Walking into Kai Restaurant can be likened to entering a peaceful Japanese garden. Painted cherry blossom trees stretch down glossy, black walls, and dark wooden tables with reed-covered booths provide a welcoming sense of warmth.
The Perez family, who owns and operates the restaurant, may be an unorthodox group to run a Japanese restaurant: They are originally from the Philippines. But they are certainly doing a fine job of it. “How did a Filipino family come to start a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar? I don’t know, ” owner and manager Michael Perez laughs. He and brother Mark, both Bishop State culinary arts grads, oversee day-to-day operations, while their four other siblings roll sushi, cook entrees or wait tables.
The family voted on the name when they opened in January of this year. “We ended up picking ‘Kai, ’ because in Japanese it means ‘ocean, ’ and in Filipino it means ‘friend, ’” Michael shares.
Kai’s food combines classic Japanese fare with whimsical artistic details. The playful seasonal dish idako nigiri — baby octopus — features tiny tentacles reaching up to diners and recognizable Asian ingredients in the sweet and tangy flavor. (Upon first glance, it may seem intimidating for a novice sushi patron, but dive in anyway: I promise you’ll be tempted to order a second helping.) Bring along your own alcoholic beverages to add to your dining experience.
All dishes are made-to-order with only the freshest, tastiest ingredients. “If my family or I won’t eat it, we’ll throw it away. We don’t care how much we spent on it — it has to be the best of what we have, ” Michael adds.
A smiling panda face (crafted from sweet sushi rice and nori) adorns every plate, exemplifying all that Kai is: a comfortable, friendly place with an imaginative, talented team at the helm.
On the Menu
A coral-hued sphere of red and white tuna boasts a crabmeat-tempura slaw center with a pop of masago fish eggs sprinkled on top. Spicy mayo and Sriracha add a welcome zest.
Thick noodles swim in a beefy broth and are topped with tofu, chicken or pork. A soft-boiled egg, sweet corn, woody bamboo shoots, a narutomaki disc and scallions add bursts of color and flavor.
Rolls filled with cucumber chunks and sweet crabmeat topped with creamy avocado surround eel sauce-soaked crawfish tails, crunchy sesame seeds and spicy mayo on this smooth sushi roll.
Fried Ice Cream
Kai’s best-selling dessert is a true classic of Asian cuisine: chocolate ice cream encased in a thin layer of warm, soft dough. A hint of cinnamon pairs nicely with the richness of the chocolate.
Kai Restaurant • 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. M – Th • 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. F / Sa
5045 Cottage Hill Road • 607-6454
text by ChelsEA wALLACE • photo by eLIZABETH gELINEAU