The small restaurant space at 1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. has gone through several incarnations in recent years. First it was Pho Bac, a Vietnamese noodle house, then it became Sushi Haru, and then it was Pho Bac again. Sushi is back once more in the latest iteration: Kanpai Japanese Restaurant.
The sushi offering includes a couple dozen nigiri and over 30 rolls, and the menu also has a large selection of appetizers and small dishes like tempura and fried rice, a slate of noodles, and rice bowls.
The appetizers include the standard array of pot stickers, dumplings, and spring rolls, but there are some more intriguing choices, too, like grilled smelt ($4.95), baked mussels ($6.50), and a petite filet with veggie hash, crispy crab, and a red wine reduction ($7.95). The wasabi-encrusted tuna ($6.50) is worth notice. The bright magenta slices of rare tuna are coated in wasabi and given just enough sear to leave an eighth of an inch of mild cooked exterior. The wasabi coating is not as spicy as one might expect, and fried garlic chips and a soy garlic vinaigrette add big, sharp flavors and round out a solid appetizer.
You can order sushi and sashimi a la carte from a menu that ranges from tuna and salmon to surf clam and sea urchin. Or you can leave it to the chef's discretion with a 10-piece nigiri entrée ($19) or 15-piece sashimi one ($23), both of which include a choice of miso soup or house salad.
The small round bowl of salad is all texture and temperature: standard-issue iceberg lettuce with strips of carrot and purple cabbage topped with a ginger vinaigrette dressing that's salty with soy, but doesn't really shine. Luckily, the sushi that follows makes up for it.
Too many sushi joints pair up the selections on their sampler platters, but Kanpai's "chef's choice" the night I tried it consisted of 10 different items, offering a representative sampling of the nigiri menu arranged in a thoughtful sequence on a wooden tray. It started with the cool, raw fish (a rosy tuna, salmon, yellowtail, "super white" tuna, snapper, and squid), moved to the cooked stuff (albacore tuna, crab, and shrimp), and ended with a sweet egg omelet as a sort of dessert. Plus, it was accompanied by a spicy tuna roll sliced in six pieces.
Some of the choices — like the maguro tuna and the shrimp — are a little boring, but others — like the clean, pure yellowtail, the slightly-seared albacore, and the firm, almost crunchy squid — are quite appealing. With all 10, the sushi rice is pleasingly warm with a subtle vinegar tang and a speck of wasabi heat beneath each piece of fish.
For me, rolls are a risky area, for this is where the kitschy, dreadful combinations of fried everything and cream-cheese gunk tend to be found. Kanpai does have a fair number of these, plus the requisite California roll ($4.25), rainbow roll ($8.50), and Philly roll (smoked salmon and cream cheese for $4.95). Two locally inspired rolls naturally include shrimp. The Charleston ($4.95) comes with shrimp, cucumber, leaf lettuce, and spicy mayo, while the Johnnie Dodds ($9.25) has tempura shrimp, cucumber, crab, leaf lettuce, hot sauce, white sauce, and salmon and tempura flakes. Those ingredients also suggest that leaf lettuce might be a characteristically local ingredient.
The signature Kanpai roll ($10.95) is an intriguing creation worthy of the house name. The ingredients rolled inside the nori and rice — crab, cucumber, and avocado — are pretty ordinary, but what's layered on top — slices of seared scallop sprinkled with bright orange tobiko caviar, a little truffle oil, and a generous amount of spicy mayo — bring it alive. The presentation itself is elegant. The roll is carved into eight thin slices and served on a long, skinny white tray, and the spicy mayo really gives it a hot bite that sort of sneaks up on you at the end.
My favorite dish, however, comes not from the sushi bar but from the noodle and rice menu, which includes ramen, udon, and soba noodles along with donburi (rice bowls) and a selection of hibachi-grilled meats. The tonkotsu ramen ($8.50) is top-notch. It's thin-sliced roasted pork served over a big bowl of noodles in a pork broth topped with sliced scallions, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and some delightfully pungent red pickled ginger. The broth itself — a slow-cooked concoction made from pork bones — is silky, hearty, and flavorful. The thin slices of pork add body, and when you get the onions and pickled ginger fully stirred into the noodles, they create splendid mouthfuls of slightly chewy noodles with the spark of onion and the sweet kick of the ginger. It would be a wonderful lunch on a cold winter's day, but even in the heat of June it's quite satisfying.
Kanpai's setting is relaxed but elegant, with a subdued brown and cream color scheme. A low sushi bar with a half-dozen chairs is at the back of the small dining area, and a dozen tables and Japanese prints on the wall complete the room. The only break to the quiet, understated mood are the two flat-screen televisions, one over the sushi bar silently showing ESPN highlights and one over the front window piping out CNN's strident wall-to-wall coverage of the murder trial de jour.
But the service is friendly and attentive, and the sushi chef quite personable, chatting up diners and making recommendations for some of the more esoteric items like sea urchin and monkfish livers. All told, Kanpai seems like a solid neighborhood spot for good quality Japanese fare. There are plenty of flashier and more expensive sushi palaces, and there are some cheaper options around town, too, but Kanpai strikes a nice balance down the middle.