Kanpai- New Sushi in Palo Alto
The owner of Menlo Park's Naomi Sushi just opened Kanpai in the former Jidai-ya location in downdown Palo Alto. October 2nd was the official opening day. While it's hard to judge a restaurant right when it opens because they are so eager to please, Kanpai seems to be joining the ranks of Sushi Tomi and Kaygetsu for high quality sushi in the area. I like it better than Sushi-ya which is about two blocks away. The non sushi was also great.
2 bowls miso shiru
2 very large cups of mild and sweet sake
4 pieces ikura
4 pieces uni
2 pieces saba
1 piece toro
broiled miso marinated sea bass
The total was around $80- not cheap but we had some of the more expensive sushi. I'm sorry I can't break it down more, I don't remember the individual prices or the name of the sake.
The sushi was wonderfully sweet and fresh. Ikura was totally different than the super salty, gummy type I find everywhere else. This was much less dyed, very translucent, firm, smaller eggs. Maybe it was a different type of roe? Anyway, it was fantastic. Uni was sweet and held its shape. Saba and toro were both super fresh, very high quality, melting texture.
The amount of rice in each nigiri is much smaller than than what I normally see. We thought it was perfect with the quality of the fish. Wasabi was freshly grated.
My broiled sea bass was not as warm as it should have been since I think they were waiting to bring it out with the tempura. But the balance of flavors was sweet and mild. The tangy green dressing (they called it jalapeno dressing but it really wasn't very spicy) around it cut the oily fish nicely. The tempura was crisp and not oily, and the shrimp were extremely plump.
The remodeling is a very large step up from Jidai-ya. Lovely lighting and relaxing music. The owner, who went through 1 1/2 bottles of sake while we were there was jovial and very proud of the new restaurant. He told us the counters, tables and various other parts were imported from Japan. It's hard to predict if the quality will stay this high when a restaurant is this new, but I highly recommend checking it out if you're in the area!
Menu had an intro paragraph touting the omakase they offer so I'll return soon to try it out.
330 Lytton Avenue
I dropped into Kanpai Thursday evening and it was quite busy. I sat at a small table and had the sashimi dinner (about $24). The miso soup was nothing special, but in place of the typical iceberg lettuce salad I was served the appetizer du jour, a long plate with three different little salads. One contained crunchy tako (octopus) and seaweeds in a mysterious green dressing; another consisted of couple thin slices of salmon wrapped around watercress; and the third, unfortunately, I forget, but I finished that one first so it probably was good.
The sashimi was described on the menu as something like "9 pieces," but in fact there were many more (if somewhat small) pieces. For the most part it was fresh and tasty, but I was somewhat puzzled by the presentation of the saba (mackerel): it was deeply scored at 2mm intervals and broke apart when lifted. The scoring was more successful with the ika (squid).
Overall, a nice change of pace.
As I was waiting (and waiting) for the check, the two sushi novices next to me were discussing whether maki or nigiri was the one that had a wrapping on the outside. This reminded me of the unusual menu layout, which perhaps could use some work to make it more accessible.
330 Lytton Ave.
This latest entry in the already crowded Menlo Park/Palo Alto area is an up-market sister to one of my old favorites, Naomi. While the three lead itamaes from Naomi will now be splitting their time between the two shops, there is little if anything that would tip you off that the two are related.
First and foremost, this 48-seat operation is the most attractive sushiya on the Peninsula, period. The room, done up with a very subdued palate of greens and browns, appears quite deliberately designed as a clone of the prototypical big-city , white-tablecloth sushi restaurant, right down to the gorgeous exotic woods, the flashy back-bar and the artful pin-spots suspended over the 15-seat bar. The message is pretty obvious: This is not our beloved-but-homey neighborhood sushi joint.
On the Thursday I dropped in, Kanpai had been running less than a week. While the staff was obviously still finding its way around the new space, service didn't suffer for it. For someone who came out of Nobu (New York's legendary temple of sushi) Kaneko-san is an amazingly unaffected, easygoing cat. If there's a single common thread between Naomi and the new operation, it's the tone of easy conviviality and relaxation set by the men behind the bar. The overall effect is elegance without the overstarched stiffness. (We'll see how well this holds up on a jammed Friday night when the tobiko's really flying fast and furious ...)
As for the fish, I found decent variety, but not the impressive range of non-standard items Naomi usually stocks. The only white-board special was the lunch package – six pieces of nigiri and a California roll priced at a very attractive $7. As with Naomi, the melt-in-your-mouth toro here is a steal at $4 apiece. The masu (ocean trout) was delightful, very much like smoked BC sockeye. (They also have smoked salmon nigiri on the regular menu). While the standard hamachi was just OK, the fatty belly cut was silky and delicious. The other two standouts: The sweet hotate (scallop), torch braised with Japanese sea salt, and the marinated ikura. This was a marination that relied more on soy than sake. The result was a smoky, nutty flavor not unlike tawny port. On the downside, both the aji (horse mackerel) and Spanish mackerel were just ho-hum. And the overly dry sushi rice needs some fine-tuning.
Bottom line: Kanpai is both a beautiful room, and a very *comfortable* space to eat quality sushi. Service -- behind and in front of the bar --is very good. For now, I'm slotting this at No. 11, just above Fuki Sushi and below Hotaru – with price as the deciding factor. Nine and a half nigiri plates for $65.70 (including 20 percent tip) works out to $7.30 per plate. And that's *way* out of line in the intensely competitive Menlo Park/Palo Alto area. You can get this high quality nearby at Koma, Akasaka and SushiYa for a much more reasonable price. The Naomi boys may have a monthly overhead on this space to rival the national budget of a small Third World nation. But I'm not going to subsidize their rent. While it'd certainly be an impressive date-night pick, it's not going to be a regular lunch stop for Sushi Monster.
I hadn't like Naomi before, but I might need to check it out again now. The traditional nigiri at Kanpai is not fusion in any sense but the atmosphere is a bit more upscale.
This ikura was not heavily marinated. The egg sacs were extremely firm. I had the impression that it was more fresh. I haven't found this to be the case with at least Sushi-ya. I like Sushi-ya for a neighborhood joint, but I think their ikura might be borderline going off sometimes. The egg sacs are saggy and broken and there's all that 'mucus' for lack of a better word. Additionally, the construction at Sushi-ya is sometimes careless. I've gotten oddly cut pieces of fish and pieces that just fall apart completely when I try to flip it over to dip.
I'll have to see if Sushi-ya has some in house marinated next time I go.
I like Sushi Tomi, but the quality varies. Kaygetsu is always extremely good, but the prices are heavy. Kanpai now ranks in the top for me, though I can't say that it's in between Kaygetsu or Sushi Tomi.
A quick footnote regarding marinated ikura: Yuzu in San Mateo would be my top pick for ikura no shoyu zuke, followed by Hotaru in San Mateo, with SushiYa in Palo Alto and Higuma in Redwood City neck and neck for third. (Actually, you're never going to get a bad meal at any of those places.) As for Sam's, I found a lot to love about the place, despite the price. But I have never had his "special" ikura.
I personally prefer a marination that's heavy on the sake side. If you can hold a Zippo lighter in front of your breath and blow a fireball after eating two nigiri pieces, that's a good sign... (heh...)
When I went by Kampai last week (gotta double-check that spelling -- is it Kanpai or Kampai?) they said they were shooting for an opening this week. I'm planning to get there Thursday for lunch. My initial impression, having heard about this from the Naomi guys for the last six months, was this place was to have a more fusion-oriented, upscale focus than their Menlo Park sushiya. Since I couldn't care less about fusion or upscale, I may need to reign in my expectations. KK and I differ sharply on our opinions of Naomi.
re: Sushi Monster
The one in Sunnyvale has no relation to the Palo Alto place. The Sunnyvale restaurant is supposedly a fusion style upscale hip place, owned by a Taiwanese guy. I'm told their kitchen chef was hired from Japan, and the sushi chef I talked to was from Hong Kong. Basically these two are completely different restaurants, though I haven't been to the PA one and might not for a bit until I am swayed :-)
My understanding is that this restaurant is a 2nd venture by the owner of Naomi Sushi in Menlo Park, whose offerings rank pretty low on my list (in terms of quality/price ratio which is not very good). Your review has me intrigued though, especially if you are ranking them between Tomi and Kaygetsu. If this place doesn't share the same fish sources as Naomi I might pop in one of these days. Perhaps the Sushi Monster will review this before I will :-)
Marinated ikura, or full name ikura no shoyu zuke, is darker orange color (closing in on a red hue) than their regular salted counterpart. A good marination would have a fine balance between soy and sake, but some prefer a heavier sake flavor. Ino Sushi does do a nice version, but the one that got me into it is Sushi Sam's in San Mateo (he calls is special ikura for short).
re: K K
It has been a while since I last went to both places, and Ino-san does not have the marinated ikura all the time, whereas in the past 8 years I've been going to Sam's out of so many visits I'd say less than 8 visits he was out of the marinated ikura (he usually keeps a tub in the mini fridge).
Kitsho in Cupertino had this offering too a few times which was pretty good.
I think Sam's version has heavier flavors in both soy sauce and sake (perhaps longer marination time?), so heavy that the best way to enjoy them is sphere by sphere. :-) Honestly his version was the first time I had it, so I use them as a standard. Perhaps keeping them in the fridge for a while will do that to the flavor. Maybe heavy flavor is not for everyone, but I certainly like it. Apparently doing this yourself at home is not difficult, just getting the raw eggs in sujiko form is way cheaper, then cleaning it, then marinating it yourself to whatever desired levels (mirin, sake, soy sauce).
Higuma's version (Redwood City) is not bad, and the owner says it is a hometown receipe (Hokkaido), though their marination is too light for me.
Sushiya apparently had this the 2nd to last time I went.
re: K K
Thanks for the assessment of Sam's, I'll make sure to try that whenever I can get there. You're right that Inoue-san doesn't always keep the good ikura around, but sometimes I think it might just depend on how he feels at that particular moment :)
Sebo in Hayes Valley has recently been carrying a shoyu ikura, but when I had it, the marination was a bit on the light side.
Hi shortexact. I don't know why the ikura is so different but I don't think that Kanpai does their own marination. Since the actual size, the color, everything, was so different, I'm actually convinced it was roe from a different type of salmon, or maybe not even from salmon (so perhaps it's not actually ikura). Next time I go, I'll find out more.
Thanks for this report! Relatively few places serve freshly grated wasabi (and even fewer will do it automatically, on just the first visit), so just the fact that Kanpai does makes them immediately more interesting.
I had a question about the ikura, since you mentioned their ikura wasn't super salty. A few of the better sushi places around the bay will do their own marination for the ikura, with shoyu and sake, that I've always loved in comparison to the standard stock salty stuff. Ino Sushi, in Japantown, does a fantastic version. Since you mention the ikura in particular, I was wondering if Kanpai does something similar to this?