Thursday July 26, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- In the building that formerly housed the Panda Inn, the new Koto Japanese steakhouse has been completely redone inside.

"The key to the place is location," explained manager Wayne Zheng, "because it's centrally located by three roads. It's an independent building, and has seating for 150 people. Of course, we also looked into the city size and the number of hibachi-style restaurants around here. The closest one was in Great Barrington."

Zheng is working with owner Eric Zheng (no relation) and opened this Koto location just recently, finally bringing a Japanese steakhouse to Pittsfield.

"I've been working in Japanese steakhouses all my life, probably for 22 years" Wayne Zheng said. "I just moved here a couple of weeks ago; before that I was at Koto Syracuse, in New York."

"The biggest thing behind an authentic Japanese steakhouse is that everything is done fresh," Zheng said. "Nothing is pre-cut overnight; everything is cut today -- vegetables, meat -- nothing frozen except the ice cream desserts. Ordering is kept to a minimum, so we order only what we need, and we don't have to stock a lot of food."

Anyone who visited the previous incarnation will be impressed by the amount of work done inside; the new restaurant is unrecognizable. The main floor has a few large hibachi grills where chefs stand and perform as they cook, serving meals to those seated at the bar around the grill.


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Down a few steps into a quieter side room are standard tables; a tree with flowers and branches that reach the ceiling and then stretch some more were unexpected but lend a tranquil atmosphere.

The green tea ($1) had the distinct smoky-sweet flavor that comes from being brewed with rice, and that along with a bowl of fairly standard miso soup ($2) put me in a calm mood.

While tempted by various combinations of tempura, in the end I settled on simple vegetable tempura ($12). A plate contained sweet potato, onion, broccoli and squash, all in a light batter, and the usual light sauce for dipping. The vegetables were cooked just right, and the tempura was satisfying, if not particularly exciting.

More exciting was the sushi and sashimi combo platter ($23), which came on a huge plate with exquisite presentation. This dish was beautiful to behold from the sashimi nestled atop a bed of shredded daikon backlit by a colored light under ice to the fish intertwined with thin spiral-cut lemon to the artistic droplets of fruit along the side of the plate to the sushi arrayed across a leaf atop a rolled sushi mat.

More importantly, it also tasted delicious. The California roll had a touch of roe on the outside and the avocado practically dissolved on the tongue. Speaking of which, the sashimi was incredibly tender, the yellowtail especially fresh, but almost all of it perfect. The one exception to this was the tuna, which still tasted good, but was a little more chewy and less melt-in-your-mouth.

Finally, the mango shrimp plate ($16) combined shrimp and some large mango spears with a few other intriguing ingredients including onion, snap peas and even strawberry. Somehow, the sauce managed to bring it all together, a sweet brown sauce with a little spicy kick.

For dessert, I had to try a mochi ($3), a pair of tiny frozen ice cream balls, each wrapped in sweet rice dough. From the various appealing flavors, I chose red bean and mango. Again, the presentation impressed me -- small though the food might be, it was served on a long rectangular tray, drizzled with chocolate sauce and sprinkles, each mochi quartered with a dollop of whipped cream in the center.

Overall, I was very happy with my meal at Koto. Generally I care only about taste and not appearance, but in this case the atmosphere and presentation is what really brought the meal from good to great.


If you go ...

What: Koto, a Japanese steakhouse

Where: 795 Dalton Ave., Pittsfield

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Price range: $8-$30

Credit cards: Major

Information: (413) 770-7128

Rating: 5 chef's hats -- Take friends to impress them

Chef Hat Rating

1: Avoid

2: Decent

3: Good food: no reason not to try

4: Worth repeat visits

5: Take friends to impress them