Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cool as a Kappa

1700 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Chef Toshiaki Kimura
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Kappa Japanese on Urbanspoon

Tried: March 2006

Stepping into Kappa, a ten-seat restaurant behind a dark hidden door on the second floor above Denny's in Japantown in San Francisco, feels like entering a foreign country. The few words uttered by the stern, taciturn chef during the entire evening were in Japanese, and the menu posted on the wall, handwritten in brush calligraphy on a large scroll-like strip of paper, was almost exclusively in kanji. Fortunately, there is a condensed English version of the menu available, and the hostess/waitress, who takes the drink orders and serves the food, also speaks a few words of English.

Although no sushi is served at Kappa, the restaurant is built like a large sushi bar, with all of the seats facing the trapezoidal counter where the chef finishes the food for serving. A sashimi selection, however, is among the dishes available on the a la carte small plates menu (starting at $20), and is included in the seven-course prix-fixe menu called "koryori," starting at $75/person, which is required to be arranged a day in advance.

On this evening, the koryori dinner started with Ankimo, an ample-sized circular disk of monkfish liver served in a pool of ponzu sauce, garnished with diced scallions and a scoop of chili-tinted grated daikon radish. Monkfish liver tastes like a cross between uni and foie gras, and with the acidic ponzu sauce and the mildly spicy grated daikon, this dish was a spectacular starter. The next dish was a dungeness crab maki with Japanese cucumber salad, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. I was surprised to find small bits of crab shells in the maki. While the dish was still refreshing, since there was nothing else inside the dried seaweed wrapper other than crab meat, the purity of the presentation was disrupted by having to pick out shells.

The next course was a collection of tastes comprised of tamago (Japanese sweet egg omelette), kazunoko (pickled crunchy herring roe) sprinkled with dried bonito shavings, steamed asparagus spears with sesame paste, steamed uni with sushi rice, glazed with tamari and topped with freshly grated wasabi, duck breast wrapped with shiso leaf, a steamed sea snail, and a small dish of okara, which appeared to be a mixture of tofu, ground steamed fish, and white miso. The thick duck breast was meaty yet tender, and matched very well with the minty shiso leaf. The sesame paste on the perfectly cooked asparagus spears tasted like a milder cousin of peanut butter. Overall each flavor was clean and well executed.

A selection of sashimi came next, consisting of hamachi (yellowtail), toro (fatty tuna), mirugai (giant clam), and hirame (halibut), accompanied by the standard garnish of julienned raw white daikon strands and shiso leaf. The thick sauce accompanying the sashimi was a combination of tamari, konbu (kelp), bonito, and soy sauce.

I was less impressed with the next collection of tastes, comprised of spicy grilled herring stuffed with spiced herring roe, grilled unagi, a chicken meatball yakitori sprinkled with chili flakes, snow crab maki with deep-fried panko crust, and grilled beef tongue. The spicy grilled herring had entirely too many small fish bones to be able to eat comfortably, and the grilled unagi was only average in quality and flavor. The grilled tongue was unremarkable, as it seemed to be nothing but sliced, grilled meat with no distinction in spicing or preparation. I also found the slick texture of the meat unsettling. The overcharred chicken yakitori also had the impression of being cooked the day before and reheated. The snow crab maki, although a bit boring, was acceptably soft inside and crispy outside.

The final savory course of the koryori was a clear seafood broth containing turnip, Chinese broccoli, and taro root pieces. The turnip and taro root had been braised until they practically melted into the hot broth. At this point, left with only dessert in the prix-fixe menu but still somewhat hungry, we decided to take the cue from a couple who appeared to be regulars and order some dishes from the a la carte menu. The golden-brown panko encrusted kurobuta tonkatsu ($15) tasted as good as it looked and smelled, and the tender pork dripped juices as I took a bite. Although clean in taste, I was disappointed that the hirame usuzukuri, the other dish we tried (and the most expensive dish on the a la carte menu at $25), was nothing but a large single sashimi plate. We returned to dessert, which consisted of sliced mango, pear, and mochi with red bean paste.

Kappa was overall an interesting experience, but many of the dishes felt too pre-prepared and many ingredients seemed over-preserved, particularly given the cost of the meal. If it were presented in a more casual izakaya format (and pricing), I may have enjoyed it more. The sake list is appropriately impressive with a number of well-known daiginjo and ginjo sake labels, served in miniature carafes.

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