Kenobi Restaurant and Sushi Bar
The new Kenobi emerges as a power player in Austin's upscale Asian fusion scene
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., Feb. 1, 2008
Kenobi Restaurant and Sushi Bar10000 Research Ste. A, 241-0119
Monday-Thursday, 11am-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-12mid; Sunday, noon-10pm
Kenobi has opened in what used to be the Dan McClusky's location on the western edge of the Arboretum, right off of Great Hills Drive. Kenobi means "blooming flower" in Japanese; think Japanese fusion cuisine and sushi, very artistically presented. You walk in to find an architecturally lit space full of dark wood and complementary earth tones. Accenting wall sections are covered with huge mosaics of small, rectangular native stone; tabletops are covered with crosscuts of bamboo, sealed in polymer. The whole effect is understated Asian: hip, cool, elegant, and modern.
The sushi menu has a full complement of sushi, sashimi, hand rolls, and maki, with all of the usual suspects well-represented. There are 15 house-specialty rolls, including some rather creative options. We sampled the Seven and a Half ($14), composed of yellowfin tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and avocado; rolled and tempura-fried; and served with eel sauce, spicy pepper paste, and Japanese mayo. A crunchy exterior yielded to the succulent core, a nice combination of flavors. The Millennium ($11) is a blend of spicy tuna, peppercorn-seared tuna, and avocado, served with ponzu and sesame oil. Both are works of art on the plate and both delicious.
We tried escolar (snake mackerel) sashimi ($10), five thick, buttery, and luscious slices served on crushed ice with a small salad. Salt-water eel roll ($7) is a reverse roll of grilled saltwater eel with black sesame seeds; the roll could have been tighter and the eel a tad fresher. Soft-shell crab roll ($8) has an interior of crunchy crab, masago roe, cucumber, and sprouts; it was nice but didn't excite.
We tried two starters from the "Land" side of the appetizer section and two from the "Sea"; there are 21 starters combined. Rib-Eye Maki ($8, available as an entrée for $16) is superb: four rolls of sliced rib eye enwrapping Japanese yam and avocado, grilled, and glazed with teriyaki, a study in contrasting texture and compatible flavors. Pork Katsu ($8) is equally delicious: four nice fork-tender medallions of crispy panko-crusted tenderloin served with cinnamon-spiked apple and tequila-lime syrup. Seiho Scallops ($8) are simple but tasty: four large scallops sautéed in soy-garlic butter, topped with jalapeño slices.
Gindara Filet ($12) is a big winner: a fillet of silky and unctuous black cod slathered with sweet miso glaze and baked, served with seasoned rice and excellent yakitori-marinated and grilled baby bok choy. This starters section of the menu is dynamic and adventurous, and we will be trying the rest. We never got around to the five soups or the six salads offered on the menu, several of which sounded very tempting, like the wild mushroom and tea-smoked chicken soup with crispy brown rice and the squid salad.
From the entrées section we've sampled four of the 12 offerings, which range from $14 to $32. Frenched Bone-in Rib-Eye ($24, 12 ounces) was nicely cooked, tender, and delicious. It came on a mound of unique and appetizing wasabi mashed potatoes with several tempura sweet-onion rings. Asian Braised Beef Short Rib ($16) was equally good: three rich, fall-off-the-bone meaty ribs on a mound of lemon-scented mashers with grilled asparagus. The asparagus should have been peeled or trimmed more judiciously, as the lower sections were too stringy to eat.
Chipotle Salmon ($18) was a definite winner: a nice slab of perfectly moist salmon with a zippy chipotle miso sauce, accompanied by wonderful dashi risotto and the grilled yakitori bok choy. Both of these sides are so good, they almost overpowered the salmon. Crispy Seared Snapper ($21) is several nice pieces of snapper served atop a frisky sweet-tart-spicy sauce, matched with a mound of very thin sweet-potato strings and tempura asparagus. In Kenobi's entrée world, all of the portions are generous, and the food is artistically plated.
We sampled two desserts. The favorite was a Japanese plum ice cream ($3), which has just the right amount of sweetness, loads of perfectly toothsome fruit, and a seductive texture. Mochi ice cream balls ($7) require a bit of explanation. Mochi is a traditional Japanese New Year's dish made from soaked glutinous rice, which is pounded with mallets and formed into a sticky cake. Kenobi has taken a pasta-thin sheet of mochi and molded it around a core of vanilla ice cream; the dish contains a half-dozen or so oval globes. We loved the textural play between the rich ice cream and the chewy, sticky rice.
Kenobi has an extensive bar selection, and the drink menu focuses on martinis, a lengthy list of sake options, and a large wine list. We can see how this element alone, combined with the design of the space, will seduce drinkers into establishing a lively bar scene. Table-side service could not have been more professional, and the staff was helpful in suggesting dishes and answering questions. With just a bit of polishing, we see Kenobi emerging as a power player in Austin's upscale Asian fusion cuisine scene.
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