Old Fish, New Fish
A Fresh Look At A Familiar Sushi Joint
Welcome to the dawn of a potentially landscape-changing year for sushi dining in Baltimore. This new era has already been heralded by the high-intensity openings of Tsunami at the Tack Factory and the conspicuously slick chain RA Sushi Bar Restaurant down in Harbor East. Are you tanned, rested, and ready for them, and will it be OK if you wear jeans and a nice top? Start thinking about it, but pause right now to consider an old standby.
Fells Point's Kawasaki Café fell off my mental map some time ago. Undone by crime and scandal, Kawasaki shut up both its midtown and Fells Point locations almost two years ago. In April 2006 owners pleaded guilty to federal charges of harboring illegal immigrants and laundering money. The original Charles Street location remains shuttered, shoji warping, tatami unraveling. Very sad. But down on a quiet patch of Ann Street that juts past Thames Street, the colorful Kawasaki Café is fully resuscitated under new management. On a few recent wintry evenings, its blunt-angled dining room was packed with healthy-looking, baseball cap-wearing young folks, enjoying food, life, and each other.
The room's odd shape compels an irregular table arrangement and lively sightlines. No music plays, and the room hums instead with conversation and laughter. It smells good in here, like a sushi bar should. Kawasaki feels intimate but not claustrophobic, with just enough funk to feel at home in Fells Point--our kind of place.
The menu is that now-classic piling on of raw fish and kitchen entrées with all of the inevitable overlapping and duplication that entails--a single item might show up in three different places on the menu. It's not a thing for lovers of order and reason. But, really, it's so simple. Just keep your eye on the prize, which, at Kawasaki is well-handled raw fish. And do it with sashimi (sampler $8, tuna only $10, salmon only $9). On your first visit, take a seat at the raw bar, tended by especially friendly sushi chefs, and note how healthy the displayed fish looks. If you're eating raw tuna these days, get some--it's quiveringly delicious. The salmon here has an exquisitely fatty texture, melting on the tongue. If there are off-menu additions, they'll be mentioned to patrons at the bar but not always at the table. Live scallops ($8) were available for us; they taste like sweet electricity.
Kawasaki's level of display is midrange. It's handsome but not trendy, efficient but not elaborate. We saw some neighboring diners--best friends, couples in love--order up those enormous sushi boats ($40-$55), and they looked like a load of fun, truly, all of those gay and colorful rolls with spicy pastel sauces squiggled on top. Nothing against them, but the few simple rolls we tried--salmon ($4.50), shrimp tempura ($6.50)--were just kind of meh, a little wobbly, perhaps.
Hopscotching the rest of the menu, we liked freshening up with a sesame-splashed marinated seaweed salad ($4.50) or a bowl of salt-sprinkled edamame ($3.75). Cups of miso broth ($1.50) filled us up and helped us take more precious time with the upcoming raw fish choices. And we always make room for anything anyone can think of to wrap in bacon, like the yummy little asparagus ($3) and scallop ($4) yakitori, the perfect size for popping in your mouth.
We also had some seriously flavorless mushy tempura, a combination appetizer of shrimp and vegetables ($6)--really, the worst tempura ever--which is not such a tragedy in a sushi bar but a troubling sign for the balance of the Japanese menu. Various cold and hot soba and udon dishes are also offered, but we were too full of fish to wander into noodle territory. That will have to wait for a frosty afternoon.
The new ownership team has succeeded in making Kawasaki a perfect little bridge restaurant between stale storefront joints and the new youth-oriented places. We're glad we revisited it; we're back for good.