Kanpai Sushi offers a remarkable variety of authentic culinary delights in an atmosphere that’s purposefully simple
By Richard Foss Richard(at)RichardFoss.com
There once were visual cues that revealed the ambitions of an American restaurant — servers in white jackets, interiors full of candlelight and linen. Those distinctions have withered away, and in some cultures they never existed. Some of the most celebrated restaurants in Japan have always looked like simple teahouses, and only people who grow up in that culture understand the cues that tell you great things are happening there.
The simple black-and-white sign and modern interior at Kanpai Sushi gives few hints of ambition, but after you are seated interesting things start happening. You are handed three menus: the regular menu, the izakaya tavern dishes and a daily menu. There’s also a menu of sakes — more than 50 are offered at prices from modest to stratospheric.
The variety can be overwhelming, but fortunately there are fluent and helpful servers to guide you. We were fortunate to have Peter, who assessed our interest in trying unusual dishes and suggested accordingly. We were intrigued by roast duck Japanese-style, and since that takes half an hour to prepare we ordered it first and selected small plates to amuse our palates meantime.
First came squid stuffed with spicy tuna on a bed of sliced Japanese cucumber. It was a good modern-style dish — gently spicy tuna on cool salad, with a drizzle of mild aioli on top — and was pleasant, but not extraordinary. It was the last item anything close to typical.
Next was battara, an arcane style of sushi from the 1840s in which vinegared mackerel is placed in a box with heavy weights on the lid so fish and rice are pressed into a dense brick over a period of days. This style, also called oshizushi, was originally a way of pickling and preserving the fish, and it creates an interesting flavor, slightly sweet and sour with an almost creamy texture. The preparation at Kanpai included pieces of minty shiso leaf, adding a light, sharp dimension. Few restaurants outside Osaka make this item, and the chance to taste it in California is something special.
We continued with another modern dish: shishito peppers fried with eggplant and green onion in a mild, sweet sauce. Peter warned us that some of the peppers would be spicier than others, and so it was — they ranged from gentle to zippy, but were still milder than Thai or Jalapeno peppers. It was a happy mix of sweet, lightly bitter and spicy vegetable flavors, and a good spacer between fish courses.
The next presentation was described as “crispy baby sardine with wrapped shrimp in lobster special.” What arrived were three rolls of shrimp and lobster meat each topped with what looked like a lacy potato chip, and pools of yellow lobster sauce next to them. The chip was crisped tiny sardines, hundreds of them, baked together in some slightly sweet medium, a remarkable flavor and texture contrast with the fresh seafood and unctuous lobster sauce. We left most of that sauce — a pity, since it was tasty — but we were too entranced by the combination of sardine crisp and shrimp.
We continued with an item Peter highly recommended: kama toro, the prized top-grade tuna belly. Usually saying something tastes like fat is a bad thing, but raw or rare toro has a delicious richness, and the delicate dressing of black truffle oil made the most of that silky texture and delicate flavor.
Now came the item we had been waiting for: duck in a style that fused French and Japanese ideas. French, because a red wine reduction was used; Japanese, because so were ginger and pickled plum. The rich flavors of duck in wine stock were splendid after the delicate seafood we had been having, something deliberately substantial to follow selections that were light and fresh. I strongly recommend this dish as the final entree, since, after this, delicate fish would be an anticlimax.
Peter had shown great knowledge of sake, so we asked him to pair one with the duck. He brought two to taste and we picked Azure, made in an unusual style using water from the deep ocean. It’s less sweet than many other sakes and complements the duck in a different way than wine; there being no sake equivalent of the red wine traditionally paired with duck in Europe.
We were offered desserts, but none caught our imagination so we asked to share a dessert drink. Peter responded with a sake called Born that had delicate flavors of mandarin orange and licorice, an excellent finish for the meal.
Kanpai Sushi is owned by a sake sommelier and a chef who left another restaurant because the owner kept trying to make them use inexpensive ingredients. Here they buy the exotic fish and beverages they believe customers will appreciate. It’s a daring strategy, since sake and seafood are both perishable. This is a versatile restaurant — you can get a standard meal at modest prices, something exotic for a special occasion at a budget to match, or an inexpensive late-night bowl of hot noodle soup, all beneath the same roof. It’s a remarkable variety of experiences from a plain-looking place.
Kanpai Sushi is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Fridays and from noon to 1 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. There is an adjacent parking lot, good wheelchair access, and beer and wine served.
Kanpai Sushi, 8325 Lincoln Blvd., Westchester, (310) 338-7223 kanpai-sushi.net