Review: Teppanyaki Kyoto

Teppanyaki Kyoto enriches the Highland Park dining scene by offering an authentic Japanese experience — complete with grilled treats like okonomiyaki.

Photos by Laura Petrilla

Very few people view Japanese food as comfort food — but in the dead of winter, Teppanyaki Kyoto is a great spot to eat a warm meal in a peaceful setting. It joined the expanding Bryant Street restaurant district in Highland Park last January and serves authentic Japanese food grilled (yaki) on an iron griddle (teppan).

Here, sushi isn’t on the menu; instead, there are meats, seafood and noodles.

Teppanyaki Kyoto is a small neighborhood restaurant with three dining sections that suit different levels of sociability: a small main dining area, three private rooms (the largest seats eight — and they’re only available during weekends) and the action-packed (yet immaculate) grill, where you can watch Taiwanese chef/owner Kevin Chen — whose wife is from former imperial capital Kyoto — and his assistants at work.

Chen and company shout a friendly Japanese greeting to all customers as they arrive and depart, creating a convivial atmosphere.

Teppanyaki Kyoto boasts a stark, tasteful interior (designed by Chen), featuring blonde wood and a gently curved ceiling. Servers are dressed in muted Japanese-inspired garb, with kerchiefs covering their heads. Chopsticks are the vogue, but forks are available upon request.  

Although there are many tasty items, the “pancakes” are putting the eatery on the map; there are two forms: okonomiyaki ($10-$12, depending on meat choice) and hiroshimayaki ($12-$13).  

Okonomiyaki is made with shredded cabbage, a batter of fish broth and wheat flour (call ahead if you want a vegetarian version), and various seafood and meat combinations. For my first okonomiyaki, I chose the “Tokyo mix” of pork, squid and shrimp. Those ingredients are steamed under a dome, combined and grilled to form a pancake with a consistency similar to a (loaded) potato pancake; the completed “pancake” is topped with a marvelous mayonnaise-based spicy sauce and a generous pile of bonito fish flakes. This rich, filling dish has an astonishing number of textures and flavors — it really is a special treat.  

The hiroshimayaki is an even more decadent version of the okonomiyaki, with the addition of a layer of grilled egg noodles on the bottom and a layer of grilled egg on the top.

Chefs need 25 minutes to make the pancakes, which is why diners must order okonomiyaki and hiroshimayaki at least 30 minutes before closing time. They’re definitely worth the wait — and in the meantime, you can try some of the marvelous starters or sample one of many sakes or Japanese brews.

Begin with the expected miso soup ($3), fresh seaweed salad ($4) or an American-style house salad ($6) comprised of lettuce and carrot shavings, with your choice of sesame-soy or avocado oil and balsamic dressing.

A popular American-influenced appetizer is the mochi (a chewy Japanese rice cake) wrapped in bacon ($6) and topped with seaweed. Though I love mochi in small doses, this dish is a little too chewy and simple for my liking. But I did enjoy the fine, soft tsukune chicken meatballs on skewers ($6), packed with salty-sweet teriyaki flavors.

Among the rice bowls, I liked the shogayaki don ($8), featuring a generous portion of thinly shaved pork pieces, marinated in a Japanese ginger sauce and grilled, served with grilled onions atop cabbage and rice.

However, not everything at Teppanyaki Kyoto is spot-on. The simple entrées are very plain and a little underwhelming (although perfect for health-conscious diners); for example, the salmon ($13) is plain and grilled, served simply with brightly colored, al dente asparagus.

At the other extreme, certain dishes are a bit greasy, like the yakisoba ($10-$12): fried Chinese noodles with cabbage and the meat of your choice (chicken, pork, beef, squid, shrimp or scallops). Certain foodies are disappointed that some seafood was previously frozen — but all produce is fresh.

I was pleased to see desserts with a Japanese accent. There’s the strawberry gelatin ($4), green-tea cheesecake ($4) and the kid’s choice — mochi balls (ice cream wrapped in mochi; $2), available in green tea, strawberry and mango. All the treats are subtle in their flavoring, not very sweet, but texturally a bit challenging for my palate.

Although small, Teppanyaki Kyoto has been enthusiastically discovered by Pittsburgh diners. Those who have traveled to Japan, or who are Japanese themselves, rave about the authenticity of this place. And folks who haven’t yet traveled to Japan enjoy the novelty of the flavor combinations.

Chen sums it up well: “I serve food that I like to eat.” 

Kevin Chen, Chef/Owner, Teppanyaki Kyoto

How did you end up in Pittsburgh?  
I was an Engineer in Taiwan. I came to Pittsburgh to study English and earn an M.B.A. at Point Park College. While there, I met my wife, who is Japanese; we got married and decided to stay here.  

How did you go from an engineering career to owning a Japanese restaurant?  
I’ve always loved Japanese food. While I was in school, I worked in restaurants and learned that I really like cooking. In Japan, the restaurants usually focus on one thing, such as sushi, tempura or teppanyaki. When we started thinking about opening a restaurant, I went back and forth to Japan to study different styles of cuisine to bring to Pittsburgh. I decided on
teppanyaki because it is healthy and tasty, and then went back to Japan to study this kind of cooking. My restaurant is a little risky because it is the first of its type here. My menu is a little broader than what you would find in a teppanyaki restaurant in Japan, to give people a few more options.

What do people in Japan think Americans eat?  
They don’t really know that Americans eat healthy; some think that only vegetarians and city people care more about healthy food. They think that major American food is hamburgers, sandwiches, steaks and french fries.

Why did you choose to set up on Bryant Street?  
It’s quiet — the right atmosphere for a Japanese restaurant. I feel like Shadyside and downtown are too busy, whereas Bryant Street has just the right number of restaurants. We live close by and my family likes the neighborhood. In addition, my restaurant is popular with younger people, and it’s easy for them to get here by bus or car.

Do you think you’ll stay in Pittsburgh?  
Yes, now we have two kids, and my family is very happy here. Pittsburgh is a good, clean place with nice people. I like that there are many good programs in the arts for kids. My heart is very calm here.

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