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Filet, swordfish, Tako-su inspire at Koto

It is something you see on food TV shows, a bucket list delicacy the people on those shows convince you that you must try.

Uni is raw sea urchin roe, actually the sex organs of the spiny sea critters, and I had never seen it on a menu around here until Koto Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi opened on Washington Center Road.

But even though it took a long time to find it, getting a taste was still a challenge. During my first visit to this beautifully made-over building that was once a fast-food barbecue spot, they were out of uni. Before my second visit, I called ahead to make sure it was available and was assured by a host that it was.

After getting comfortable, placing my order and being served tea that evening, my server regretfully informed me that there was no uni. Apparently the host asked the sushi chef only if the restaurant offered uni, not whether it was actually on hand.

The third time – on a Wednesday, which I was told is when the shipment arrives each week – was a charm. The uni was served atop two sushi rice rolls.

The petals of light orange roe were fragile and required a soft touch with chopsticks to keep them from breaking. And the flavor was, indeed, just like the sea. It was a little sweet, but really just tasted like the first breath of fresh ocean air after stepping out of the car after a long drive to the coast.

I wish there were a better way to describe it, but there really isn’t.

It was interesting and I’m glad I finally found it here, but I don’t think I will crave it, not that I wouldn’t have it if given the chance.

That same thought kind of represented my overall feelings about Koto. There were highlights, a few problems, and I would not hesitate to eat there again even if I don’t rush back.

It is beautifully done, but calling it a Japanese steakhouse is a little flawed given there are only two cuts of beef available. The menu also refers to all of the dishes prepared on the teppanyaki (i.e. flat) grills as “hibachi” steak, “hibachi” tuna, etc., when there is no hibachi (i.e. grated with charcoal) grill in the restaurant.

You do not have to sit at the grill to order from it, which I found nice, but if you do sit at it, you must order something from it and will not be given a full menu. So, if you don’t need to hear all the corny jokes and the see same show every Japanese steakhouse provides, sit elsewhere.

The filet mignon and swordfish from the grill were fantastic. The steak was perfectly cooked to medium-rare and was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The fish, which the chef allowed me to taste to ensure it was seasoned to my liking and cooked to the right level of doneness, was perfect. As were the freshly made fried rice and grilled shrimp appetizer.

The only teppanyaki item that disappointed was the tuna steak, which I ordered from the regular dining room. The menu says it is served medium rare, but it arrived well done.

Koto gets regular shipments of seafood from Chicago and Boston, so the sushi and sashimi were of high quality. The best roll was the Black Diamond, which was recommended by my server.

It featured crab, avocado and tempura shrimp wrapped in seaweed and then deep fried. It was topped with green onion, caviar, eel sauce and spicy ponzu sauce. The “caviar” was actually flying fish roe, not sturgeon roe, which – like the hibachi items – is incorrect.

Still, the Black Diamond had the perfect combination of texture and flavor. It was crunchy from the tempura shrimp and the deep fried exterior, had soft cooked avocado and sticky, chewy rice. The sweet eel sauce and spicy ponzu also were great contrasts.

My “Sushi and Sashimi for One” dinner had a nice variety of sliced raw seafood – crab, tuna, salmon, snapper and striped bass – and included a classic California roll and five other pieces of sushi.

I asked if I was allowed to choose the five pieces and was told it is usually left to the chef. Well, the chef decided to use the same fish he sliced for the sashimi as nigiri-style sushi (i.e. plain fish atop a mound of rice). I would have preferred a little variety – octopus or shrimp perhaps.

I did get to try some octopus in the best appetizer I had at Koto – the Tako-su. The octopus was julienned along with crispy cucumber to form a sot of slaw swimming in a sweet-spicy dressing with just the right vinegar bite.

It was the one item at Koto I will crave again for sure.

Sorry, uni.

Restaurant: Koto Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi

Address: 301 E. Washington Center Road

Phone: 482-4288

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Japanese

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine/sake

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Uni ($3.95), Tako-su ($6.95), Black Diamond roll ($10.95), tuna steak ($16.95), swordfish ($16.95), filet mignon ($20.95), sushi/sashimi for one ($21.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 max.), service: 1/2 (1 max.)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.