Restaurant Review: Kyoto (Atlantic Highlands, NJ)

This was a spur-of-the-moment visit. Justin and I were looking to grab a relatively light lunch before heading to the beach. We were thinking of trying a diner when I was reminded of Kyoto, one of the newer restaurants to open up in Atlantic Highlands. For me, as someone in town several times a week, this place is out of sight, out of mind. Located in the Eastpointe shopping center, it is practically Highlands. It’s closer to Sandy Hook than any other landmark. A convenient spot for beach-goers looking for something more than the usual Wawa sub. Upon stepping inside, I was impressed. I don’t know what used to occupy this location, but they did a fantastic job with the renovation. The interior is sleek and black. There are interesting light fixtures hanging. Wooden reeds are used as dividers between seating areas rather than walls. It is dimly lit, making for a relaxing setting.

Unfortunately, aside from the decorum, there is not much to distinguish Kyoto from the myriad of Japanese restaurants around here. And this is more along the lines of Asian fusion than Japanese. There are plenty of Chinese and Thai options as well…and a sushi pizza. Not that there is anything wrong with that, because I am a huge fan of Nemo in Keyport, but it is becoming pretty tacky seeing nothing but this style of Asian sit-down restaurant popping up. Can we have a strictly Japanese restaurant? Toki in Red Bank and Aberdeen’s Mahzu seem pretty successful to me. But no. Instead we have yet another average Asian fusion in a sea of average Asian fusion. They all follow the same model. Their menus are practically  identical.

Nothing at Kyoto was bad. On the flip-side, hardly anything was standout. We got off on the wrong foot when the Miso and Clear soups we were given were beyond lukewarm, bordering on cold. The salad, while satisfying, had dressing that was probably store-bought and tasted like something you have had a million times before. I started to get worried. I heard Han Solo in my head saying, “I got a bad feeling about this”. Thankfully our appetizer was delicious. So good, in fact, that it might get me to come back a second time, which I rarely do for places I deem to be simply average.

This was the Roti Canai. Two puffed pieces of roti bread came with a bowl of curry chicken. This was thankfully steaming hot unlike the soup. The pieces of chicken were minuscule, but that’s okay since this is meant for dipping. The roti bread was outstanding. It was not greasy or soggy, but puffed and airy, yet still had a little bit of char. It would have been decent for an Indian restaurant, much less Japanese. Comparable to what I had at Penang in Edison but actually better. That curry sauce was rich and flavorful. It was so incredible that I asked the waitress to leave the bowl when we were done with the bread so I could do the unthinkable and pour some of it over my Yaki Udon.

Speaking of the Yaki Udon, we move from the roti’s greatness back down to simply average. Originally, I did want to get sushi. However, the place was deader than Abraham Lincoln and since I have not seen if they get a busy dinner rush, did not want to trust them that much. I’m not accusing them of not having a fresh product. I’m simply saying I wasn’t going to take any chances just yet. My noodles ended up being fine, but that’s pretty much it. Portion size was ample and there was enough chicken and vegetables, but as a whole it was kind of murky. Definitely the wettest of such dishes I’ve ever had. A cloudy broth (similar to miso soup) dripped off with every slurp. Justin had hibachi chicken, which he said was good but very much on the salty side. Mine, on the contrary, was totally lacking salt, which I was more than okay with.

So what do we have here? Certainly not a bad experience, but aside from that roti, there is nothing to rave about. Kyoto does not distinguish themselves from any of the area’s other Japanese or Asian fusion restaurants. If anything, they come across as inferior. Without the roti, Kyoto does not even achieve being average. Service was even sub-par. Despite being one of only two tables, the waitress never came over except to bring and remove plates. Given the look on her face, she seemed working there as part of a prison sentence. That and they charge $1.75 for hot tea when everyone else gives it complimentary. Maybe I’m spoiled, but that’s what I am used to. For now, I will give them 3 out of 5 stars. Maybe a second visit will be better.

Kyoto is located at 2389 Route 36 in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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