Shivering on a damp December night, I squint at the Pacific City directory looking for Kai. It’s been open since Halloween—how can it not be listed? My cohort checks his phone map to no avail. More breathless trudging eventually lands us at the hostess station, and we’re soon seated under a canopy of cherry blossoms ordering green-tea-infused Japanese whisky drinks. Whew.
It’s early and staffers outnumber diners, ensuring we get gracious, speedy service. The dinner menu covers a lot of ground, from gyoza to sticky ribs to crudo to lavish steaks. Executive chef Tin Nguyen’s dishes are more Asian fusion than Japanese, despite the deluxe sushi options. We’re encouraged to order two to three items per person to consume as they roll out from the kitchen. Soon, our little two top is a Tetris challenge of dishes and glasses, making eating a fraught obstacle course. Next visit, I trickle my orders like breadcrumbs and suggest you do the same—so hot dishes don’t grow cold and sleeves don’t drag through sauces.
Pacing isn’t an issue in the 10-seat sushi bar, set apart in a private alcove. Also apart from the main dining room is a yakitori bar, a whisky room, an omakase “speakeasy,” and the patio. Billed as an “immersive experience” that evokes Tokyo nightlife, Kai is the latest from Wild Thyme Group, the team behind Newport Beach’s crowd-pleasing Shorebird. The meandering dinner menu is heavy on snacks, appetizers, and share plates that encourage casual noshing.
Three juicy wagyu meatballs in a petite iron skillet are terrific foils for the impeccably nuanced green tea Old-Fashioned—the restrained orange-teriyaki meatball glaze counters the bite of Suntory whisky. A robata skewer of silky Hokkaido scallops is delicately charcoal grilled under a wash of mirin butter. Lush watermelon salad offers thin slabs of sweet fruit zhooshed by lime salt, nubbins of pork belly, and stellar yuzu kosho vinaigrette. The salmon skin hand roll is exactly what you expect and no more. But the elegant toro nigiri is masterful; you couldn’t ask for any better.
Yes, you can get Shorebird’s popular Balboa roll here, but the Hashbrown is sure to be the darling cut roll of Kai. The ingredients read like a hot mess, but the kitchen works magic with crispy potatoes, tuna, blue crab, and cream cheese for a harmonious marvel of textures and temperatures. Buttery Japanese black cod is rich and classic—bites of the
miso-marinated fillet melt on the tongue, leaving the slightest edges of sweet, caramelized mirin. Alas, pork belly fried rice is greasy and heavy. The jidori chicken variation is more balanced but far from fluffy.
Shaking beef recalls its Vietnamese inspiration; the ultra-smooth tenderloin in charred chunks taste of lemongrass though the menu says lemon and ponzu. Sticky ribs aren’t so much sticky as gloppy under scads of plummy barbecue sauce, Anaheim chiles, and fresh cilantro. Others merrily gobble up the four ribs I found squishy and gelatinous; we all relished the Handi Wipes. Kai’s deftly grilled wagyu skewers showcase why we pay dearly for the marbled cuts. Sourcing and affording A-5 Japanese or Australian “black opal” beef is perhaps the most challenging aspect because once it’s in the house, it requires minimal intervention to delight diners—season sparingly and don’t overcook is the recipe. Which explains why it tends to taste the same, albeit fabulous, wherever you find it. Here, it’s the grandest option of the signature dishes.
Modern cocktails by Bar Director Topher Bray are novel and consistently executed. Some, like the smoking grilled peach Old-Fashioned under its dome of smoke, involve a bit of theater. The vodka-based Purple Rain arrives with a misty bubble you pop to access the violet elixir. Seeing the trick once is enough, but you’ll order another round for the swell drink, not the show. There’s a dazzling selection of Japanese whisky, but those options reside in a private dining room. Bottles of worthy sake are more accessible, on every menu.
Lots of matte black contrasting with bright artwork and flowery accents give the space modern, mainstream appeal. A neon logo wall welcomes all who enter with an urge to post on social media before laying eyes on the menu. From there, Kai is sort of a choose-your-own-adventure with its many rooms, mindsets, and menus. There’s much to enjoy, and like my test drives, getting lost leads to discovery.