If sushi-slinging Japanese restaurants sometimes seem too serene, serious or expensive to you, try the user-friendly Kikyo during its lively happy hour service (Tuesday through Friday, 5-7 p.m.). Sure, Kikyo shares many of the physical trappings of the standard model - a fairly spare look accented by slatted wood, neutral tones and nature prints - but during its "half and half" happy hour (well-explained on the laminated menu's first page), eating and drinking at Kikyo is about as intimidating as hanging out at a sports pub, and about as cheaply priced, too.
Big hellos from the sushi bar dudes upon your entrance are your first clues that this place is built for casual fun. And the informal and super friendly servers - who move to unexpected jazzy piano music - are another relaxing touch. No wonder this place is frequently filled with regular old Columbusites and a goodly number of young families.
Kikyo's food is almost as Korean as it is Japanese, and a Korean cuisine classic - bulgogi - was not only the best happy-hour deal I tried here, but it was a ridiculous bargain.
Said bulgogi was a bounteous bowl brimming over with a solid version of the thinly sliced and seared beef curls sprinkled with sesame seeds and doused in a sweet soy sauce. The happy-hour price for a dinner-for-one or serves-four appetizer portion: $3.75.
Also nice was the Agedashi Tofu ($4.50/$2.25 at happy hour). Four honking big blocks of lightly crusted fried soybean curd were extra creamily textured underneath, dusted on top with salty bonito flakes and plopped atop a shallow pool of a pleasantly light and gingery soy sauce.
Getting kids to eat their greens could well be eased by ordering the Goma-ae Spinach ($5.50/$2.75 at happy hour). This was room-temperature clumps of Popeye's favorite cooked down and striated with a sticky, thick, coal-black, nutty and candy-sweet sesame paste.
A decent selection of non-"specialty roll" sushi is also half-priced during happy hour. From this group, the one I tried and liked the best was the Salmon Skin Roll ($2.50 at happy hour). Specifically, I enjoyed how its delightfully crispy and relatively mild-flavored fish skin played off its sweet saucy drizzles.
Seekers of much stranger flavors and textures might opt for the bizarre oral blast of the Natto Roll ($2 at happy hour). Made of fermented soy, it's bitter and funky and is definitely an acquired taste - if kinda fun in a "did that actually just happen" sorta way.
While a mix of Kikyo's sushi rolls and appetizers can easily compose whole meals, if you're with a huge group or just in the mood, a couple of shareable entrees can kick up your entertainment quotient - especially when sided with the "kimchi set" (12 dishes of banchan).
Since Kikyo's Hot Stone Bibimbob ($13.50) is one of the better renditions around, I recommend that easy-to-love rice dish. Threaded through with beef, greens and lots of shiitakes, it comes with a cute little amphora of fermented chili paste and succeeds mightily due to its long-sizzling, excellent rice-crisping and thus volcanically hot black stone pot.
Since Hokke Mackerel ($13.50 - a mild-tasting species of the healthy-eating oily fish) is a rare find, ordering it here provides an uncommon treat. It arrives simply grilled and is meaty, juicy and clean tasting - just watch out for the pin bones.
Will that fish be a revelation? Probably not. But like much of Kikyo's fare, it's pretty good stuff at a damned good price.