I’ve been trying to figure this place out since it opened, and my conclusion is that while these guys understand food and really know how to cook, they have no concept of running a restaurant beyond what goes on in the kitchen.
Let’s look at their whole “fusion” concept. Dictionary.com defines “fusion” as combining usually widely differing ethnic or regional ingredients, styles, or techniques. Kenji’s menu says it’s a “hibachi and Asian bistro,” while one of their ads describes the restaurant as a “fusion of sushi and French Asian cuisine.” Another ad says they offer “a fusion of Asian, French, Brazilian, and other cultural food offerings from around the globe.” Their Facebook page doesn’t say much of anything at all. If you think Kenji might be a little confused about their theme, just go sometime and witness it for yourself.
When I think fusion, I think of combining different cooking styles and ingredients in discrete dishes. Kenji, on the other hand, is more like having separate Thai, Japanese and Chinese restaurants all under roof with a few random continental European dishes thrown in (I’m sorry, but simply adding escargot, Belgian fries and asparagus with goat cheese to a long list of standard Asian appetizers does not “fusion” cooking make). True enough, you can get such Thai staples as pad Thai, tom yum soup, and masamam curry. You can also get your choice of meat flambéed before you and nine of your closest friends at a hibachi table. You can get sushi as well as both standard (American-)Chinese dishes such as beef and broccoli and moo shu pork plus more upscale fare like Peking duck and an interesting take on walnut shrimp (more on that later). Finally, you can get French-based dishes such as the “grilled rock (rack?) of lamb,” which comes with baked potatoes, eggplant and red onion, and the curiously named “fusion filet mignon,” which is a steak with a brandy mushroom sauce.
Look, if you want “fusion” cuisine, try ginger-crusted filet mignon on a panang-spiked polenta cake topped with a lemongrass béarnaise … or five-spice sweet potato gratin or mango-glazed spicy wings served with papaya salad and tempura cucumber spears. Goat cheese crab rangoons. Gari-infused crème brulee. A hibachi burger with kim chee mayo, mung bean sprouts and crispy char sui pork. That’s fusion. Kenji is not fusion. Kenji is a collection of random stuff shoe-horned into a single menu.
But … is it tasty? Yes, it is. Well, mostly.
If I were to tell someone from out of town to eat here, I’d tell them to stick to the sushi. Every time I’ve ordered sushi at Kenji, it’s been generally flawless and always beautiful. It’s also in the sushi department where you see the restaurant actually flirting with fusion cuisine. Howard’s roll is a hearty combination of yellowtail, lobster, bass and “crunchy white fish” accompanied with a wasabi basil sauce. I found some white fish in the roll, but it wasn’t crunchy – the whole roll was dusted with panko, so maybe that’s what they were talking about? I’ve never had basil with sushi before, but the flavors married up perfectly. The soy paper in place of the noriwas also a nice, modern touch. The passion roll is similarly impressive, sporting seared peppered tuna and fresh mango topped with a spicy crab-seaweed salad and what was billed as a Thai chile sauce. I expected the mango to be too tough to work in a sushi roll, but it was softly ripe and gave the whole roll a fresh flavor explosion that’s universally absent from the typical fish + avocado + cream cheese + spicy mayo concoctions. The “spicy” Thai sauce that came with the passion roll was anything but – loaded with flying fish roe, it was merely a reddish mayo concoction I pushed off to the side (the roll was great without it).
Be forewarned that the sushi is pricier than what you’ll find at other local restaurants. Rolls are generally in the $14-16 range. But, I would say these are worth it. The quality of the fish, the effective marriage of flavors and the care taken with the presentation is light years beyond what other area sushi restaurants are plating. And, yes, I know these aren’t traditional sushi rolls – you won’t find them anywhere in Tokyo – but I’m a fan of artistic and inventive sushi with bolder flavors (and I’m so over yellowtail and scallion rolls).
Kenji has a pretty good list of wines by the glass with 17 choices by my count (plus three plum wine options and a host of premium sakes). Most of the glasses of wine are $7, and pours are generous. Their eponymous Kenji Fusion cocktail is surprisingly good. I say “surprisingly” because it has Hypnotiq in it – a trendy, useless liquor if I’ve ever seen one – and is a glowing nuclear green. The cocktail also has midori, mandarin vodka and pineapple juice in it. Despite the Hypnotiq and all the other sweet additions, the drink is actually light, melony and refreshing.
As I mentioned earlier, the appetizers are standard Asian fare for the most part (edamame, gyoza, tempura, spring rolls, and so on). One of the more esoteric options is the roti canai, which is an Indian butter-fried flatbread served with a curry sauce that has become popular in Malaysia. I’ve never been to Malaysia (or India, for that matter), so I ordered it. What I got was a folded flatbread shimmering in a butter sheen (the Google images I found tend to suggest it’s supposed to be a bit drier) paired with a small bowl of Thai red curry with some chunks of chicken and potato. I have no idea if this is what you get in Malaysia when you order the dish or what … but it was pretty good. Of course, if you throw that much butter at anything, I’m going to be in your camp. And I lovelovelove Thai curries. So, the roti canai was a win, even if the curry sauce was pretty light in the heat department. Kenji’s traditional Thai tom yum soup has excellent lemon grass essence and just the right amount of kick (take a survey of local Thai joints, and you’ll see what a tough balance this is to strike). For $4, you get a seriously huge bowl of it.
There are a few more cracks in the veneer when it comes to the entrees. Take, for example, the “crispy seafood,” which is billed as fried shrimp and scallops with honey glazed walnuts “in spicy onion sauce on side” (one might wonder how something is “in” a sauce served “on the side,” but – as explained in my Thai Papaya review – I actually give Asian joints points for screwed up English). This is really a riff on the walnut shrimp dish you’ll find at better Chinese restaurants (i.e., none around here) which typically involves lightly fried shrimp tossed in a light mayo-like sauce. Kenji’s version is nice because they omit the mayo sauce, which can quickly overwhelm the dish in the hands of an unskilled cook. The sauce that accompanies the shrimp and scallops is neither spicy nor particularly onion flavored. It’s really just a sherry-spiked stir-fry sauce that’s tasty enough, but nothing to write home about. The dish is also served in a fried tortilla shell a la shopping-mall taco salad, so … fusion? Not so much. What is excellent, however, is the battering and frying job of the seafood – it’s easily some of the best you’ll find in the area, which is no small thing considering the fact we have restaurants here whose sole cooking devices are deep fryers. The batter is light, but crisp, so that it compliments the seafood, rather than overwhelming it.
Another mis-described dish is the “hot spicy beef.” Yes, it was served warm, but there was nothing even remotely spicy about it. I mean, I couldn’t even detect a hint of black pepper. What I got was a beef and green bean stir-fry. So let’s set aside the “hot spicy” business and look at it as what it is: a great “Chinese take-out” dish that is head and shoulders above what you’re going to get at any of the local Chinese take-outs (which are surprisingly good … and exceedingly prevalent). The quality of beef was excellent – super tender and flavorful. The beans were fresh and crisp. The sauce was a perfect balance of salty sweetness without being sticky, cloying or otherwise slimy, as much Chinese take-out is. Even the rice that came with it was a beautiful and aromatic long-grain affair.
When Kenji does get creative, they confuse folks. It could possibly be due to the lack of quotation marks on their menu. For example, the Kenji salad is described as being composed of crab, cucumber, lettuce and avocado in a spicy dressing. What you get is a salad topped with a shredded and fried “straw” of sorts mounded on top. The straw is, in fact, shredded and fried crab. And it’s very, very tasty. But it’s one of those things you taste and think, “Hmm … what is that?” Judging by the Urbanspoon reviews and, *ahem* the experience of one of my dining companions, this dish might be a bridge too far for Hampton Roads. “I don’t see any crab in here,” my companion launched at the hapless waitress. Said waitress conferred with the manager and dutifully reported back that the fried straw was the crab. See, in Washington, D.C., Michel Richard can dish out a bowl of slow-cooked onions that look like noodles and call it “low-carb o nara.” The Washington Post and every restaurant reviewer in a hundred-mile radius will gush about Richard’s genius and sense of humor. In Hampton Roads, you’ll get a collective “uhh…wut?” Here, if you say “crab” on your menu, you’d better freakin’ plate a bunch of chunks of no-kidding readily identifiable crab (or even krab), because “nuance” is just French for communism in these parts. Also.
Now, fried crab business aside, the salad ultimately bombs because of the “spicy dressing.” It is, in fact, spicy. It also consists of bucket-loads of flying fish roe. I have nothing against the teeny orange fish eggs, but they are so dense in the dressing that it has a sandy/gritty texture to it which pretty much ruined the whole salad. I would ditch the roe entirely and go with a lighter sesame-based dressing on this one (and I would put something on the menu about “shredded and fried crab”).
While their standard Chinese and Thai dishes are pretty fantastic, Kenji stumbles when it flirts with actual “fusion.” Take, for example, their “chicken and shrimp Bahamas,” which was touted by one waitress as her favorite. Now imagine you are at home steaming a chicken breast when a B-52 armed with gallons of pineapple chunks swimming in super sweet sauce carpet-bombs your neighborhood, so that everyone on your street (plus your chicken breast) is swimming in three feet of pineapple syrup. And it all happened before you put any salt on the chicken breast. That’s pretty much effect this dish delivers. The accompanying rice has been tossed with pineapple chunks, resulting in a bland pineapple-scented starch, which sort of undercuts the sweetness of the chicken. On the upside, the serving size is rather small.
Pineapple chicken aside, the food is generally expertly prepared and very, very good. Pretty much everything else about the restaurant, however, is a massive trainwreck. And I think that’s why the online reviews seem so bipolar. If you can look past everything I’m about to talk about and focus on the food, you’ll be happy. If, on the other hand, you think a restaurant should be more than the plate in front of you, you will probably be somewhat distressed.
So, Kenji has issues. But where to begin? How about the front door. You walk in and the hostess stares at you from behind a plastic to-go cup with “hostess tips” scrawled across it.
Tips for the hostess?
Kenji’s waitstaff is a veritable army of 17-year-old young women. They are unfailingly cheery and upbeat, but more inconsistent when it comes to knowledge of the menu. So far, every waitress I’ve had has been incapable of controlling the timing of the dishes. It seems Kenji’s system is that the waitress puts in the food orders to the kitchen, then the kitchen staff brings the food to the tables. Since the kitchen staff has no idea what’s going on at your table, they tend to serve dishes as they are prepared – which generally means you either get everything all at once, or you get your entrée while you’re in the middle of your appetizer. On a recent visit, I ordered a cocktail, an appetizer, a sushi roll and an entrée. They all arrived at exactly the same time, which meant I looked like one those people who treat all-you-can-eat buffets as an extreme sporting event. Another irritant is that the folks who bring out the food are fixating on unloading the plates they’re carrying as quickly as possible. For example, a couple visits ago, I was halfway through an appetizer when my entrée arrived. Despite the fact half the table was empty, the guy got flustered by the fact I had a plate in front of me already and just handed me the entrée. I mean, he literally handed me the plate, spun around and trotted back to the kitchen, leaving me holding my entrée in one hand and my chopsticks the other. Very strange.
Kenji also suffers from unavailable-menu-item syndrome. The first time I experienced this I had asked for the Thai beef salad. The waitress returned a few minutes later to tell me they were “out of the dressing.” I thought this was a strange thing to be out of, because it’s typically a quick mix of scallions, lemon grass, cilantro, mint, lime juice, fish sauce, chili paste and sugar – all ingredients that should be staples at an Asian restaurant. How about the papaya salad? “We’re out of that, too.” OK, so it can be hard to locate good green papayas on a consistent basis (although Thai Papaya always seems to have them on hand). How about the Kobe beef appetizer? Nope. Apparently they drive up to NYC to get the beef … and they don’t do it very often. What about the $60 “chef’s choice” omakase? “I’m not even sure what it is,” the waitress said. “But I know we don’t have any of it.”
Maybe I’m just clueless, but how can you be out of something that’s completely up to the chef to select? Here’s a little insider advice: dishes that are only available periodically are “specials” – they don’t go on the regular menu. If patrons like games of chance, they can go across the street and buy a lotto scratch ticket.
I get the sense the décor was done on the cheap, as it has the hurried, temporary feel of a
stage set. Colored lights and a high ceiling give Kenji a cool, sophisticated nightclub feel in the evenings. But, like a nightclub, it isn’t quite so endearing in daylight, where you can see all the banged up wood paneling on the booths (including some sections where the veneer has simply been ripped away). One of the white vinyl bench seat backs has been slashed and then hastily repaired with what appears to be clear packing tape. Some of the construction is simply unfinished. For example, there are incomplete plywood “waves” on the ceiling. How do I know they’re incomplete? Well, the pencil marks on the ceiling and walls is somewhat of a giveaway, as are the unpainted 2x4s. The back wall has two different paint jobs on it (fusion?). On one side of the dining room, there’s a nicely done mural, while on the other side, there’s a strange department-store arrangement of pillows on shelves. It’s all disjointed enough to be fairly distracting.
While the food at Kenji is generally good, I have to dock them for their inability to pace meals, unavailable menu items, and some of their underwhelming dishes. I’m also stuck on the failure to deliver on the fusion front.
But you really should go and have their sushi.
Address: 3416 Von Schilling Drive, Hampton
Phone: (757) 262-0888