Sean Park is an artist. What a brush is to a painter, a knife is to Park. His canvas: a plate, a bowl, a wooden plank. His mind works in a creative manner, leading to masterfully designed dishes of the utmost elegance. Color, texture, aroma, and flavor mingle in a study of sensory brilliance. Vibrant red tuna and pearly white escolar rest against a bed of glistening green seaweed, while a translucent yellow slice of star fruit complements the soft red-orange hue of a fanned Arctic clam. Purple cabbage, bright orange kumquats, and a forest of greens accent big sashimi platters. A sultry plume of smoke rises from hot cast iron skillets of bulgogi, wafting scents of ginger, soy, garlic, and sesame. The firm, silky smooth carpaccio of yellowtail plays sweet and spicy, with small slivers of serrano chilies contributing hits of heat.
It's hardly a secret that Park knows his way around a fish or a slab of pork belly. In 2010, Esquire's John Mariani praised the chef by saying, "Sean Park turns out beautiful, fanciful sushi," and tagging O-Ku as one of the best new restaurants of the year. In 2012, Park took over the kitchen at Bambu and successfully revamped a menu that desperately needed help. Now, Park has moved on to bigger things: this past year he decided it was time to own his own restaurant, so he purchased the space at 1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. and decided to keep the Kanpai name.
Park's artistry continues with his take on gazpacho. Large pieces of crab and slivers of shrimp mingle with a tangle of seaweed, cabbage, and greens, the occasional piece of star fruit and tapioca poking through. It's a bowl of foliage, with a small touch of savory broth at the bottom of the bowl to keep it alive ($5). A small steamed bun of tender pork and kimchi mango slaw ($3) sits in the middle of a white plate, a brush stroke of sauce around its perimeter.
But a great artist should focus on the art and leave the rest to publicists, salespeople, and gallery owners. It's a rare creative genius who can wear every hat — most art suffers if attention is diverted by minutiae.
For example, the gallery, or restaurant in this case, needs a bit of restoration. Cream walls accented with painted green leaves, pink birds, and orange fish are fine, if reminiscent of an unfinished scrapbook, but the random placement of pink floral wallpaper, poorly installed and peeling, needs to be dealt with. The dark berber carpet could use a good cleaning, though getting rid of it all together would be better. Wood chair molding along the main wall may have once protected it from the backs of chairs, but now it only annoys the backs of patrons seated on the benches beneath it. The venue makes it hard to believe one could walk in and order a perfectly cooked teriyaki duck breast with a medley of vegetables in unforgettable lavender soy ($14.50), or a vibrant plate of hibiscus conch sashimi with tapioca and sunomono ($6.50). No complaints, though, about the fact that Jiro Dreams of Sushi is on repeat via Netflix on a flat screen TV just above the sushi bar.
The sushi bar is where Park spends most of his time, listening to classics like "Ave Maria" while crafting his unrivaled sashimi platters. Rolls are amply represented, including all the standards — California , Philly, Spicy Tuna — even the kitschy deep-fried, cream cheese varieties. The excellent eight-piece White Blossom is fashioned with spicy tuna and cucumber on the inside and whitefish and avocado on top with sunomono ($9). Another favorite, the Tuna-Lime ($11), comes with crab salad and cucumber on the inside and thin slices of tuna and lime on the outside with yuzu aioli ($11).
While Park primarily works behind the sushi bar, on occasion he's serving food, swiping credit cards, and greeting guests. On weekdays the only other staff on hand is his wife, and on weekends there might be an additional server and an extra cook in the kitchen. This does not work. First and foremost, the staff needs to be educated. Throughout multiple visits, not one server knew what the happy hour specials were, or if it even was happy hour, despite the "buy one, get one free sushi roll" sign on the front door. Each time we visited, we had to ask for appetizer plates. When inquiring about dishes, servers usually had to go to Park and report back. Happy hour discounts were never once applied to bills without asking for them.
So, this begs the question: Was this the right move for Park? Keeping the name Kanpai brings along some good karma, but Park is a true master and might be better served with a name as original as his food. The service and décor need a lot of work. When I am at an art show, I want the gallery to represent the aesthetic of the artist, and I want the docent to explain every brush stroke in each painting. A successful restaurant needs to have similar support in place. Kanpai has a mom-and-pop shop kind of feel, but art as beautiful as Park presents may even transcend a gallery and belong in a museum. If he can clear his palette of all distractions, delegate, and decorate, Kanpai could be a masterpiece.