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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012

Third Ward's Stellar Kanpai

Terrific menu features sushi, Japanese fusion

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In 2008, Brian Park opened Wasabi in Brookfield. The results of the restaurant's Japanese fusion cuisine were dazzling. Now Park has opened Kanpai, located in the spot formerly occupied by Nanakusa in Milwaukee's Third Ward.

Kanpai retains Nanakusa's unique sushi bar topped with abstract woodwork. Similarly styled grills are now positioned at the windows. Booths have replaced some of the high-top tables, making the seating much more comfortable. The traditional Japanese dining room remains, as does the refined, uncluttered ambiance.

Kanpai continues Park's fusion theme, but the menu here differs in many ways from the one in Brookfield. The elaborate sushi rolls are at both places, but there are no full-sized entrees at Kanpai. Instead, the restaurant uses a “small plate” format. Expect the unexpected.

Wood-grill tuna salad ($11.50) features tuna and salad as separate entities on the same plate. The slices of tuna are served like sashimi, lightly grilled on the edges and barely cooked in the middle. The small bowl of salad is described as vegetable paper—thin, nearly translucent sheets of cucumber, carrot and red beet dressed with a gentle vinaigrette. It's very unique.

Among the nigiri sushi is buri toro ($7-$10), the belly of hamachi (also called yellowtail). This is serious sushi with subtle flavors—and it's so tender it nearly melts in the mouth. The signature rolled sushis will run from $12 to $22. But the tate makis (rolled with the seaweed on the outside) are just $6 to $8. One option is shrimp tempura. Tempura batter can easily lose its crispness when surrounded by moist sushi rice, but this version features a layer of julienned cucumber that adds flavor and maintains the tempura's crispness. No detail is too small.

The small plates venture into uncharted territory. Kanpai carpaccio ($12) features slices of raw white fish arranged in the shape of a star. Each piece has a leaf of cilantro and a tiny dab of hot red pepper puree. Underneath is a blend of yuzu and lemon juice. A small vegetable paper salad is placed in the center.

Wagyu jalapeno poppers ($7) are peppers stuffed with ultra-tender wagyu minced beef, cheddar cheese and cream cheese and served in a ring of slices. In the center are thin pepper strips coated in tempura batter. The dish also offers perky wasabi mayo and a swirl of teriyaki. These are much better than the jalapeno poppers of chain restaurants.

The stuffed calamari ($8.50) are a delight, with slices of calamari tube filled with miso braised pork. It is served with forbidden black rice. The grains are tiny and tend to stick together; squid ink intensifies the color and adds its unique flavor. The rice is even better than the calamari—a must to try.

A few Korean items also appear on the menu. Galbi ($10.50) are slices of short rib that the menu describes as Los Angeles style. This would be the Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown. The slices come with a delicious soy sauce and ginger marinade and are served over a bed of yu choy. Yu choy is an edible plant rarely seen on local menus.

You can expect to find live seafood in the tanks near the reception area. I hope to see uni (sea urchin), which are exceptional when very fresh. Remember that this is a very new restaurant. There currently is no liquor license, but a wide variety is expected when the license arrives.

The menu, both traditional and experimental, is excellent for those who savor Asian flavors. Kanpai is a stellar addition to the Third Ward's dining scene.

Kanpai

408 E. Chicago St.

(414) 220-1155

$$$

Handicap Accessible

kanpainow.com