The Third Ward restaurant, which opened in the former Nanakusa space, made some changes to the room's décor, but it's still polished and modern. And so are the fusion small plates, meant to be shared. That's the izakaya side of it. But Kanpai also has a full sushi menu, with a dizzying number of rolls (50, by my quick count).
It seems that most Kanpai guests go for the sushi, but the small plates shouldn't be missed. That side of the menu consistently delivered great flavors on prettily composed plates.
Lamb chops ($10.50) were memorable, with the taste of the wood grill making a difference. (Owner Brian Park said he recently stopped using the grill because of problems regulating the temperature, but he plans to use it again in the future.) The two chops were served with soba noodles, themselves infused with green tea.
Gyu tataki ($12.50), thin, seared slices of tender Wagyu beef, gets a light, bright treatment, served with salad greens and citrusy ponzu sauce. For a smart garnish, a thin sheet of sushi rice was fried and cut into strips, looking like steak fries alongside the beef.
Green tea-smoked duck breast ($12.50) served medium-rare was tender, too; the smoke flavor, though, was faint. Sliced and fanned across the plate, it was easy enough to pick up the duck with chopsticks. But the accompanying Israeli couscous with bell pepper, green onion, yuzu and mint was like a dexterity challenge, tasty as it was: Our chopsticks were an inefficient match for the slippery, round pasta. Serving utensils and flatware brought with the small plates would save guests from flagging down servers for a spoon to save the day.
A pork chop ($10.50) might be better suited for one diner at the table - cutting it up is awkward for sharing - but with hoisin sauce mingling with grill flavors, it was delicious. The dish fused Asian with American, with accompaniments of apple cooked with cinnamon, a whole-grain mustard sauce and yu choy, greens with stems like Chinese broccoli.
Squid is prepared several ways at Kanpai, and gochujan calamari ($7.50), thick strips of squid with bell pepper and bok choy in spicy Korean chile sauce, satisfied a craving for heat, and then some.
Blue crabcake ($8.50) had a touch of heat, too, and Old Bay seasoning. With very little binder and plenty of crabmeat, it's a satisfying crabcake. No need for Old Bay; the pool of lobster and sun-dried tomato sauce with it and the crunchy little fried Japanese river crabs for garnish provide accent enough.
The menu was strong on seafood and meats, but it would be good to see some more creative vegetable small plates like the grilled portobello mushroom caps ($7.50) on a bed of lima bean salad. But that meaty flavor came from the demi-glace on the plate as much as from the mushrooms, making it a non-starter for vegetarians.
A United Nations of noodle bowls includes versions of Korean japchae with cellophane noodles, spinach, carrot and shiitake mushroom, seasoned with sesame oil ($7.50), and Japanese udon ($11), with those satisfyingly thick, chewy noodles. Consider udon with beef in steaming-hot broth a prescription for these cold nights.
I first stopped in at Kanpai not long after it opened, out of curiosity. Some of the sushi I tried early on needed improvement, and improve it has.
By my final dinner at Kanpai, the nigiri sushi was cut beautifully and the rice nicely seasoned. No dab of wasabi between rice and fish, though, and I missed it.
Not every fish listed for nigiri and sashimi is available every day. It would help if servers advised guests at the outset which aren't available, or if the restaurant would simply list them as specials.
Park continues to adjust the menu to meet customer demand; sandwiches were taken off the dinner menu but remain on the lunch menu, for example.
The sushi menu could be scaled back somewhat; it's a lot of reading for a diner to get through on the way to a decision. But give Kanpai credit for a number of creative, tasty rolls (some, like the flaming Oh My God roll, can also be found at owner Park's first Milwaukee-area restaurant, Wasabi in Brookfield).
The Veronica roll ($12) was striking: super-white tuna, or escolar, with avocado and salmon, wrapped in black rice and sprinkled with red tobiko, the flying fish roe.
Mild avocado and soft-shell crab tempura in the Red Dragon roll ($18) took on appealing heat from chopped tuna mixed with spicy togarashi at the restaurant, along with thin slices of serrano chile.
The Naruto ($14) was another handsome roll; yellowtail, snow crab, salmon, tuna and snapper all rolled in a sheet of cucumber instead of rice paper. (It was supposed to be served on seaweed salad, though, which was missing. Still a good roll, but it's good to know ahead of time if an ingredient is unavailable or if the preparation has changed.)
Some desserts were predictable - lava cake, mochi ice cream - but a couple that were weekend specials could - should - be Kanpai's everyday standards: green tea crème brûlée ($6), and a nice layered sponge cake topped with thin slices of mango and served with a glass of Riesling ($8 for cake and wine), perfect with this not-too-sweet dessert.
While Kanpai's small plates and rolls fit the bill of an izakaya, the food goes above and beyond the idea of mere snacks to have with a drink.
Click Here for the Menu in PDF format