Stereotypical Asian Food

Kampai offers a decent dining experience, although it does little to set itself apart.

I am sitting here having a hell of a time trying to come up with something unique and interesting to say about Kampai, a new Asian restaurant that opened in the former space of short-lived Dao's Hunan.

But that's just the thing: There's not much to say about Kampai that's unique or interesting. A recent visit there revealed food that's similar to that at many Japanese/Asian restaurants, with some dishes quite good and others merely mediocre; the décor is unspectacular; the service during our visit was unenthusiastically competent; and the prices are on the high side.

It doesn't set itself apart, positively or negatively, from thousands of other Asian restaurants across this nation. Comparatively, it's just, well, there.

I visited Kampai (which is Japanese for "cheers," or something close to it) on a recent Friday night with Hugh Dougherty and friend Rachid. During what should have been the dinner rush, the restaurant was about half occupied. Two TVs--one over the sushi bar, the other across the room--were tuned to sports. I arrived a few minutes before Hugh and Rachid, giving me time to eye the restaurant's décor. While some of the more upscale Asian joints have chosen to go in a modern-design direction, the look of Kampai is decidedly not modern. The walls feature various wood cuts, and the carpet is a mediocre maroon. The restaurant is new, but the décor certainly is not.

When my dining companions arrived, we decided to cast a wide net, and ordered three appetizers: the shumai (steamed shrimp dumplings, $4.50), the soft-shell crab ($8.50) and the fried bay scallops with spicy jalapeño sauce ($6.95). Other permutations of shrimp, chicken, vegetables and various goodies are also offered as appetizers; most will set you back $6-$7.

Our appetizers were delivered before we had an opportunity to order our entrées. The highlight was the spicy scallops; breaded and fried with the jalapeño sauce, they were delicious and spicy-hot. Hugh raved about them, and wondered why they were not on the menu as an entrée as well. The scallops tasted fresh, and we finished them off in a hurry.

The shumai and the soft-shell crab weren't devoured as quickly. The shumai dumplings were pretty good; if you like shumai, then you'd like this. Meanwhile, the soft-shell crab was unspectacular; the fried crabs themselves were almost tasteless, and the accompanying ponzu sauce was unexciting. It wasn't something I'd order again.

For our main courses, we chose items from all around the menu. Hugh ordered the chicken katzu dinner ($11.95; lunchtime portion is $7.95), while Rachid ordered the tempura and salmon combo ($15.95). I picked the tempura and sushi combo ($15.95), and to top it all off, we decided to split a caterpillar roll ($8.50). We all had a lot to choose from; the menu is large, featuring a full range of sushi and sashimi, along with the various tempuras, teriyakis, shioyakes, noodles and fried rices that you'd expect. Unexpectedly, several combination entrées featured New York steak; it can also be ordered as a separate dinner for $14.95.

The prices at Kampai are somewhat high. The lunches range from $7.95 for some bento boxes to $12.95 for teppan shrimp and scallops; the dinners and combination plates cost between $9.95 for vegetables supreme (and a few other dishes) to $25.95 for the sushi, sashimi and maki combination. Even sushi is offered by the piece, not in two-piece orders as is standard at many other sushi bars. Higher prices would be justifiable if the service and atmosphere were a few notches higher--but they aren't.

In the interim, we were served miso soup and salad. The soup was one of the weaker misos I've had; it was way too watered down. The salad, however, was better. The lettuce and carrot mix was run-of-the-mill, but the dressing, a brown-colored concoction featuring ginger in the starring role, was delightful.

When our entrées arrived, we were alternately thrilled and disappointed. The highlights included Rachid's salmon; while the sauce was a standard, sweet teriyaki, the fish was perfectly prepared and melt-in-your-mouth good. Hugh deemed his chicken katzu to be excellent; the breaded and sliced chicken pieces, served on a bed of shredded cabbage, were moist, and the dipping sauce was alternately sweet and sour, with tastes of soy and vinegar leading the way.

The tempura dishes, however, were lacking. My tempura shrimp were essentially tasteless, implying a deficiency in either the cooking technique, the ingredients, or both. The tempura batter on the vegetables--including broccoli, carrot, onion and squash--was similarly bland. Fortunately, I had the rest of my combo--a California roll and three pieces of sushi (salmon, snapper and whitefish)--to fall back on. All the ingredients were seemingly fresh, and I was satisfied.

Like our entrées, the caterpillar roll was a mixed bag. Featuring eel and cucumber wrapped in rice and covered with avocado and eel sauce, it was hindered by a weak-tasting eel sauce; otherwise, it was fine. (My only regret is that we didn't have a chance to sample more of the sushi and sashimi rolls and other fare.)

We left Kampai full, but somewhat unsatisfied. The phrase "so-so" came to all of our minds. And at Kampai's prices, I'm afraid that's not good enough.

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