Solid and Dependable Japanese at Kikuya in Hyde Park
Before being taken there, I barely knew that Kikuya existed. Small and unassuming, it's tucked right under the Metra tracks on E. 55th St, and I must have passed it hundreds of times without ever really becoming cognizant of it. In any case, I'm glad I did. The food may not be worlds beyond the average food in Hyde Park, but it's become my go-to place for decent sushi and better-than-average noodle soup.
My friends and I started out our meals with Ramune (2.50), a Japanese soda. I find them to be way too sweet, but my friends seemed happy. I suppose there's the added benefit of getting to push the marble down into the soda, causing a small explosion of fizz. (Honestly, I'm half-convinced nobody would order these if they didn't get to smash their hands on their bottle.)
Once we were served our soda, a barrage of food was brought to our table, in no particular order, without much of a methodology. It was one of those meals where I was confused as to what I had ordered and excited for what was going to be brought out next. First came the potato croquettes (4.50). In my life, I compare every fried potato pancake product to latkes, and, I must say, these held up well. Crispy on the outside with a creamy texture on the inside, the croquettes proved that it's awfully hard to go wrong with fried food.
We were then brought two plates of sushi, the crunchy maki (5.50) and the tuna temaki (3.50). Neither was very remarkable, but both were fine. The avocado in the maki contrasted well with the crunch of the tempura topping the roll. It wasn't as spicy as I would have liked, but the cucumber brought a good crunch and brightness to the dish.
Overall, I'd say the temaki was more worth ordering. The conical bunch of sushi was just fun to eat. The tuna was pretty fresh and the rice was well done. Simple. Good.
The meal really picked up with the main dishes. Though they were served with a rather disappointing salad, with an over-powering ginger dressing, and a pretty bland miso soup, the main dishes were where Kikuya really shined.
I'm a sucker for anything with eel. I spent the first 18 years of my life keeping kosher, so every time I eat eel it's a revelation. That said, the unagi don (9.95) was delicious. The eel sauce brought out the richness of the eel itself, which was well cooked—at once tender and flaky. Counterbalanced by pickled vegetables, the eel was served over a bed of rice, which served well to sop up any sauce we had missed.
The vegetable udon (8.25) was easily my favorite of the night. A bowl of vegetable tempura was brought out with a steaming bowl of noodles. The tempura proved, once again, that it's hard to go wrong with fried food. However, the real standout were the noodles. The udon noodles were supple, but had a great bite to them. Maybe one of the better bowls of udon I've had in a while. They were complimented by a salty broth, which brought flavor to the noodles.
Though I wasn't blown away by my meal at Kikuya, I'll definitely be back. If only for the soup, some eel, and anything fried.