In this world, there are two types of restaurants: college-geared and real life. A restaurant is deemed “college-appropriate” if the food is oversized and underpriced and the alcohol is cheap and plentiful. A real life restaurant is defined by its atmosphere, quality of food and service.
But on the corner of Elm and State Streets, Kumo — a new Japanese Hibachi steakhouse where chefs prepare food table-side with a flurry of tricks on an open, flat grill — is challenging that view. If you are willing to venture slightly further into the unknown depths of New Haven, Kumo is a delightful surprise. Don’t be put off by the rough exterior — upon entering, your senses are bombarded with the arousing aroma of hibachi grill, delicately blended with the sweet scent of sake. Water cascades down smooth stony insets that frame the hibachi room, while living greenery caresses the perimeters, basking in the glow of neon purple, blue and pink lights. Clearly this isn’t Kansas anymore (though native New Yorkers will think they have stumbled into Benihana).
Kumo somehow manages to appeal to both the student and the family of four. The restaurant boasts three main rooms — the hibachi room, with eight different hibachi tables; a lounge complete with full bar, private tables and a sushi bar; and another room with small tables suitable for dates.
Kumo’s menu is equally impressive with a wide range of sushi (both à la carte and special rolls), “hot starters” (dumplings and spring rolls $5-9), “cold beginnings” (sushi appetizers), salads, fish and meat entrées, bento boxes and the hibachi menu ($16-33). Skip the appetizers — though enticingly cheap, many of them, such as the gyoza dumplings, are tasteless and disappointingly flimsy. Even if you want to be adventurous, don’t order the fried oysters. The sauce is way too thick (think okonomiyaki gone terribly wrong) and the oysters just short of vile. Despite the disappointing fried foods, Kumo’s tempura is excellent: lightly battered, crispy and an excellent alternative to the more unpalatable appetizers.
In hibachi tradition, your choice of entrée comes with soup or salad, fried rice or noodles, hibachi vegetables and shrimp. The chefs perform like loyal puppies, relentlessly tossing vegetables at you to catch with your mouth and setting onion volcanoes afire (though Kumo has adorably adopted the practice of putting out said fire with a urinating fireman squeeze-toy). Choose salad over soup and rice over noodles — both have more flavor than their counterparts and complement the rest of the grilling. The steak, chicken and shrimp are all excellent, but the tough lobster fails to impress. To maximize the hibachi fun, ask for “Tony” when making reservations. If you’re lucky (or if it’s your birthday), he’ll shoot sake straight into your mouth while your friends cheer you on.
Don’t take a date to the hibachi grill — instead, ask to sit at the sushi bar or in the more private lounge area. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself at a table with strangers, singing happy birthday to someone’s precious eight-year-old. The portions are big enough to take some home for the next day’s study snack, so you can be sure to get your money’s worth, especially when you take into account the included starters.
It’s hard to find quality sushi outside of a large metropolis, but Kumo’s sushi is a tasty surprise — the salmon sashimi lacks the chewiness of cheap fish and is devoid of the telltale lemon taste (sushi restaurants typically squeeze lemon on older pieces of raw fish to kill off bacteria and increase shelf life). The sushi itself is presented on a large hibachi plate as a rainbow bedazzlement of fish, roe and avocado layered with thick drizzles of sauce and spicy mayo. Though pretty to look at, the heavy sauces do nothing and make one question whether or not the sushi is in fact a healthier alternative to the hibachi. Nevertheless, the quality of the ingredients is undeniable and the portions are large enough to share. Brown rice is also available as a substitute, which for any devout health nut is key when choosing where to get sushi.
The deserts are just as intriguing — the menu includes staples such as mochi and ice cream as well as specialties such as fried cheesecake and tempura ice cream. Save room for the latter, and you’ll be presented with a delicious ball of ice cream the size of a small melon, encrusted with the panko that Kumo does so well and gently draped in chocolate and whipped cream. An absolutely delicious treat and the perfect way to finish a decadent night out (without the price tag).