Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes


Mini Restaurant Reviews
short takes and editorials

Kampai House

by Robert Rich, November 2006

Sometimes I go out to try a new restaurant, and after dinner I can't quite figure out what I think. Sometimes, this occurs when a restaurant can't quite decide which of it's own strengths to focus on. When restaurants don't know their own strengths, they sometimes use a shotgun approach, trying to please a wide swath of the public with various disparate features. When a restaurant bills itself as "fusion" then I have a good clue that such confusion could reign.

Kampai House advertises Japanese fusion, and the roomy modernist interior feels like a cross between a nightclub, casual dining room and sushi bar, with a high-tech wink towards a traditional tatami room along one side. The long yellow laquered sushi bar curves like a giant surf board, with two-level open kitchen behind: sushi chefs in front, and gleaming stainless steel glass-enclosed prep kitchen half-exposed behind them.

In a bizarre post-modern decorative touch, several large flat screen video monitors decorate the room, both above the sushi bar and along the side. Cameras point at the hands of the sushi chefs, as their handiwork echoes upon screens across the room. (I think a video of a past sushi-making session was playing at the time of our visit.)

Upon sitting at the sushi bar, our greeter asked if we wanted any cocktails from their specialty mixed drink menu, and explained that Kampai was trying to create a fusion of Japanese traditonal ingredients with western style platings. She graciously talked us through the long laminated menus, showing us the back of one card with sushi, another with fusion house specials, another with lunch items. The slightly confusing menus echoed the splatter of ideas that mingled together in the room. Yet our server handled the whole mash gracefully and with friendly aplomb.

We ate lightly this first visit, ordering only a nigiri sushi platter ($19) and seared duck salad ($12). This gave us samples both of the traditional and fusion menus. Sitting at the bar, we could watch as the three sushi chefs assembled some extraordinarily beautiful orders for others in the sparsley populated restaurant. We saw a plate of sashimi arranged in a row of raw fish slices interspersed with slices of kiwi fruit, edged with double lines of a mayonaise-mustard blend and Sriracha sauce (a spicy tomato based sauce from Thailand -- or so it appeared, it may have been ketchup.) Another sushi combination came plated on a white elongated curving hybrid between a bowl and a plate, with stacks of lacy shredded white daikon and sculptural vertical decorations of green onion.

The menu described our Donald's duck salad as "duck, asian greens, rice noodles, and myoga ginger, with spicy mustard dressing." What we got resembled a Caesar salad, with chopped romaine lettuce and a slightly spicy creamy dressing. Five or six thin slices of seared duck breast lay on top, with five-spice seasoning. The duck was tender and savory, making a flavorful counterpoint to the greens. The rice noodles added a neutral addition.

The nigiri platter came beautifully plated, with a carnival of multicolored fish, sprouts (pea or mustard?), shredded daikon and a real shiso leaf. For those who eat sushi and recognize those little green plastic leafy shapes, shiso leaves are what those plastic cut-outs replace. Shiso tastes like a cross between parsley and mint, with a hint of pepper and basil. It freshens the palate perfectly with sushi, and I like to see a restaurant that uses the real thing.

I was a bit surprised to see draft beers priced at $5 (small - about 12 oz.) and $8 (large - about 20 oz.) Beer and sushi make a perfect combination, and I think Kampai would have more sales if they priced their beers a dollar or two less. The wine list has a few affordable choices that would pair well with this food, such as Covey Run Gewürtztraminer for $22. Hot sake starts at $5 and $8 for small and large, with specialty sakes range from $13 to $65.

Overall I wanted to like Kampai, and I thought their presentation and service were excellent. The price felt a bit steep in the end, when matched to the flavors, but not far out of line in today's market. Although I wasn't totally wowed (and I don't feel an urge to return often) over time I could learn to appreciate this chic urban fish-out-of-water, sitting in a strip mall in the middle of Sunnyvale. But I could live without the TV screens.

Kampai House
595 E El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA 94087
(408) 830-0628