What is it about 1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., Unit B?
Kanpai Japanese Restaurant
Cuisine: Asian, Sushi
Category: Neighborhood Favorite
Address: 1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., Fairmont Shopping Center, Mount Pleasant
Bar: Beer and wine
Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday
Costs: Soups $3-$14.50; salads $3-$12; Japanese small plates $3-$12; entrees $8-$23.50; nigiri and sashimi $4-$9; handmade rolls $5-$12.50; samplers platters $8-$50; omakase (chef’s tasting menu) MP; children’s menu $5-$10; desserts $6-$7
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Parking: Shopping center lot
In 2006, it was home to Pho Bac, a Vietnamese noodle soup shop that closed in 2008. That same year, Sushi Haru opened in the spot. In 2010, Sushi Haru was gone and Pho Bac was back. Its return engagement was a short run and Kanpai, Japanese for cheers or “dry your glass,” opened in 2011.
In 2013, the original Kanpai closed and chef Sean Park acquired the business name and location. ark was highly praised for his work at O-Ku on King Street, where John Mariani of Esquire Magazine recognized his culinary acumen and honored O-Ku as a Top New Restaurant in 2010.
By 2012, Park was out at O-Ku and at the helm of Bambu Asian Bistro in Mount Pleasant. He tweeted early this year that he was “thinking of” his very “own venture,” and by the spring he was able to make good on that dream.
The footprint of the previous Asian eateries has not changed and that is unfortunate. The path to the bathrooms is a jumble of storage and cooling equipment, the restaurant’s “business” center and at the time of our visit, the “pantry” for kabocha squash that are the featured ingredient in Park’s bisque with snow crab ($5).
Production space is tight and Kanpai calls out for a visit from a feng shui master. To his credit, Park has cultivated a small landscaped patch in front of the restaurant that softens the hardscape of the strip mall location and provides some welcome greenery for the outdoor tables.
The restaurant is right-sized for a sushi bar. Seven seats flank the small rail where Park produces culinary artistry. Along the front window, a newly installed counter provides seating for six, and eight tables occupy the remaining restaurant space. The wooden banquette has zabutons, or individual cushions, reminiscent of what you would see in high-end Japanese restaurants.
The walls wear a coat of yellow paint, and cherry blossoms, water lilies, birds and a family tree are sketched in random patterns on the stark landscape of the walls. Perhaps this is the work of Park, who is a longtime student of calligraphy. If so, it has an unfinished air about it. Rice paper lanterns add an Eastern look to the eclectic collection of chandeliers strung across the ceiling.
At the time of our visit, the air-conditioning was struggling to keep up with summer’s rising temperatures. One server was challenged not only in keeping up with the guests but also in knowing the menu, the ingredients and preparations.
In the midst of this mish-mash of decor and the detritus of family life that populates the restaurant, Park brings some serious sushi chef skills, a mastery that comes from his time as an instructor for the Sushi Institute.
He brings precision to the cutting of his sushi and a sense of the discipline of simplicity. His creativity is at work when he marries Nutella with hoisin sauce as a dip for freshly wrapped summer rolls of shrimp, pork confit, Thai basil and cilantro ($6 for 2). Too sweet for my taste, but a combination that some may enjoy. His tempura ($6) is crisply jacketed in batter. His saba ($5) buttery; his maguro, velvet. His broths have depth of flavor and his garnishes are well-conceived and fresh.
His sal-lemon ($10) hand-made rolls have journeyed with him from the peninsula to east of the Cooper.
The sushi canon does not anchor him to tradition but frees him to cross cultural pantries. So he adds truffle oil to edamame ($3), brines and braises a pork belly ($12.50) for a hand-made roll and purees Korean kimchi in a rice-free, seafood laden “Dynamite” roll ($7) that knows how to pack heat.
The art of sunomono is not lost on him and you taste his skill with fermentation in pickled cucumbers, onions, daikon, radish and hibiscus scallops ($7.50) and his vinegared rice.
He glazes Wagyu beef with soy ($12.50) but finishes it with garlic butter. Aioli is brightened with yuzu and kimchi is sweetened with mango fruit.
Check out his fish taco ($3), chuckle at his Caprese salad with fruit ($8) and try his gazpacho ($5) with tofu, seaweed and beets.
His Korean heritage can be seen in the bibimbap rice dish ($8) topped with vegetables and egg; marinated beef, bulgogi-style ($15) and his judicious use of kimchi.
A nod to the indie restaurant darlings, pork buns and ramen, are first-rate here. His ramen noodles rank with the chewiest in town. They are resilient in the hot shoyu broth, holding high the specter of alkalinity and worthy of a nod from the Noodle Bar in NYC. His Kanpai buns ($3) are filled with beef, pork or duck confit and you would be wise to get one of each.
Homemade pickles cut the fatty mouth feel of the meats and the spongy steamed buns are the perfect foil for the kimchi slaw.
Rolls are generously stuffed with fillings and the brined and braised pork belly and kimchi ($12.50) brought home the bacon, so to speak.
Chocolate mousse cake ($6.90) and cheesecake ($7), albeit garnished with mochi, seem out of place at an Asian restaurant. Park would be better off serving the watermelon enjoyed by a “friends and family” table or serve simple Asian fruit sorbets.
The restaurant struggles from under-staffing and though signage lists lunch hours, Kanpai initially reduced the days of service and finally called off lunch, at least for the summer.
Its Facebook page has not kept up with the reality of their hours of operation, so be aware.
Park delivers on the food side, but he is in need of shibui, Japanese sensibility, for running a restaurant.