Kanji Sushi and Sake Bar has plenty going for it. Uhmmm, for one thing, it's very big. Where most neighbouring restaurants like Chantecler Restaurant
and Grand Electric Restaurant
rely heavily on turnover because they can barely seat 20 patrons at a time, Kanji might be able to triple that number and still make room for a gallery installation and a movie screening.
While sipping on some inventive cocktai
ls with plum wine and sake you can't help but notice how the room comes alive with mitered wood-panels, Windsor-back chairs and Edison bulbs hanging from knotted rope, a hip marriage of vintage and industrial modern furnishings with the natural.
A slim, clipped together menu features mostly raw and cold dishes like a lovely seaweed salad ($4) with a nice hint of sesame oil atop shredded daikon and red seaweed. A stunning start. Beautiful presentation continues with a crab salad ($8) foiled only by some culinary cleverness. Slivers of cucumber are so long you'll be tempted to roll them with a fork and spoon much like you would with a pasta. Tasty? Absolutely, but with a generous portion of shredded blue crab, and green and hijiki seaweed, why dumb it down to a deli-counter slaw with such a cloying creamy dressing? Not to mention smothering the seafood's natural brininess.
A tuna tartare ($12) with avocado swims in a pool of ponzu topped with julienned nori and a single crispy wonton (pardon me for being a stickler, but the menu does read "wontons"). A necessary black caviar garnish for some requisite saltiness is curiously AWOL. It only took a few waiters to get it fixed, but it definitely saves this dish.
The kitchen's real creativity, however, is showcased with the next two dishes: sushi tortillas ($10) are indeed top notch, perhaps, dare I say, better than rival Grand Electric's a few doors east. Four mouthfuls pack a savoury explosion heaped with delicately sliced tuna and salmon beneath thin shavings of red onion, jalapeÃƒÂ±o, avocado, cilantro, diced grape tomato, wasabi mayo and eel sauce. More intriguing is a fish 'n' chip ($5) that manages to add some fun to its fusion foundation. The perfectly-formed baked potato chips are so exact, you'll think they came out of a Pringles can. Topped with spicy, creamy salmon and rice seasoning, this is a hands-down winner.
For the best deal, go for the Treasure Island ($10). Seriously, how they scooped a metric tonne of tuna, salmon and white fish into a halved avocado is mind boggling. This could be your Omega-3 and/or mercury fill for the year. A zesty miso mustard sauce adds a welcome flavour dimension, but this is the first dish out of the kitchen that looks a wee bit sloppy. Even with some fried leeks and red caviar, it gets difficult to distinguish between the dishes as many of the same ingredients keep showing up.
Traditional chicken karaage ($7) often disappoints with too much grease and more cartilage than meat. And though Kanji's appear to be more fleshy and certainly less fatty, a microwaved frozen nugget would have more taste and texture. An order of gyoza ($7) fares far worse. These flaccid, barely-browned pockets of barely-seasoned meat are a huge, soul-crushing letdown. How can anyone with even a modicum of skill get something as simple as a potsticker wrong? And before you sink your teeth into four chilli shrimp ($7) be sure to have your water glasses filled and refilled. Sophisticated spicing aside, the seafood is mushy served on spears of under- and over-cooked asparagus. Has the kitchen had a mid meal shift change?
Even if a Japanese pancake ($8) is chockfull of seafood, it's smothered in a sauce and topped with truckloads of bonito flakes the size of long pencil shavings. And despite the fact that these last few dishes are from the "hot" menu, all are barely lukewarm.
Chuck e Cheese for dessert anyone? It may as well have been. Sweet potato cheesecake ($9)? Fried ice cream ($8)? Tiramisu ($8)? Sue me, but I expected something a bit less clichÃƒÂ© or Mandarin-y. And though there might be nothing wrong with a tried-and-true cheesecake, the fried black sesame ice cream is encased in such a hard crust you may never penetrate it. And if you're unlucky enough to actually break in, it'll just ooze with melted grey matter. I'm not sure the ravenous raccoons in my neighbourhood would even touch it.
First time restaurateur Rob Banton and chef James Gao, a sous chef at Nobu, or so we hear, were certainly smart enough to introduce sushi to this block. Yet in spite of some spectacular plates early on in the meal, Kanji's uneven execution, ingredient replication, and what-were-they-thinking dessert selections has us a bit bewildered. Oh yeah, one more thing: when someone leaves a message about a reservation, the polite thing to do would be to call back.