Taisho Bistro, which opened in November, adds a few new words to the local Japanese culinary lexicon. Let’s start with izakaya, a style of Japanese restaurant designed to feed sake drinkers. The lavishly illustrated menu offers lots of small dishes, blue-collar grub, plus iconic Japanese snack foods and others designed with sharing in mind – and alcohol is optional.
The interior has been done up in warm wood and cool blue and purple, with snazzy hanging lamps. A suit of samurai armor is displayed behind glass by the entrance to the tatami room, where one may sit on the floor Japanese-style and eat at a low table.
At Taisho Bistro, you can learn about takoyaki ($5). They’re spherical racquetball-sized dainties, crispy outside and oozingly tender inside, hiding nubs of chewy octopus.
They arrive drizzled with mayonnaise and a sweet brown Japanese barbecue sauce, and topped with flakes of smoky dried bonito, shaved so thin they waver in the heat rising from the piping-hot fritters. They’re a big bite each, which is potentially hazardous to rookies because you must let them cool, or run the risk of tastebud blisters. The collision of savory, sweet, smoky, crispy and creamy is intense.
You’ll also find okonomiyaki ($6), a thick, savory pancake studded with shrimp, cabbage, pork and more. It’s dressed like takoyaki. It was tasty in a messy way, though ours wasn’t cooked through the middle in either of two visits.
One of the fun aspects of the menu is its selection of yakitori, or grilled skewers. They’re small, just snacks. There are 20 listed on the menu, from $1.25 to $3.50 each. Notables include chicken skin grilled until crispy ($1.25), a guilty pleasure, and scallion ($1.25) grilled until slightly charred, doused with sweet soy and surprisingly tasty.
We ordered yakitori combinations for the best value. At $14 for 10 skewers, set A included chicken meatball, chicken, scallion, whole head-on shrimp and beef; set C included sausage, squid legs, chicken and scallion. Diners had an interesting time exploring the familiar and unfamiliar, but the chicken, chicken skin, beef, scallions and sausage – like Vienna sausages – were all hits.
More filling are the rice dishes, including oyako don ($6.50), another blue-collar hit that tops rice with braised chicken, sweet soy onions and a fried egg. The younger eaters at our table enjoyed this entirely accessible dish. Its cousin, the pork katsu don ($7), substituted a crispy fried pork cutlet for the chicken, and I wished it was crispier.
The house ramen noodle soup ($6.75) found favor too, with familiar noodles in a mild broth topped with slices of soft pork belly, half an egg and a slice of fish cake with its characteristic pink spiral.
The shrimp and vegetable tempura ($6) was two big shrimp in a crispy batter with several pieces of vegetable, including sweet potato and broccoli. It was another hit with the junior chow squad, but with only adequate frying, it was unable to achieve greaseless perfection.
We ordered one fancy sushi roll, the Legend Roll ($16). It held tempura lobster and avocado, spicy mayonnaise and sweet sauce, then topped with bruleed scallop. Each piece was a rich, triumphant bite.
The kimchee udon ($8.75), a stir-fried noodle dish, had gotten a decent ride in a wok to intensify its glaze but seemed to want more kimchi.
Servers were notably cheery and solicitous. Meals opened with a hot towel delivered to each diner to cleanse hands. Instead of orange wedges, peeled litchi fruits arrived with the check.
Taisho Bistro offers diners a splendid chance to expand their Japanese vocabulary.
Taisho Bistro: 8 plates (Out of 10)
Expand your Japanese vocabulary with fun-sized dishes at snazzy eatery.
WHERE: 3332 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (835-8088)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Yakitori skewers, $1.25-$3.50; appetizers, $3.50-$8.50; soups, salads, noodle and rice dishes, $3-$9.50; sushi, $3.50-$43.
PARKING: In the lot.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.