Stop, Drop and Roll

Kawa Japanese Restaurant makes a strong raw calling in the new-restaurant-deprived North Shore.

It was called Sushi Magic. This kit promised to turn the stickiest of fingers into a nori-rolling pro. If I had only opened the box. But my Sushi Magic, a well-intentioned gift, ended up on a yard sale table (where it didn’t sell).

There’s nothing like exquisite sushi, nori rolls and other raw wonders served up by the professionals. That’s my thought as I watch the men (always men) behind the sushi bar at Kawa, Whitefish Bay’s newest and thrillingest restaurant, if you gravitate to vinegared rice, toro (fatty tuna) and sheets of seaweed and pickled ginger.

Takoyaki, a Japanese street food, gets refined treatment at Kawa. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Takoyaki, a Japanese street food, gets refined
treatment at Kawa. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Kawa dramatically changed the tenor of 325 W. Silver Spring Dr. – a former Eastern European diner and a bagel shop. The flesh tones of fish seem to respond to sleek interiors with black banquettes, shiny white tables with an eye-catching inlaid marble pattern, sparkly backsplashes and silver-toned pillars.

The sushi and kitchen chefs know their business. You need not stray from the appetizer menus (cold and hot), a gold mine of noms. Take the takoyaki ($6), round baked balls of wheat dough filled with octopus. Sounds weird; tastes supremely delicious. The appetizer, a popular Japanese street food, is drizzled with mayo and crisscrossed with strips of seaweed. A narrow white plate holds a pond of tart, citrusy broth and a half-dozen pieces of yellowtail (Japanese amberjack, $8) topped with sliced jalapeno and a dab of fish roe. Outstanding from the first bite to the last. The tuna dumplings ($9) are twin beggars purses bursting at the seams with tuna tartare and avocado. These purses are the texture of butter, only the tip-tops have the textural twist of wasabi tobiko (flying fish roe), honey wasabi sauce and crunch (tempura bits). Relying on the pristine quality of the tuna and bright, tart flavor of the citrus vinaigrette, the pepper tuna ($9) straddles the raw-and-cooked line.

As in most Japanese restaurants, there’s a dividing line betwixt the maki rolls – the plain-Jane rolls (tuna; shrimp tempura; California) and the heavily sauced, crunched, and flaked special rolls, which have a column all their own. The more flamboyant the costume, the better? That’s sometimes true. I seek out things different, not necessarily excessive. Fan the Flame ($13) illustrates the point. Brown rice takes the place of white inside the roll, along with white tuna, smoked jalapeno, scallion and avocado. Tuna forms the exterior of the roll. Another unusual flavor I’d come back to is the Hawaii roll ($14), which incorporates shrimp tempura, white rice and banana inside, and crabmeat and soybean paper outside.

It’s only natural to venture into the cooked – and crunchier – parts of the menu. The tempura appetizer ($7) comes in a cone-shaped receptacle, the light batter covering the shrimp (or chicken) and vegetables still sizzling. We greedily dip the pieces in tentsuyu, a dipping sauce of dashi, mirin and soy. Kawa does a creamy version of beef negimaki ($9), the “meat maki roll” of Japanese restaurants. The broiled beef, wrapped around crisp scallions, also holds a trace of cream cheese that makes this moister than typical negimaki. Use your chopsticks to dip the rolls in thick teriyaki sauce.

It’s here where you can go back and settle deeper into raw (plates from the sushi bar top out with the sushi/sashimi party boat, at $73), move further into cooked (with tonkatsu – deep-fried pork – $15, with miso soup, salad and rice) or cry uncle and stop altogether. Quality food and prices are easily worth returning to.

Kawa Japanese Restaurant: 325 W. Silver Spring Dr., 414-249-5750. Hours: Lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Entrées (kitchen and sushi bar) $10-$73. Service: Friendly; food retrieved and delivered as it’s ready. Reservations: Accepted.


‘Stop, Drop and Roll’ appears in the November 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the November issue on newsstands Nov. 2

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.