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If Yours Truly ever gets too dimes to rub together, one of the first plane tickets I buy will surely be to Japan. All the “Mysterious Orient” baloney aside, I’ve managed to convince myself that there’s something to be had there that you can’t quite get here. You know: something other than Godzilla and panty vending machines.
Until one of those Nigerian e-mail scams pays off for me, however, the closest I’m going to get to the Land of the Rising Sun is dollar rentals of “The Seven Samurai” and grabbing some inland sushi at Little Rock’s growing crop of Japanese cuisine joints.
The newest of these is North Little Rock’s Kanpai Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi. Situated in a just-constructed building across from Hooters restaurant on East McCain Boulevard (and just around the corner from soon-to-open sister restaurant Montana Grill) Kanpai is the latest in a mini-boom of steak n’ sushi joints the metro area has seen in recent years (just up the street, for instance, is Crazy Hibachi Co., and Koto is now open in West Little Rock). Kanpai’s owner also owns Shogun on Cantrell Road in the Riverdale area of Little Rock and Kobe on Financial Centre Parkway in West Little Rock.
When it comes to space and decor, it’s hard to beat Kanpai. For anyone who knows hibachi-style cooking only from rather smoked-out old warhorse Shogun (once THE only place for hibachi around here), Kanpai is sure to be a breath of fresh air. The place is spacious and open, with a koi pond and an arched bridge in the middle of the floor. A classic sushi bar greets you just through the doors, and there are more than enough in-the-round hibachi grills to keep the line at the door down on busy Saturday nights.
On a recent trip at lunch, companion and I decided to sample the sushi offerings. From the list of more than 50 items, we tried the smoked salmon ($4), the Spider Roll ($8.50) and the Caterpillar Roll ($8). For the money, the portions we received were excellent: the rolls big and the salmon generous. The highlight had to be the salmon, which was excellently flavored on a mound of sticky rice. Less impressive was the Caterpillar Roll (though we did like the eel sauce), but the Spider Roll, with fried softshell crab and other goodies, was great.
We also had the lunch box, which for less than $10 offered a California roll, salad and four nigiri pieces (the usual salmon, tuna, yellow tail and shrimp) and three pretty good dumplings. Still making a feast out of lunch, we also ordered the lunch version of the shrimp and vegetable tempura, which was pretty basic compared with the same dish at all the other similar restaurants. We’ve had bigger tempura shrimp, but there were plenty of lightly fried vegetables too, and the complementary dipping sauce. Looking back, the sushi at lunch was the shining star.
Soon after our lunch outing, we tried Kanpai after dark, sampling their hibachi offerings. After some nice appetizers — a green salad with a sweet ginger dressing, a bowl of flavorful soup and some of the ubiquitous fried rice (though very tasty here) — it was on to the main course: While companion tried the Shrimp and Chicken ($17.95, which she shared with Junior), I went for the Sukiyaki Beef ($15.95).
After what seemed a longish wait, our chef finally appeared, and the show began. This reviewer believes that fully eight-tenths of eating at a hibachi place is in the spectacle, and we weren’t disappointed. Junior — 6 years old — marveled as the chef flipped shrimp tails and made a tiny, flaming volcano out of an onion. Junior was totally enthralled, and now wants to be a fry cook when he grows up (thanks, Kanpai — I was counting on Dr. Junior to kick in for my retirement. Guess he can bring home doggie bags for me and companion).
As for the two-tenths of the experience to be found in the food, we weren’t disappointed there, either. The shrimp was buttery and the chicken expertly glazed. Meanwhile, the Sukiyaki Beef was also good, with a slight sweet-and-sour glaze over beef sliced to the consistency of that on a Philly Cheesesteak. Great stuff.
What we didn’t like so much was the $4 they charged us for eats-like-a-bird Junior to share his Parental Unit’s chicken and shrimp. Somebody’s got to wash his plate, we suppose.
While Kanpai is beautifully appointed, there is only so much you can do with hibachi and sushi. What I’m saying is: I’ve had both these meals before, and will probably have them again. That shouldn’t stop you from giving Kanpai a try if you’re in the mood for a special night out, however. When it comes to hibachi, it has rarely been the food that had us talking about the meal long after the check was paid.
Steak and Sushi
4120 E. McCain Blvd., NLR
For the birthday boy or girl, a call ahead (and a very reasonable $8.95) nets you a chorus of the Japanese equivalent of “Happy Birthday to You,” a framed picture of your group and a special dessert for the lucky victim. As if growing older could be any MORE embarrassing.
Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily; Dinner, 4-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Moderate to expensive prices, all credit cards accepted; full bar; reservations accepted.