When I last visited Kihachi – almost 2 years ago despite it being less than a mile from my door – I stated “from the moment you enter the door to the moment you leave the experience is challenging yet simplified, complex yet refined, formal yet fun, and all-in-all wonderful.” but after that visit I’m afraid I fell out of love with the simple elegance of simplified cuisines and raw fishes…between work, studies, and living in the Midwest where there is a logistic limitation to the freshness of the fish I’d spent more time honing my palate in the formal realm of America’s best restaurants while on vacation than enjoying a culinary diamond in the rough in my own back yard. With that noted, I have to say I was excited when a colleague suggested a return visit to Kihachi – it is not often a friend has the money or inclination for such a place.
Planning around our schedules we decided Tuesday at 6:00 – the restaurant’s Mon-Sat opening time – would be ideal and arrived before the sign flipped from closed to open. The first persons to arrive in the restaurant we opted for counter seating and the restaurant quickly filled behind us – a situation no doubt somewhat due to Bourdain’s recently aired episode of No Reservations (actually filmed in November.) Greeted by the same two ladies who functioned as my translators/servers on the last visit water was filled promptly and service was exactly on par with previous, though items progressed from the kitchen slightly slower given the large crowd. Selecting between the “set menu” and the daily specials we each opted for four courses and then sat back to chat and watch Chef Mike’s masterful knife work. Sitting next to a pair of Japanese females the chef showed his preference for the language of his ancestors talking almost exclusively with the pair throughout the meal – he certainly seemed more personable on this visit than last.
For our first courses my dining companion ordered the baby octopus of my last visit while I opted for something new, a food I’d not yet encountered - the nightly special of Sea Cucumber with Melon, Lemon, and Seaweed in garlic soy broth. With a texture somewhere between Octopus and an actual cucumber I found the mildly sweet and snappy protein quite excellent while the mélange of sweet, sour, and salty in varying textures provided for a very appealing contrast – a well thought out dish, and a memorable one as well.
Our second courses would see my dining partner get two courses – the geoduck with miso and scallions (another dish I ordered on my previous visit) and the chef’s arranged tempura plate of fried japanese sweet potato, pumpkin, lotus root, shrimp, and octopus. For myself, the second course would entail my favorite dish of the night – a simple Otoro Roll with Ginger and Wasabi. Wound tightly and with just enough wasabi to add some heat the Fatty Tuna Belly was amongst the best I’ve had anywhere – and at $20 for twelve pieces much cheaper than I’ve had anywhere, as well.
Arriving shortly after my second course would be another sushi dish – this one much more interestingly paired. A box-style sushi that was interesting to watch the chef prepare, Sake Sea Bream with Lime and Mint would prove a very intoxicating concoction – the sweet fish painted with a bit of sake and the other constituents exuding hints of a mojito, but tamed enough by the savory fish and mild rice to prevent any one flavor from dominating the plate. Paired with a passion fruit infused soy sauce this dish was excellent.
Chatting some more while the burners were firing and the kitchen was working at a rapid pace we watched multiple other items come from the kitchen – fried mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, pork cheeks, a fried soft shell crab, amongst others. Shortly thereafter our main courses would arrive – simple, straight forward, salt-grilled Ayu. Served whole with the head on we each started from the tail and dissected upwards (tricky with chopsticks) identifying glandular meats as we went along. Salty, savory, perfectly crisp skin – and with liver and cheeks that trumped even the flesh…my only advice would be order this but skip the stomach.
When it was all said and done the four courses, tax, and tip rang in at just over $50 – certainly not cheap to say the least, but certainly not for a meal that you can find anywhere else in Columbus either. With all the debate going on about Bourdain’s strip malls and Applebee’s comment I still contest that I largely agree – but I’m also glad there are places like Kihachi in town to keep those of us who want a bit more from our cuisine happy. At some point I need to come back for the Omakase – perhaps when Uni season is back. Sushi restaurant or not, I still contest that Kihachi is the only place worth visiting for raw (or minimally cooked) fish in Central Ohio.