Cuisine off the beaten path
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 30, 2009

Japanese restaurants can be too predictable. There is nothing wrong with a healthy, fish-centric meal, and there is even poetry if the austere pres-entations are aesthetically pleasing. But most menus play it safe. Teriyaki and tempura, sashimi and California rolls, that's all well and good, but it's hard to eat them while yawning.

And then I noticed the menu on Kabuki's very cool website. My eyebrows lifted and stayed that way for a while. I didn't get past the cold appetizers for a minute because interesting things kept catching my eye. Of course, call something Mango Girl and people have to read the description (spicy lobster, asparagus wrapped in mango, sweet chili sauce). But in season they also have live scallops and Toro sashimi, that tender bluefin belly meat, served intriguingly with a citrus truffle sauce. There is even sliced abalone, which I hadn't had since living in California — and it's served with a creamy garlic sauce, to help segue us out of Italian meals around here. You really want to have something special for a starter? Go to the bottom of the hot appetizers and consider the famed Kobe beef: served on hot volcanic rock, $10 per ounce.

Stepping inside Kabuki, you see that the dining area is going to be quieter than in many restaurants, because the large bar section is well separated from it, and the tables are adequately spaced. The decor is attractive, with hanging lamps composed of gracefully overlapping sheets of frosted glass, and the black tablecloths match the apparel of the servers.

Hungry, we promptly got down to business. There are two hot and sour soups, a Thai version — Tom Yum, with vegetable dumplings ($6) — and lemongrass ($8), with shrimp and surimi. I had that last one, which also contained slivers of veggies and shiitakes, and the spicy heat wasn't overpowering. Johnnie had the miso soup ($4), which was deeply flavorful from the aged white bean paste. We also ordered a hand roll, to sample from that category. The spicy seafood tempura roll ($8) was delicious but not what I had hoped for. Instead of a crispy and hot tempura contrast to sticky rice and nori, there were "tempura flakes" in the seafood center, not coating the outside, so any potential crunch was lost.

There were numerous imaginative eight-piece "signature rolls," such as the Angry Dragon ($15) with shrimp tempura, tuna, and king crab, both of them spicy, plus papaya and citrus sauce. But we went right to the entrées. Such temptations. Duck with vegetables, under a black pepper mushroom sauce; wok-stirred rib-eye; shrimp and lobster risotto (each $25).

The prices start at $16, and Johnnie chose one of those: the Karee Yakitori Dinner. Four curried skewers of chicken stood amidst mixed Asian vegetables and a portion of green mashed potatoes — the latter colored and flavored with edamame (in-pod steamed soybeans). She pronounced it all delicious, and I didn't dispute that after my samples. The presentation was also dramatic, with tall strands of tempuraed vermicelli noodles standing guard.

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