It's not a Japanese restaurant. It's an American restaurant influenced by Japan. But no matter what you call it, it's all Taibe.
Kawa Ni, chef-owner Bill Taibe's third restaurant in Westport, scheduled to open Aug. 20, is sure to be another winner for the James Beard-nominated chef.
Bill Taibe and his brother Jeff, Kawa Ni's chef, traveled to Japan last winter and ate their way through Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. The menu at Kawa Ni, which means "on the river," in this case the Saugatuck, reflects Bill Taibe's love of the pristine nature of Japanese cuisine and its respect for ingredients.
But Kawa Ni is also fun. "It's our own wacky interpretation," he says, of a Japanese Izakaya, an informal tavern that serves small plates.
The 42-seat restaurant is paneled in cedar. There's a long communal table and 9-seat eating bar and a few booths. Kawa Ni is decorated with artifacts Jeff Taibe picked up on his travels, such as Maneki Neko, the statues of cats with raised paws, known as fortune cats, which are believed to bring good luck.
The menu will evolve and reflect the seasons. Yaki onigri, fried rice balls, had a golden crust, and its soft interior was flavored with crab, fish or kimchi, fermented cabbage. I tried one stuffed with trout and flecked with dill. It had a subtle lime flavor. It's a must order. Kani salad has strands of Japanese imitation crab, tossed with julienned cucumber and mango, and touched with mayo. It was topped with fried shallots and fresh, spicy pea shoots. The salad was sweet and light, and the dollops of roe, tiny orange and tiny green fish eggs, popped pleasingly in the mouth.
Roasted corn on the cob was bold with umami flavors of seaweed and bonito flakes, enriched with Kewpie mayonnaise, a brand favored by chefs. Japanese potato salad was dressed in rice vinegar and a little mayo and had a welcome bacon flavor. Seaweed salad had a slippery and crunchy texture. A refreshing salad made of raw cabbage leaves was layered with chiles and spices. The crunchy leaves were dipped into a miso sauce.
Yes, there's raw fish. I tried a dish of lightly pickled mackerel combined with fresh raw hamachi and cucumbers pickled in organic rice vinegar.
Beverage director Jeff Marron plays off the Japanese love of whiskey sours with his Whisky Chuhai, a combination of bourbon, yuzu (the Japanese citrus) and soda water, which he bottles. Sochu Chuhai is made from alcohol fermented from barley, and the drink is flavored with yuzu and leavened with soda water.
The Wicked Garden is mixed shochu, apricot liqueur, vodka, homemade grenadine and koji, a salty-sweet paste that calls itself an "umami enchancer." The drink was rich and sweet, despite the konji. On tap, Hitachino's Yuzu Saison had a touch of citrus.
A dessert of puffed rice and Japanese marshmallow combined smooth and crunchy textures with sweetness and spice. It's a dessert for adventurous eaters, like me.
>>Kawa Ni is at 19a Bridge Square, Westport. Information: 203-557-8775.