The folks who own Kyoto Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar (4920 Prytania St., 504-891-3644; www.kyotonola.com) aren't worried about the summer lag that plagues many New Orleans restaurants. "We're rocking during the summer — we don't let up," owner Sara Molony says.
Credit the public's desire for lighter fare in the heat, as well as Kyoto's longstanding clout in a town known for its food. When Molony opened Kyoto in 1995 on a desolate, seedy stretch of Prytania Street, it was one of a handful of sushi restaurants. Since then, she's worked from an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it point of view.
Today, there are scores of newer sushi places, and the neighborhood is one of the most desirable in the city. But other than a new bamboo floor and retro Godzilla posters, Kyoto has remained largely unchanged, focusing on traditional Japanese fare and a few specialty rolls that blend other cuisines with Japanese flavors.
Molony attributes the customer loyalty to the restaurant's ongoing relationship with the neighborhood. "When we started out, boom, we were busy right away," Molony says. "There was nothing here, and the neighborhood was ready for us. We opened back up six weeks after (Hurricane) Katrina, and it was like a frontier town saloon up in here. We were understaffed, and the neighborhood was so supportive that on Friday nights we had 'guest bartenders' — people coming back here to work behind the bar. We even had 'guest dishwashers.'"
This sense of loyalty extends to Kyoto's staff: Most employees have worked there for years. Molony calls the staff her "kids" and is part mother figure, part fun aunt and part strict boss. She's there constantly, working behind the sushi bar, making all the sauces and supervising. "I can never take a step back," Molony says. "This place is like a family and so you have to be here. If you take a step back, quality goes down and morale falls."
Molony is a stickler for maintaining the Japanese cuisine she fell in love with in 1985 (she cooked French and Italian food before that). But this hasn't stopped her from putting twists on the menu. The ceviche roll is inspired by Central American ceviche and features avocado, sprouts, green onion, bell peppers, cucumber, rice, fresh whitefish, lime-cilantro sauce and cracked pepper. It's bright and zesty with a kick of chili.
There's also the El Guapo roll, a combination of chili-seasoned tuna, avocado, red onion, habanero caviar and thin lime slices covered in a crunchy sour cream-green onion mix. Lighter than its Mexican inspiration, with a satisfying blend of textures, it's "taco sushi," Molony says.
The fun rolls are few and far between; Molony is not one to embrace every culinary trend. "We've done what we've done for 18 years," she says. "And we're just going to keep on doing it."