There’s quite a helping of nominally Japanese restaurants in Western New York. Most of them offer practically identical menus: sushi, sushi rolls, dumplings and small dishes. There are usually a few Anglicized entrees and rosters of teriyaki and hibachi dishes.
Kumo, a relatively new Japanese restaurant with most of the standards, isn’t going for the swankiest vibe. When you order a hibachi dinner, it’s cooked in the kitchen, not in front of you by a flashy chef.
It opened in April, set into a Transit Road strip mall in Depew. What made our meal at Kumo stand out from the clutter of similar restaurants was robust flavors and attention to detail – for the most part.
Trying to cover some ground, we ordered tom yum soup ($4.95), a tuna sashimi and apple salad with yuzu dressing ($7.95), a volcano specialty roll ($11.95), a spicy mango shrimp roll ($6) and a tricolor sushi assortment ($16.95).
For entrees, Cat picked chicken yaki udon ($9.95), a stir-fried noodle dish, and I asked for Chilean Sea Bass XO ($21.95).
The tom yum soup was surprisingly assertive, with savory seafood and plenty of spicy notes in the broth, from chile and lemongrass, among other things. It came loaded with shiitakes, sliced fish cake and just a hint of sweetness to take the edge off the sour. Just the thing for a cold.
A side house salad brought iceberg lettuce and a sort of Thousand Island dressing fortified with what tasted like ground toasted sesame seeds. Miso soup was mild and comforting, verging on smoky, with scallions, seaweed and tiny tofu cubes.
Service was mostly adept. We ordered our meal in two halves from two servers, but they pieced it together.
The salad of raw tuna pieces, tart apple chunks and avocado cubes arrived swimming in more dressing than it needed. But the tang of yuzu, a Japanese citrus, kept it light. Rich, soft avocado, meaty tuna and crisp apple made a sparse salad successful in contrasts.
I used the excess sauce for dunking rounds of tuna roll that came with the sushi assortment. The salmon nigiri was buttery. Its tuna neighbor tasted fresh, with a mineral, beefy note, and the yellowtail was similar. The sushi rice was appropriately firm with a touch of sweet vinegar.
The long sushi platter was decorated attractively with a reed mat, and we spied numerous well-adorned platters pass by on their way to other tables. (The batter on tempura items looked particularly ethereal, and I regret not trying it.)
The volcano roll arrived with a side of flame, spirits burning off in a flat spoon. The roll was cut into pieces that were stacked and covered with more stuff and sprinkled with crunchy flakes. There was a lot happening inside: crabmeat, cucumber, avocado, seaweed, roasted scallops and frizzled onions.
Pieces fell apart easily, but that didn’t matter, because we would have eaten it with our fingertips. It was an engaging experience assembled with precision, crispy against soft, mayonnaise sauce against cucumber crunch, with crab sweetly filling in the background.
The mango shrimp roll was crunchy, with a tickle of spice, but it offered more of a general sweet fruitiness than a specific mango flavor.
The one service gap was the about 25 minutes we waited for entrées, with repeated assurances from our server that the food was coming.
Cat’s udon was terrific, chewy, fat noodles bathed in an umami-rich sauce, smoky from the wok and shot through with crunchy cabbage, carrots, onion and tender chicken. It struck a balance of textures and flavors, avoiding greasiness.
The sea bass was two seared slices of fish in a pool of brick-red sauce, with a few snow pea pods. It’s not widely available here, but XO sauce is sort of like Asian mole, rich and deep, classically made from dried scallops, shrimp, ham, chile, garlic and more.
At Kumo, it was delicious, a sauce whose uncommon depth was worthy of reflection. Unfortunately, the fish let it down. The sea bass was browned at the corners but cold in the middle, ending up tough and chewy.
I could have asked for the dish to be recooked, but after waiting for it to arrive, I chose not to. Because of that error, I didn’t give Kumo a higher score. It’s a relatively simple problem to correct for diners who have the time and are in a charitable mood. Not everyone will fit that bill, though.
As it stands, Kumo delivers value as one of the best midrange Japanese bistros in town, with vibrant Japanese flavors and mostly careful cooking.