Justin Cook, the owner and aptly named executive chef of Bend's Kanpai Sushi & Sake Bar, is an avid surfer and diver. Even though he lives hours from the Pacific, he rejoices in the swells and curls that the ocean provides, whether he is riding his board at Cape Kiwanda or in the much warmer waters of Baja California.
Cook's affinity for the marine environment gives him a special connection with the seafood he serves at his restaurants — Kanpai on Newport Avenue in Bend and the newer Boken, in the breezeway downtown.
A staunch supporter of the activist Surfrider Foundation, whose mission is to protect oceans, waves and beaches around the world, Cook said he is constantly striving to improve the quality of his food product and to become as sustainable as possible.
“We get deliveries three times a week from four different purveyors from across the globe,” he said. “The idea is that fish is in the restaurant for 48 hours, and although we do run out of product from time to time, I'm really proud of this system. We rarely throw anything out, although I'd rather do that than sit on a piece of fish for too long.
“We want to leave the smallest footprint possible,” Cook said, “and do our part to preserve the oceans and the wildlife within for generations to come.”
No factor is more important in a good sushi restaurant than the freshness of the fish served. I am convinced that no Central Oregon restaurant serves fresher fish than Kanpai, which soon will celebrate its seventh anniversary.
Its prices are a little higher than other comparable Bend restaurants, but I am glad to pay extra for seafood of this quality.
Add to that a speedy and reliable staff of servers, and a rustic atmosphere reminiscent of a Japanese country tavern, and you're left with my favorite sushi bar this side of Portland.
Nothing tests the excellence of fresh seafood like sashimi, which quite simply is sliced raw fish served with a garnish of shredded daikon radish.
Kanpai charges $17 for a dish of maguro, a mere seven half-inch-thick slices of yellowfin tuna. But on my most recent visit, I found the fish to be of such perfect consistency — two-bite morsels after a quick dip in my own wasabi-and-soy sauce concoction — that I nearly placed an immediate second order.
I may well have done so, had I not been tempted by so many other menu options.
Most American sushi restaurants serve two principal varieties of sushi, and Kanpai is no exception. Nigiri is hand-formed sushi, a ball of rice topped with fish or another ingredient, then wrapped in nori seaweed. Maki is a much more substantial sushi roll, its various elements rolled together with rice and seaweed.
Kanpai's nigiri menu includes more than 20 options, from raw seafood to vegetables, baked tofu to seared filet mignon. But it's in the maki that kitchen creativity takes over.
My favorite maki is the Orgasm, which combines tempura-fried unagi (freshwater eel) with crab meat and thinly sliced cucumber. Rolled into vinegared rice, it is topped with creamy scallops, sliced avocado and a sprinkle of tobiko (flying-fish roe), then drizzled with a sweet soy reduction sauce. Its flavor is worthy of its name.
Another fine roll is the Hattori Hanzo, whose primary ingredient is yellowfin tuna seared with a black-pepper crust. It's rolled into rice with avocado, cucumber, scallions and tempura-battered mango, then topped with a tangy, Thai-style peanut-red curry sauce. It shares its name with a famous medieval samurai. On a recent visit, this was my dining companion's top choice.
We also had a spider roll, its main ingredient fried soft-shell crab, and a salmon-skin roll, incorporating yamagobo (a pickled root vegetable) and radish sprouts. Both were equal to our expectations.
Miso and edamame
I always start my meals at Kanpai with soybeans: a bowl of vitamin-rich miso soup (made with fermented soybean paste) and a bowl of edamame (steamed and salted soybean pods). Both dishes are simple, tasty and nutritious.
On a recent stop, I sampled hijiki seafood salad for the first time. Hijiki is a versatile, high-fiber seaweed, popular in Japanese home cooking. In Kanpai's preparation, mixed with soy sauce and other vegetables, the brown ribbons of stewed hijiki were a sweet surprise.
I also tried, for the first time, a couple of cooked small plates, and there was nothing I didn't like.
Tofu aburage was such a revelation, I may order this vegetarian delight with every meal. Baked tofu was stuffed with a saute of slivered shiitake mushrooms and roasted shallots, then dressed with a mildly spicy, barbecue-style honey-chili sauce.
A plate called Dynamite is one I've had before, but it seems as though it's never the same twice. It always features a fish, a shellfish and sauteed vegetables, but the specifics often vary depending upon what is fresh and available. In the most recent case, salmon and scallop were broiled casserole-style in a large scallop shell, then topped with avocado, cucumber, daikon, tobiko, spicy aioli mayonnaise and a ponzu sauce.
Food and service
Cook, the owner who often works at his newer restaurant, Boken, has found a worthy individual to direct Kanpai's kitchen operations in his absence: Scott Byers, a veteran Central Oregon chef who most recently was chef de cuisine at Joolz.
And his servers, some of whom have worked at Kanpai for more than five years, know the menu inside-out and are delighted to recommend dishes to diners unfamiliar with Japanese cooking. Clad in the black of bunraku Japanese theater, they are speedy and efficient, yet somehow find time for a bit of friendly conversation with regular patrons without missing a beat in their service responsibilities.
The mood is warm, with dark woods accented by traditional bamboo window shades. There's seating at a curving bar and at both tall and low tables, although no more than about 40 diners may be accommodated in winter, and new arrivals may have a long wait at this first-come, first-served restaurant. The capacity increases to about 70 with outdoor seating in summer.
The word “kanpai,” by the way, is a Japanese drinking toast, like “Cheers!” It fits; the restaurant has a large selection of imported Japanese sakes and beers.
With the retirement of owner Michael DeGray, Grover's Pub & Pizza has closed after 31 years in business. DeGray, who owns the building, told The Bulletin that he expects it to be replaced by a pizza restaurant in the spring. 939 S.E. Second St., Bend; 541-382-5119, www.groverspuband pizza.com.
A chef and winemaker dinner will be held Saturday (reception at 6 p.m., dinner at 6:30 p.m.) at the Old Firehouse building, formerly Bourbon Street restaurant (5 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend) as part of the Glass Half Full series of pop-up dinners.
Chef Ryley Eckersley and sous chef Andrew Sarda will prepare a five course dinner paired with Sokol Blosser wines. Eckersley describes the menu as “globally influenced American cuisine.” An example of one of the five courses is “braised and crisped pork belly, caramelized butternut squash, cassia caramel, salted cashew soft whipped cream, garlic chips.”
The per person cost of $98 includes a food and drink reception and five courses with wine pairings. Reserve a table of six for the price of five. A portion of proceeds benefit the Humane Society of Central Oregon.
Reservations can be placed through today by calling: 541-728-8490 or email glasshalffull firstname.lastname@example.org.