(Photo above: Oysters by Linden Gross)
Some brand refreshes amount to little more than putting lipstick on a fish. That couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Kanpai. The cozy sushi restaurant and sake bar, located on Bend’s westside, has served some of the best sushi in town since its inception. But for owner-chef Justin Cook, who worked as a Portland line cook before launching Kanpai 13 years ago, that just wasn’t good enough. So earlier this year he embarked on a revamp that ranged from renovating the restaurant to enlivening the already creative menu.
I’ll use any excuse to go back to Kanpai, but this refresh really peaked my curiosity. Could a superb sushi restaurant get that much better? In a word, yes.
After briefly admiring the smoky, sexy interior and the new streamline bar, my two friends and I got down to business. It wasn’t hard. Two specials hollered at us, with good reason as it turns out.
The thinly sliced ahi carpaccio—folded over on itself and served with freeze-dried soy sauce, pale-orange tobiko (flying fish roe) in a Thai chili vinaigrette—danced on the palate, the sweet and mildly hot flavors highlighted by the pop of the fish eggs.
Next, finely sliced lemon, avocado and crab leg topped the ponzu-scented salmon roll drizzled with yuzu kosho sauce (a condiment of fermented fresh chilis, salt and tart citrus). “This is my chef’s specialty roll,” said Justin. “I haven’t tried it, but I know what it tastes like in my mouth.” That, clearly, is the secret of his success.
We were off to a flying start and wouldn’t touch down for the rest of the evening. The new dishes we tried kicked off with a diver scallop that tasted like it had just been plucked out of the Atlantic before being brilliantly pan-seared and doused with a brown butter yuzu kosha sauce. “Ohhhh,” I exclaimed after one bite of the shellfish that’s served with tender house-made squid-ink gnocchi. Yes, as my friend Leah pointed out, this guy knows how to do heat. Even better, he spikes it with citrus.
That deft hand showed itself again in the silky hamachi crudo, rolled around young, peppery arugula leaves and Marcona almonds, and finished with a Thai chili ginger vinaigrette.
Then there were the oysters, one served with albacore and quail egg in a jalapeño sauce and the other, my favorite, coated with decadently rich and pungent uni (sea urchin roe) butter that tastes like briny foie gras.
“I just swallowed a taste of the ocean,” my friend Scott announced.
“I just swallowed a taste of happiness,” Leah amended.
And who can forget the positively fun ahi poke bowl? There’s nothing like piling cubes of Hawaiian-style ahi poke tossed in sesame oil and ponzu citrus onto a crunchy fried wonton and then adding creamy avocado, seaweed and daikon radish spirals.
“No more,” my friends and I finally agreed, a resolve that lasted all of two minutes until sushi chef Yoshi offered us some aji (horse mackerel). I was dubious. To say I’m not a mackerel fan is an understatement. But the dish proved to be the surprise of the evening. Served with grated ginger, chiso leaf and ponzu sauce, it was buttery instead of oily, with a taste that was positively delicate.
This time we were really done. Until, that is, we found out about the chef-made cheesecake. Served on an ever-so slightly salted strawberry coulis, it may be the best I’ve ever had.
Ditto for the meal.
Kanpai Sushi and Sake Bar
990 Northwest Newport Avenue, Bend
Owner: Justin Cook
Hours: Monday–Saturday 4pm–close