Unwrapping the Package

There's Substance Beneath the Glitter at Kenichi

Clockwise from the bottom: Assorted Sushi and Kenichi roll, Sika, Sea Bass  with Blue Crab Ginger Wontons and Tuna Poki.
Clockwise from the bottom: Assorted Sushi and Kenichi roll, Sika, Sea Bass with Blue Crab Ginger Wontons and Tuna Poki. (Photo By John Anderson)

Kenichi

419 Colorado, 320-8883

Sunday-Tuesday, 5:30-10pm;

Wednesday-Saturday, 5:30-11pm

This is a story of packaging. In Japan the art of packaging, called Tsutsumu, pervades most aspects of material culture. It is an art that marries form with function to contrive a product that embodies a sort of essential beauty. Inspired by this Japanese aesthetic, a new restaurant in Austin, Kenichi, seems to have captured the spirit of Tsutsumu. Carefully packaged and thoroughly designed, Kenichi seems as if it were airlifted from the pages of a marketing research report, or an architect's drafting table.

When Kenichi owners Bil Rieger and Kenichi Kanada began looking for a second location for their successful Aspen restaurant, they chose Austin because it had the right combination of worldly hipsters, moneyed professionals, and foodies, all in a town that seemed woefully under-served in its appetite for fish. And I suppose it is to the credit of Austin palates that the pair felt that a town that has only recently emerged from suburban obscurity could sustain the type of glamorous establishment they envisioned. After all, not every city can appreciate a sushi restaurant that offers freshly ground wasabi root (and is willing to pay $3 for it), 18 different types of sake, or Kobe beef carpaccio. And for the most part, Rieger and Kanada's instincts have been correct. Since it opened in May, Austin has been buzzing about Kenichi. Fish-loving foodies have crowded its vestibule on Saturday nights waiting for a table or even just a place at the bar from which to watch the scene and sample what the restaurant purports to be the freshest sushi anywhere in the city.

While the sushi at Kenichi is certainly first-rate, I would argue that it isn't the sushi that distinguishes this restaurant. Indeed, for the price you pay for an order of Hamachi (yellowtail) at Kenichi you could have two orders at someplace like Mushashino or Ichiban, both excellent sushi restaurants. Packaging is part of the price you pay at Kenichi, a restaurant that flutters with well-toned professionals sporting carefully cropped coiffures, low-cut necklines, trim tailored slacks, and polished black shoes. This is a place where spectacle reigns, infusing the atmosphere with a warm electric hum. It is a place of voyeuristic excitement, where the trendiness of its clientele is matched equally by its décor. Featuring towering tropical flower arrangements, paper lamps illuminating darkened corners, and a color palate whose tonal variations range from black to black, this sleekly packaged restaurant is as much about atmosphere as it is about cuisine.

But beneath all this glitter and glamour also lies a restaurant of authentic substance. Kenichi's executive chef Shane Stark knows more than the fine art of raw fish and rice, and his menu reflects a penchant for innovative pairings of Pacific Rim and European foodstuffs. The foods here integrate the flavors of Japan, China, Vietnam, and Thailand into dishes that are at once delightfully exotic and soothingly familiar. His is a kitchen that declines to give lip service to subtlety. Flavors are bold, without a trace of daintiness.

At risk of essentializing genders, I would argue that his foods seem quite male. Meats are accented by crispy slivers of fried garlic, fish is heavily studded with black pepper, appetizers and entrées explode with soy, curries, and shiso leaf, and entrées generally come with a healthy portion of flavored whipped potatoes, squash, or some other comforting starchy puree.

Sometimes these foods are too bold. As in their beef carpaccio ($18) which showcases absolutely buttery slices of raw Kobe beef, spread across the plate like pretty flower petals. It seems almost tragic to disguise the dainty flavor of that exquisite viand beneath a brash sauce of citrus, garlic, and fish sauce. Now and again, entrées can be too peppery, as was the case with a mahi mahi special ($23) I ordered that was overburdened with black pepper, outmuscling the otherwise toothsome fish and the light lemongrass broth surrounding it, which leaves a slightly one-dimensional impression on the palate. Still, I must argue that in spite of a few fixable imperfections, I was delightfully impressed by a cuisine that was not only beautifully packaged but generally thoughtfully conceived and well-prepared.

Their shiitaki negimaki ($10) appetizer is a treat for the senses. Artfully fanned upon a simple platter, these exquisite slices of grilled skirt steak rolled with onions and shiitake mushrooms erupt with the flavors produced by salty fish sauce, soy, and crisp garlic slices. The beef was touchingly tender, without a trace of chewy gristle. Another appetizer, giant seared sea scallops ($11) accompanied by Thai red curry sauce, is simply delicious. I have found that the rich, almost greasy texture of scallops requires a bold companion to subdue their bloating effect. The piquant, coconut curry sauce formed a perfect mate.

People who visit Kenichi and order only sushi are missing a rare opportunity to sample some of the most inventive, well-prepared, and visually impressive seafood in the city. Sesame-crusted tuna ($25) -- seared on the outside and raw on the inside -- garnished with wisps of sweet potato, or grilled Chilean sea bass served atop a pool of pineapple curry sauce ($25) make a dramatic visual impact. But these foods are also meant for eating, and have a favorable effect on the taste buds also. On one visit, I sampled a treat in the form of a seared halibut ($23) atop wilted rainbow chard and basil mashed potatoes. Both fish and sides were surrounded by a pool of foamy spiced butter that lovingly accented a perfectly cooked halibut. Crisp leaves of fried Thai basil decorated the dish, adding an extra layer of complexity to the whole ensemble.

But perhaps the most inspired meal I sampled at Kenichi was not marine born at all, but decidedly terrestrial. Their five-spiced Sika deer ($28) is one the best game dishes I have encountered here in Austin. These delicious morsels of filet -- sliced and fanned around a pile of squash puree -- were bursting with the complex aroma produced by the melding of fennel, anise, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper, and as tender as a beef tenderloin. Accented by a fruity demiglace, this dish rose up as a crescendo to the meal.

After such a fine climax, then, it seemed slightly sad to discover that, like so many restaurants, desserts here seem to be more of an afterthought that a integral part of the meal. The kitchen offers the ubiquitous crème brûlée ($9). Theirs is flavored with ginger. However, the version I tasted seemed a bit bland, and I had a hard time picking out ginger flavor in the pot, especially after the bold flavors of the meal. Their tempura fried ice cream ($10) strikes a harmonious balance between taste and texture. Dainty slices of cinnamon-nutmeg scented sponge cake enfold vanilla ice cream. The whole package is then battered and deep fried, and served with a swirl of strawberry sauce. But apart from these regular desserts and an occasional special, Kenichi does not offer true satisfaction to the gourmand with the insatiable sweet tooth. It is a shortcoming that I hope may be rectified in the coming months.

I have heard a number of people comment that the trendy atmosphere at this hip establishment is intimidating. To those people, I suggest that once seated in front of one of Kenichi's fashionably black place settings, their very professional waitstaff manages to make each person feel like a celebrity. The service here is informed, friendly, and attentive without being intrusive. I was impressed on two occasions when, after nosily inquiring about some of the ingredients in my meal, the servers, unable to answer on the spot, trotted off to the kitchen and promptly returned with an answer. This was in spite of the fact that the restaurant was packed. Indeed, the staff seem genuinely enthusiastic about the cuisine there, and are as eager to inform themselves about the foods they serve as they are to try them -- always an encouraging beacon.

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