REVIEW: Kai Japanese Roots combines both the old and new

Seamlessly weaving together classic and modern aesthetics and taste, the newly opened Kai Japanese Roots is a contemporary gem in the heart of historic Los Angeles. The Japanese restaurant opened on South Broadway Street on April 13 and is poised to become a champion of the renaissance growth of downtown Los Angeles.

The interior design of the restaurant featured a soothing plethora of wood evocative of Japanese minimalism. Visitors were also greeted by an indoor waterfall over a swirled black-and-yellow glass panel, a display of hanging lights and a traditional Japanese painting over the full bar in the back corner of the main dining room. The warehouse architecture of the downtown space was left partially intact, which gave the restaurant a contemporary yet traditional look. An appetizer plate, napkin, soy sauce dish and a pair of chopsticks were preset on the table, furthering the simplistic grace of the restaurant.

Water was poured into small wooden cups emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo rather than glasses, harkening ever-so-subtly back to Japanese traditions. The menu, which was disposable and came on a clipboard, was extensive but easily navigable — regular menu items, from starters to signature dishes, were listed on one side while yakitori, sushi and sashimi were listed on the other side and quantities were marked by a pen.

Options ranged from Japanese classics to house specials to innovative dishes such as the Kai nachos, comprised of a sashimi mix over wonton chips. The smaller items were diverse and made flexible to preference, as plates can be modified or spice can be added upon request. Prices were reasonable, as a main dish was no more than $20. Sushi hand rolls came in sizeable portions of eight.

Even more impressive was the beverage menu. Kai boasted not only a full bar, but also a wide selection of Japanese craft beers, sakes, sochu spirits and whiskey and malts. The owners spent months curating alcohols, cocktails and teas that would represent a robust spectrum of flavors and versatility in bringing traditions from the East to the present-day in the West.

The restaurant demonstrated a deep commitment to classic flavors in the miso soup, a perfectly salted medley of miso paste, tender tofu and fresh seaweed and leek. Another age-old dish, takoyaki, or deep-fried octopus, was given a modern twist with the adornment of wari sauce drizzles and other delicate garnishes.

The main courses exemplified the chef’s finesse and skills in plating, which co-opted the aesthetic of ornaments in Western cuisine and replaced them with Japanese ingredients. For example, the kai bowl, a sweet and spicy sashimi mix over a bed of sushi rice, was topped with slivers of avocado, a mint leaf and ribbons of radish and cucumber. Though the rice was slightly hardened, the sashimi was tender and imbued with rich flavors, and vegetables balanced the dish with freshness.

Executive Chef Miki Fujita, who apprenticed in Japan and has worked in Japanese cuisine for 27 years, attributes that shine to in the vibrancy of the dishes he carefully conceptualizes and crafts. His specialty anniversary roll — a tempura salmon and asparagus hand roll, overlaid with baked salmon, topped with tempura chips and drizzled end to end with spicy secret sauce and eel sauce — represented the foremost in cuisine and design.

The only dessert option was a green tea ice cream, which came in a matching wooden bowl topped with a dollop of whipped cream. The ice cream was a bit too cold and hard to dig into immediately, but once a bit, melted the flavors were bold and the ice cream melted smoothly.

On its website, Kai’s owners wrote, “Our guiding principle was to create a space that exemplifies the elegance of honesty and incorporates the vibrant rhythm of our surrounding environment. The goal was to craft something that would not only be authentic to Japanese cuisine and aesthetics, but equally rooted in our historically rich environment.”

As an up-and-coming restaurant in the revitalized portion of Downtown, this casual corner find is already succeeding in its mission.