This post is really long and all on the first page because I am passionate about Kihachi, and I wouldn't want anyone to miss out on the whole experience.
*definitions can be found at the end of the post*
There is something to be said for simple and perfect ingredients - and I just did - they're simple, and perfect. Chef/owner Ryuji Kimura (nicknamed Mike, but it's hard to imagine it's because his Japanese friends think he's so American) is so passionate about the freshest and most perfect ingredients that he's been known to call his favorite clientele to let them know when he's received something of particular interest.
Although a friend of mine is on that list, and it's usually recommended that you throw a name around or go in with another person "in the know," Husband and I decided to venture to Kihachi alone, with no introduction to the chef.
Kihachi, located in an unassuming strip mall in Dublin, caters to a primarily Japanese crowd. A primarily Japanese male businessmen, non-English speaking crowd. On our first visit, Husband and I asked to sit at the counter and were greeted rather skeptically (I felt). The server was nice enough to translate the Japanese-only menu of daily specials, and we ordered a nice little array of small dishes, and a bowl of the most delicious duck soba* we had ever had. That's kind of misleading, as I'd never had duck soba before that day, but consider myself somewhat of a noodle expert (and I mean that strictly in the "I eat 5 packages of real Asian ramen a week and have the occasional tempura udon in an airport" kind of way).
Slowly but surely, Chef Kimura began to trust our tastes. On our second visit, we noticed chef pulling small fish from an insulated fedex box, and with a little persuasion, discovered that it was the horse mackerel* special, flown in that day. After receiving our fish, expertly filleted into sashimi*, and presented on a plate to resemble the fish in mid-swim (head and all), we were given a little test: a few minutes after he whisked the empty plate away, chef presented me with the skeleton, fried, salted and wrapped in a little paper envelop "you eat it like a chip," he said. We passed the test - as it turns out, fried and salted horse mackerel skeleton is delicious.
Finally, this past Thursday, I decided to ask Chef Kimura if I could take pictures. His food is always so beautiful I wish I had a picture of everything I've eaten there. He graciously agreed, and we commenced with the eating.
The way to dine at Kihachi is to order from their appetizer menu - forget everything you know about teriyaki and the usual Japanese menu suspects (although I have to admit to having an addiction to their BBQ eel in vinegar sauce). Forget silly little sushi rolls with cream cheese and the like. Forget giant piles of fried rice on a hibachi grille-equipped table (although I admit I like the Japanese Steakhouse from time to time, just for nostalgia's sake). Get ready for sashimi so perfect it will make you remember the first time you ever had great sushi, and the epiphany it gave you.
We started off with some Kirin (surely the Budweiser of Japanese beers), and because we saw someone else eating them and they looked so cool, a little dish of ginkgo nuts. Half in the shell, pistachio style, the nuts were roasted in hot salt on the stove-top. Ginkgo nuts are extremely starchy and soft, occasionally bitter, and go great with beer. Peel the shell back and dip a corner of the nut into the salt. Repeat.
At this point, Chef sort of took over our ordering. After we ordered a few dishes, he said quietly, "I have really beautiful blue fin." Just a beat, and then: "I have fresh wasabi*." Surely, we had arrived. You don't need to twist my arm. I'd never had fresh wasabi. But first, sea clam* sashimi, served in a clam shell with miso* sauce and vinegar sauce. The vinegar begins to cook and tenderize the clam slices, while the miso brings a savory and slightly spicy element:
Lately I've been trying to eat everything I haven't tried before, or have tried and haven't liked. I can never understand when I am working in the restaurant and grown adults will not try something new - last night it was "Collard greens? Eew. Surely I won't eat collard greens! Don't you have green beans?" see? this just makes me want to give you a little shake. Collard greens are delicious. You're willing to pay nearly $30 a plate to eat here once a week and you don't trust our chef to make collard greens taste delicious?! But I digress. While in San Francisco, I tried beef tongue, and re-tried oysters. Heady with my success, we decided to continue in that vein, and ordered cod soft roe (shira-ko). Soft roe is the, er, male contribution to the breedng process, while caviar is the female contribution. A favored winter dish in Japan, cod soft roe was presented in a small soup pot in a soft custard (chawan-mushi), with a little ponzu* sauce on top. Cod soft roe is similar in texture and flavor to veal sweetbreads*, indeed, after a few bites Chef asked us if we noticed the similarities, telling us that he had recently had sweetbreads and instantly thought of soft roe. It was interesting to me that the textures here repeated themselves: in French or American cooking, we usually take sweetbreads and press and fry them until they have a nice crisp exterior, and then we might pair them with some tart apples, maybe a little puff pastry crust (I still remember a dish from the Refectory, years ago, in which Chef Richard Blondin placed sweetbreads in puff pastry with green apples in sweet curry sauce. My. Heaven), but we would definitely juxtapose the soft, almost creaminess of the sweetbread with something crispy and tart. Here, the cod soft roe was presented in a soft custard, something even softer than itself, and the ponzu sauce accompaniment provided a little bite to cut through the richness of the dish. Even though this is a traditional preparation, it was a completely new and unique experience for me and I thought it was lovely:
We decided to have oysters since it's that time of year, presented universal-style, on the half shell with a little lemon on the side:
Monkfish might well be the ugliest fish in the deep blue sea, but it's hands down one of my favorites. In Japanese cuisine, the liver (ankimo) is particularly prized, and we were lucky enough to be on the receiving end of Chef Kimura's excellent preparation. Husband and I dubbed this "foie gras of the sea," and indeed, the preparation is very similar (click here to read a very good description of the process, along with helpful pictures); salt the liver and soak it in sake, remove the veins, roll it tightly in plastic and give it a little steam. It was served alongside fluke* sashimi, a nice and refreshing contrast to the rich liver:
We had a nice and simple broiled little rice ball, just to appease me:
We had one of our favorite guilty pleasures - Husband said he feels very "American" ordering them, although I have never seen these served up at Friday's. Smallish sweetwater shrimp (kumura ebi), fried with heads and all - you eat the whole thing - they are delicious. I thought we were going to have to order two:
And finally, the bluefin tuna otoro* with fresh wasabi, along with another belly which chef described as "like a large yellowtail," I think it might have been the belly of a larger horse mackerel, although I can't be certain. We watched Chef preparing the sashimi, and he cut a little slice of the fresh wasabi and placed it in his mouth. "It really must be more mild than the fake stuff," Husband was murmuring, when just at that moment, Chef opened his mouth to take in air and looked at us with the confirmation - it's hot. (A little note on fresh wasabi - it's extremely hard to lay one's hands on, and one will pay dearly for it - up to $100 a pound.) Chef lovingly grated the wasabi on a little ceramic grater, similar to a ginger grater, and brushed the pulp onto the plate with a little wooden brush. This dish made it clear for me why it is that that otoro is so highly prized, although it wasn't the first time I'd had it. The meat is marbled like a fine beef ribeye - almost pink in color (where the "loin" of the blue fin is dark red to almost purple), and the meat and fat melt into each other. The fresh wasabi works to melt the fat almost immediately, cutting through the richness and turning the whole thing into one of the most delicious thing I've ever eaten. No soy sauce is needed here - only these two ingredients, matching each other perfectly and in total harmony. Thinking about it, I am getting a little teary-eyed, just as I was then. The "yellowtail belly" was a nice, lighter compliment to the full-bodied otoro, a study in the same cut on a white fish, with a little less fatty and does not possess quite the same mouth-filling body. Still amazing:
This is why I started off by saying there is something to be said for the most simple and perfect ingredients: not everything needs a lot of fuss. On my first visit to Kihachi, I received a heavenly plate of broiled matsutaki* mushrooms, presented simply on a bed of pine needles (under which the mushrooms grow, in Japan). Start with the most perfect whatever, and think of the very few ingredients that will enhance it - maybe it's the best cut of perfect beef - a little salt, maybe, and then go from there. I get so irritated when chefs think the best thing to do is combine all of their favorite ingredients into one dish, masking the flavor of the main ingredient to showcase their skills in tedious over-flavoring. But again, I digress.
Lastly came a little dessert from Chef - a chestnut surrounded by sweet potato puree. Something that is not considered a "sweet" by American standards, it was a nice and simple way to end the evening - not with molten chocolate lava cake three ways like we're used to.
The way to leave Kihachi is never totally full, and I think this is the perfect way - these small bites are perfect, and you never get tired of any one dish. You don't have 20 bites of mashed potatoes on your plate. You get a little of each thing and then move on to the next wonderful thing.
Go to Kihachi with an open mind. If you aren't willing to do so, then don't go - you won't be happy. Don't go with any Japanese clichés bopping about your head, you'll just ruin it for the rest of us. It's no mistake that Kihachi is widely held to be one of - if not the best - restaurant in Columbus. It is certainly one of my favorites, although it's funny, given what I've said about fussy food, that it is tied in my book with the Refectory. How does the saying go? "Every genius is filled with contradictions?"
Grade: Without a doubt, an A every time.
Info: Kihachi 2667 Federated Blvd Dublin, OH (20 minute drive from downtown) 614.764.9040
Soba: buckwheat noodles, frequently served cold in the summer months
Sashimi: sliced raw fish (or meat, occasionally)
Horse Mackerel: not a member of the mackerel family at all, a small and bony fish, sadly, it is becoming overfished.
Wasabi: the root of a cruciferous (cabbage family) plant. Wasabi is native to Japan but can be grown in the US. It is notoriously tricky to grow, hence the price.
Sea Clam: a very large (up to 9 inches) clam
Miso: fermented soy bean paste, an art form in Japanese cooking; available in many varieties and strengths, it is characterized by being intensely savory and slightly salty.
Ponzu: soy sauce flavored with bonito and citrus juice, typically yuzu (a sour Japanese citrus fruit)
Sweetbreads: traditionally the thymus gland of veal; these days, it's more comman to find sweetbreads made from pancreas. Can also be from lamb.
Fluke: a flatfish, similar to flounder, found on the East Coast of the US
Otoro: the premium and fattiest part of the bluefin tuna belly, held under the larger "toro" classification; the lesser - thought also prized and delicious - is jutoro or chutoro. Toro is considered better in the winter months and can be difficult to find, as the fish are large (up to 600 pounds, although the record is over 1000 pounds)
Matsutaki: the prized Japanese mushroom which can fetch over $200 a pound in Japan; the US is fortunate to have a thriving population in the Pacific Northwest, although they are still expensive.