The Weekly Eater


Sunday, February 17, 2002

Zen Suga, left, is prepared for the lunch rush at Kensei while owner Ken Takabashi shows the star-accented menu.

Fine surprises hide behind
Kensei’s no-frills facade

I've always been curious about Kensei -- that's with a shooting star dotting the "i" in the restaurant's name, suggesting a Japanese restaurant with nontraditional aims.

As an example of how feng shui theories do work, I never stopped in because its exterior is like a fortress. For those who like to know where they're going before taking a risk, the building's King Street-side facade offers little clue to the restaurant's ambience, how many patrons it has, or whether it is open, closed or out of business. It's different for those driving up Keeaumoku, who can see the door's "Open" sign.

Well, it is the year of the horse, and therefore a year of full-charge risk-taking. The wall would come down.

What do you know? Behind the bleak exterior, there is life. Patrons are greeted with parlor lighting and relaxed ambience that is equal parts coffee shop and Japanese restaurant. That being the case, the crowd is an equal mix of locals and Japanese speakers, and I consider it a good sign when cuisine can bridge cultural gaps.

In the evening, there is a shabu shabu pot at almost every table, and where the shabu shabu pot goes, camaraderie follows. You just have to be good friends or family to eat out of the same pot. Growing up here we take that for granted, but you can bet that sharing bites in public is pretty much of a dining faux pas elsewhere in America.

WE'VEHADTHE right kind of weather for the soupy brew that allows everyone to boil thinly sliced beef, vegetables, tofu and long rice at their leisure, flavoring the ingredients with ponzu and sesame dipping sauces to taste. The basic shabu shabu, with strip loin, is $19.95 per person; USDA prime beef is offered for $27. Unlimited shabu shabu is offered only when every member of the party orders it, at $22.50 per person for adults, $13 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for ages 5 and under.

The rest of the menu attempts to stretch the boundaries of this cuisine, both by introducing more of Japan to the local part of the equation and bringing more local to the Japanese. It's an interesting experiment, as if someone on staff had made a trek to L'Uraku then tried to recreate the experience on a modest scale.

Opakapaka Carpaccio ($7.25) was one such dish, with the fish thinly sliced and marinated in olive oil, soy sauce and Japanese basil. While at L'Uraku there would be a great crispness and clarity of flavors, here, the mix is muddled, the oil weighing down the delicate fish.

It's better that you stick with less demanding fare such as the grilled cubed filet mignon and mushrooms sauteed with plenty of garlic. For those with a tolerance for rare beef, there is blackened beef ($7.95) which has been seared like ahi, sliced to reveal its red interior, and served cold with ponzu sauce.

If you're low on cash, $10 will get you a filling appetizer of shrimp tempura with eggplant, zucchini, sweet potato, carrot slices and four, instead of the usual three, pieces of shrimp. This is definitely a local innovation, as three is the preferred number in Japanese culture, being both aesthetically pleasing and auspicious.

You'll feel better about eating all that deep-fried food if you balance it with a healthy order of steamed kabocha pumpkin ($3.75) in warm dashi.

Now it was time to move on to the house specialties. Pan-fried scallops ($16) served with a shiitake lemon sauce sounded so tempting. Alas, the first rule of frying scallops is to drain as much of the liquid from them before starting. This didn't happen and as a result, the scallops were boiled in their own juices, becoming too flabby to enjoy.

Similarly, island moi ($19.50) was deep-fried to a pleasant crisp, but this effect was spoiled by layering a damp mix of stir-fried vegetables over it.

Again, it was better to go with a more forgiving dish of grilled chicken ($12.50), bite-sized pieces layered with shiitake, button and oyster mushrooms and garlic. Kensei's miso butterfish ($13.50) is also excellent.

Although the menu isn't perfect, I think any kind of experimentation is healthy. There are plenty of options here and chances are good that you'll come up with your own list of favorite dishes.


1380 S. King St., 941-5323

Food StarStar1/2

Service StarStarStar1/2

Ambience StarStar1/2

Value StarStarStar

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. weekdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturdays; and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays

Cost: About $10 to $15 per person for lunch; $35 to $55 for two for dinner without drinks

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

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