of the increasingly popular and common Japanese-Korean sushi bar, and it’s more unusual and authentic than most, catering as it does to a student population.
The appetizers are quite good, even familiar ones like gyoza ($4.95) and seaweed salad ($4.50). The former are six delicate shrimp dumplings, possibly homemade. The latter has some red fronds of seaweed amid the usual green, jewel-like laver, and a nice, sharp sesame-soy sauce. The spinach appetizer ($4.50) has a similar sauce, with similar good effect.
I found the edamame ($3.95) not so salty, nor so well cooked, since most prefer these tasty green soybeans in the shell. Unagi yamake ($6.95) is our old friend the broiled eel, but on a sticky white pudding of Japanese yam with a couple of quail eggs broken on top. I’d rather have my quail eggs on the sea-urchin-roe sushi ($5.50), here a couple of large turrets of sushi rice supporting generous, rich, pink sea urchins — but no quail egg.
I did like asparagus maki ($3) for the interplay of flavors and textures between the seaweed-paper wrap and the crunchy asparagus inside. And the unagi maki ($4.25) uses the eel effectively in an inside-out California roll. On a lunch visit I tried the eel on a bowl of rice ($8.45), a best buy for us eel fiends. But I was most impressed with the variety in a Kayuga bento box ($11.95): halved baby spring rolls, Japanese pickles, three of the eel maki, and a bit of stir-fry with lotus root, broccoli rabe, fat noodles, and wood ears.
The sashimi lunch ($9.25) was an Atkins dream of two slices of three kinds of fish — yellowtail tuna, white tuna, and salmon — with condiments and rice on the side. At dinner, a nigiri deluxe ($16.95) brought two fingers of red tuna, two of salmon, a good slice of mackerel (one of the most difficult items to keep fresh, even though mackerel sushi is usually pre-cooked), another of phony crab, one of cooked shrimp, one of a striated brown fish (this is usually the treatment for squid), and one of an unusual pink fish with skin all around it, as well as six red tuna cylinders. On another visit, a sashimi dinner ($19.95) included two fine, crisp slices of sea clam, three of octopus, three of white tuna, three of king mackerel, three of the pink fish (not so good this time), and three of sea trout, one of the best white fish to eat raw.
Of course, Kayuga does have cooked dinners, served with rice, white miso soup, and an iceberg salad with that gingery orange dressing. Beef teriyaki ($14.95) is sliced thin and served on a sizzling iron platter with cellophane noodles (as though it were sukiyaki) and underdone broccoli (as though it were health food). Agemono shrimp ($15.25) are fried in thick bread crumbs the texture of cornmeal. You get a lot of them, probably 10 halves of jumbo shrimp, rolled into fried cigars, with a kind of coleslaw in spicy peanut sauce. Neat platter.
Kayuga also came up with a pretty remarkable tempura dinner. We had the seafood and vegetable one ($16.50), which featured a couple of shrimp, a couple of greasy sea scallops, some rather successful salmon fingers, and the surprise king of fried seafood: two phony crab legs. Who knew that surimi crab legs, the bane of mixed-seafood salads, make an excellent fried morsel? Vegetable-wise, the leaders were shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, and onions, followed by the more familiar broccoli, winter squash, and sweet potato.
The restaurant has a small wine list by the glass or the bottle, and five or six Japanese beers, your better choice. I tried a glass of the Snoqualmie sauvignon blanc ($5 glass/$19 bottle) and found it dry and cold, but with some of the harshness of inexpensive "press wine."
Diners can choose from a few desserts, starting with a pretty convincingly crunchy "tempura ice cream" ($5.25) based on a somewhat sour batch of green-tea ice cream. At the other extreme, mochi ice cream ($2.50) is actually a bit of very sweet ice cream wrapped in mochi (pounded rice) to make a little bonbon. The mocha was so sweet I wanted to have it with Turkish coffee. Strawberry is the better flavor of mochi ice cream.
The room has some nice features. Even the stereotypical wall art, like a hanging kimono and a wooden practice sword, is pleasing, as are the small potted pines, the painted but exposed blue ceiling, and the blond-wood partitions. I would not hang a disco ball in my restaurant, nor run a mute television, but many do. As at Yeah Taipei, the sushi bar is in the back, which looks odd, and there is a lot of unmatched music: "Für Elise," instrumental folk music, pop with English lyrics. It might get loud, but my late lunch and early dinners were not at crowded times.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com