June 19, 2006

Sleek & Stylish if a bit Sterile - Kampai House (Sunnyvale)

Glossy magazine covers promising a new slimmer sexier you in under thirty days...

A wide selection of candy bars in bright and cheery attention-demanding packaging staged at kids-eye level...

Endcaps stocked floor-to-ceiling with potato chips, soda, and other popular junk food...

All designed to attract the shopper into an impulse buy.

Our experience at Kampai House was my OpenTable equivalent of an impulse buy.

There I was, making my standard Friday-at-eight reservation, when it captured my attention. Over there, in the Just Added Restaurants section. Kampai House. Sunnyvale. Click. Explore.

Four or five minutes later, I was back to make a reservation.

In that time I'd discovered that Kampai House was relatively new -- a converted Carrow's restaurant on the El Camino in Sunnyvale.

That chef Suzuki Jin studied art before he discovered a passion for food, spent years studying Japanese and French cuisine and has quite a decorated culinary history. That he lives in nearby Cupertino and is fluent in 5 languages. That he pursues his artistic and culinary passions through his unique interpretation of "Frapanese" -- or French-Japanese fusion.

Yeah, fusion is overdone, and more often than not, poorly done. But the photography on their website is stunning. The menu holds promise. They're relatively close to Quads. And they accept early Sunday evening reservations.

Click. Table for two, 5:00.

The restaurant is flashy, in a sleek red/black/white kind of way. We expected that. The menu is best described as -- schizophrenic. We enjoy sushi. We've enjoyed a LOT of sushi over the years. It takes a bit to intimidate us. But it's easy to get lost in the half dozen sections of the menu. There's the Fusion menu, with starters, large (entree-sized) plates, salads, specialties and a handful of other options. The Sushi Bar menu, which includes some of the house special/fusion offerings in addition to the standard sushi/sashimi fare. The Drink menu, offering liquid fusion and repeating many of the items on the fusion and sushi menus at happy hour prices M-F from 5-7 PM. The Dessert Menu. And the Lunch Menu, a collection of items off the previous collection of menus. I'm still puzzling over why we got a lunch menu...

Sadly, while they're eager and they're clearly energized by Jin's creativity, the staff really isn't much help. We spoke to three different servers and a sushi chef (not *the* chef) over the course of our evening. They spent a significant portion of the evening tripping over each other to serve us -- and a nearly equal amount of time ignoring us altogether. We found it impossible to decipher the model.

The sushi is 'over the top'. Where 'over the top' can mean any combination of visually stunning, fascinating and unusual flavor/texture combinations, and expensive as hell.

In the latter category we have the Yellow Mellow, which the menu describes rather succinctly as seared hamachi, kiwi, scallion, goma miso dressing. Good, but not great. The whole was no more than a sum of its parts, and at $13 for seven slices of fish, less certainly cost more.

The fusion version of the standard Philly Roll also failed to deliver much more than an $8 addition to the bill. I had high hopes for the contrasting but complimentary flavors and textures described in the menu: smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber, deep fried. Again, good... very good... but just an inch or two shy of great.

Other selections delivered artistic flare on the plate and creative combinations on the palette. The chef's signature piece appears to be the Dragon Roll a whimsical combination of crab salad, cucumber, eel, avocado, spicy sauce and octopus "eyes." It was as much fun to photograph as it was to eat, and the spicy sauce left us breathing a little fire of our own.

And the selection of the night for me: the Buddha's Belly roll -- buttery soft toro combined with shallot and alfalfa sprouts and garnished with masago and garlic chips. There are just not words to describe the subtle complexities here. Y-U-M yum. I'll come back for Buddha's Belly alone.

And yes, in the end, we'll be back. The place has promise. They just need to work out some of the kinks. But we'll come back informed. And in the interest of maintaining the restaurant budget, we won't come back famished.

Kampai House

595 East El Camino Real, Sunnyvale

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