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On Sake Ground
The Third Ward welcomes Japanese dining back to a familiar address.

Assorted sashmi from Kanpai.
Photo by Chris Kessler

Eleven years ago, the directive was given to wear black to a Third Ward address, 408 E. Chicago St., because a hip place called Nanakusa had just set the local dining world on fire. A striking wood sculpture above the sushi bar and the austere furnishings defined the Zen space. Nanakusa ended its run in 2011, but on one of its last days in business, Taikyo “Brian” Park visited and marveled over its physical beauty.

Park, who runs Brookfield’s Wasabi Sushi Lounge, now holds the keys to the Third Ward property. Besides installing a crisscrossed wood motif in the windows  (tying in with the sushi bar sculpture), he hired two head chefs and dropped a little coin on the interior – adding booths, partitions and turning “stylishly Spartan” into “teeming with tables.” The Izakaya concept – a Japanese bar that also serves food – has not been a common local sight, so Park figured he had a niche.

A few weeks after its August opening, Kanpai – a word synonymous with “cheers” – was easing into its niche. The list of sakes was growing. The pulse of the kitchen was throbbing. But the service was too much like the first days of serving school – timid and awkward, with confusion over orders and ill-timed delivery of food. But friendly, nonetheless.

The soft, dreamy, tan hues, the slicing and dicing of raw fish, the sipping of sake. I’m quickly reminded of how well a Japanese restaurant works in the grab-bag of neighborhood restaurants. The menu doesn’t duplicate the deluxe sushi and sashimi dinners served at Park’s 4-year-old Brookfield restaurant. Kanpai offers a pared-down Japanese menu, focusing mostly on small plates with a fusion kick (such as the hoisin pork chop with mustard sauce and caramelized cinnamon Fuji apple, $10.50) and a nice assortment of raw choices. From the sushi bar, you can invest $5-$11 for two or three pieces of sashimi (raw fish), or spend well into the $10s for the extravagant nori rolls, tempura-ed, sauced and sometimes flamed. Nothing here is a teeming plate of gluttony, but rather displays of edible artistry grouped in twos and threes.

I would not be the first to call a single piece of sashimi a jewel. A soft, fleshy jewel. Head sushi chef Marcus Lee got the Kanpai job for several reasons. Late of Nobu Restaurant in San Diego, Lee impressed the owner with his skillful handling of mackerel (a fussy fish). He also makes his own tamago (Japanese omelet), commonly served as nigiri (fish and rice together) or in maki. (It’s easier and cheaper for Japanese restaurants to buy commercial tamago.) Pieces of fatty tuna in clean, matchbook-sized cuts stop time. It’s the simple unvarnished freshness of the fish. It’s the same with that shiny, pearlescent mackerel, which can sometimes seem just past prime. That’s not the case here, where the fish leaves its sinewyness behind.

There was a time when placing a slice from a maki roll into your mouth would not tax your jaw. But large, caterpillary Signature Rolls are the rage – the more extravagant, the better. Often, they’re better to look at than to eat; the sauces simply become too much. The Red Dragon ($18) is a sight. Tuna tartare, soft-shell crab, jalapeño peppers, spicy mayo, avocado, flying fish roe. Each component is tightly woven into the dragon wheel. And each bite is a bold breath befitting a dragon.

It’s no surprise, given Kanpai’s relation to Wasabi, that the kitchen menu offers the best reason to clink glasses and drink to someone else’s health. The galbi ($10.50) – Korean soy-marinated, grilled short ribs – are appropriately tender and marbled, the rib slices served with grilled baby bok choy. At the same meal was a tray of three elegant, symmetrical piles of orzo, each topped with a day-boat scallop and a smidge of mango salsa ($12.50). 

Even the restaurant’s eccentric take on jalapeño poppers is hard not to like. The peppers meet ground Wagyu beef, cheddar, cream cheese and tempura batter, then take a turn in the deep-fryer ($7). Add in wasabi mayo and teriyaki sauce, and it’ll be an Altoids night.

Indelibly imprinted in my brain’s photo album is the stuffed calamari ($8.50). Miso-braised pork fills the half-dozen rings, which get a further boost of flavor from minced cilantro and intense hoisin sauce. But that’s not the half of it. The nutty, crunchy bed of black rice underneath, the grains injected with squid ink, makes “complex” sound like an understatement.

These culinary distractions can soften the service blips – to a point. (So can enough bottles of Sapporo.) But let’s hope they don’t have to. The space struck design gold 11 years ago, and there’s no better Zen occupant than a Japanese joint.

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