Monday, April 14, 2014

FoodTrek: Gathering of Flavors at Kaisho

The term kaisho is a Japanese term for a place to meet or gather, but having a chance to further explore the menu at the Bellevue restaurant Kaisho, I would also call it a gathering of various Asian and Western flavors, and having them all meet for a delectable feast. I was doing the very arduous (not arduous) task of food/drink research and had the opportunity to sample several of Kaisho's dishes and cocktails. It was too much flava-flavor to keep all to myself, so I had to share on the blog. So here -- feast with your eyes, then  jump in your car and feast with your appetite!

East Meets West (and South) - Kaisho's Thai Fried Chicken and Kimchee Waffles - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Kaisho opened late last year in downtown Bellevue (if you're familiar with the area, it's the old spot where Boom Noodle used to be), and they're offering their own take on Asian dishes. Jeffrey Lunak, Blue C Sushi's Culinary Executive and protege of famed Japanese Chef Morimoto, is one of the lead concept designers of Kaisho's unique menu.The style of food is influenced by several cultures -- Japanese, Korean, Thai, Chinese -- and does different Westernized riffs on traditional foods, while not overwhelming their dishes with an overabundance of flavor-fuss. It's not food drowning in sauce, it's flavors your palate can recognize and appreciate. They treat ingredients with care and even pickle their own kimchee -- theirs is a lighter style, minus the heavy fermented flavor, since they only age each batch a couple of days (they go through it so quickly!). It's more like a Japanese-style "morning pickle" which retains a lot of the vegetables' freshness. People who aren't typical kimchee fans tend to appreciate Kaisho's lighter version.

Interior dining area of Kaisho - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I could have confessed to the Lindbergh Kidnapping, and that I'm a time traveling space alien, because I KNOW you're still staring, glassy-eyed and salivating, at the Thai Fried Chicken and Kimchee Waffles. Yes, this is a thing that exists, and wipe that drool before it dribbles onto the keyboard! This unusual Asian riff on an American Southern comfort food is on the Wakemae or Things Built to Share portion of the menu, and rightly so, since it could easily be shared by four or a very full meal for two hungry people. The impressive thing about the dish isn't its wild East/West mix or even its  elegantly rustic presentation, but the fact that each item is well-prepared on its own, and balanced so that it can be combined with everything else on the platter. 

Asian chicken and waffle breakdown - truly enjoyable in all its parts - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It's a heaping pile of super-crunchy chicken, done in a style reminiscent of Korean fried chicken, where the skin is very dry and crisp, not heavily breaded. It's topped with blistered Japanese shishito peppers -- hot, but with sweetness, delicious to eat with the chicken. It comes with two pitchers of sauces, a five spice-infused maple syrup (which I want to do to ALL maple syrup now), and their spicy Thai dipping sauce, which is like a sweet/hot Sriracha, thin and easy to pour. Delicious on their own, just as tasty combined with everything on the platter. I want to call the kimchee waffles Ed Norton waffles, because you think they're just an understated support role in the dish, but they become a surprising show-stealer, even against the chicken. They mix kimchee pepper seasoning into the waffle batter, making it a noticeable pumpkin orange, and you see the confetti flecks in the crumb. Topped with a hefty smear of their coconut butter, it's a great balance of fragrant sweetness, Korean pepper spice, all soaked into a bready waffle. Drizzled with the five spice maple syrup, I could just eat a plate of that and forsake Belgian waffles with strawberries and whipped cream forever.

Godzilla-sized smoked brisket gyoza - tradition amplified! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It's not all eye-catching, wild fusion dishes, Kaisho has traditional-style foods, but with their own take. Their Smoked Brisket and Kimchee Gyoza uses classic Japanese dumpling preparation, but they're filled with big chunks of smoked brisket and pickled cabbage. And they're HUGE. I should have put something in the photo to show scale, like a tennis ball. The three gyoza from the Zensai/Small Plates menu is a meal on its own. Hearty, smoky, and almost like eating little bundles of a spicy brisket sandwich, since the texture is so hefty, with a good chew.

Seasonal albacore, dressed in springtime - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I'm showing a lot of heavier dishes, but Kaisho has light, seasonal fare. The seafood options are in constant rotation, based on availability. Spring is offering delicacies like albacore tuna, which has such a light, delicate flavor, which goes nicely with the fresh spice of a cucumber sambal and a creamy chili aioli, with a dressing of smoky bacon to finish. Simple, yet balanced with fresh and pickled vegetables, but never overwhelming the flavor of the fish. It's an item on their Restaurant Week menu, which you still have time to try (the last week is April 13-17), but it's also still available on their regular spring menu, for at least a little bit longer. I definitely recommend trying the tuna - not overly spicy, just a pleasant celebration of seasonal ingredients.

Raise a glass, everybody - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Of course I tried a cocktail or two. Or three. Maybe four. I first came into Kaisho a little while back for a quick drink and a bite before a movie -- I really liked the small happy hour plates,  like the smoked pork bun and the smoked fish onigiri (rice ball), and I had a clean, lightly rice-sweet Saketini to wash it down. Satisfying, delicious and enough to keep me from the temptation of fake buttered popcorn, FTW. This later visit had me exploring their cocktail menu more in-depth, and their signature drinks have a full spectrum of flavor profiles for people who prefer sweet vs not-sweet drinks. The overall focus is fresh flavors like cucumber, lychee, and lime, with Asian herbs like lemongrass and Thai basil, which all work really well in drinks. I'm more of a less-sweet cocktail drinker, so their very green Pear and Cucumber Martini was a nice, clean drink to go with the stronger-flavored foods, especially the chicken and waffles. Sweeter drinks like their Thai Basil Mojito and cranberry/sweet lychee Cherry Blossom would fare better with the albacore or their oysters -- they do oyster specials on Thursday nights.

Overall, I think Kaisho is working in a good direction on removing the gimmick factor of "fusion cuisine," which has run rampant for many years. They're trying to get palates already familiar with traditional dishes, excited about something different, yet balanced. I don't think of this as simply "Asian fusion," I think it's something distinctly American, in the sense that it's adaptive cuisine. The same way we hold spaghetti and meatballs dearly to our hearts, yet it's completely alien to Italians, the mixing of flavors is an ongoing expression of cultural integration.

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