1400 Vine St.
Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
Sun-Thurs: 5:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m.
Fri-Sat: 5:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m.
Share: $5 – $8
Yakitori: $4 – $7
Soup: $7 – $10
Main: $19 – $23
Rolls: $7 – $17
The winds of change have been blowing strongly through Over-The-Rhine these past few years. Both the city and private firms have invested millions of dollars in its continuing revitalization. With the complete remodel of the historic Cincinnati Color Building by 3CDC one more breeze has joined the gale – Kaze
Kaze is a new Japanese gastropub / sushi bar located on the first floor of the Color Building. It’s the product of co-owners Jon Zipperstein of Embers in Kenwood and Hideki Harada formerly of Embers and Boca among others. The restaurant offers a trio of experiences with a relaxed dining area, hip lounge and landscaped beer garden.
We had been hearing great things, so decided to go check out this new arrival to OTRs Gateway Quarter ourselves.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Kaze is one of a handful of restaurants in OTR that offers valet parking, so if you’re coming down from outside the 275 loop and are worried about finding a space you needn’t worry. What you should worry about is making reservations. We arrived at a little after 5 p.m. on a Saturday night and the main dining room was booked solid.
Thankfully, they have their bar / lounge area in back which is first-come-first-serve seating and offers the full menu. The transition from the contemporary but subdued dining area to the hip, upbeat lounge area was striking. The serenity of the former was replaced with thumping music, the bustle of servers tending to the other patrons and the flicker of anime and Japanese movies on a row of screens in the wall. The music was loud enough to enjoy, but not so deafening as to destroy a conversation.
After finding a nice spot our server introduced himself and informed us Happy Hour was running from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., so we started out with a house hot sake and a Sapporo draft beer while we perused the menu.
The offerings at Kaze are a wonderful blend of traditional Japanese foundations applied in a decidedly modern fashion. I hesitate to call it ‘fusion’ – fusion to me conjures up images of half-assed buffets and ‘sushi’ made by people who can’t be bothered to learn to make the real thing.
The work Hideki Harada and his team do at Kaze is so much more than that. Excluding the sushi and drink offerings, the menu is small – it fits on a single page – and is broken into a handful of categories. It was clear Mr. Harada knew exactly what he wanted to offer and nothing more. No fluff. Kaze knows what it is, and it would show us that several times throughout the night.
We decided to go all out and split a sampling of a variety of things. In the appetizers section we chose the Niku Sliders, from the yakitori section came the Momo, for our rolls we selected half orders of the Cobra Kai and Big Ass Roll and, lastly, for our entrees decided upon the Pork Cheeks and the Hanger Steak.
Since we ordered everything all at once, our server portioned everything out into courses for us. The first dishes to arrive were the Niku Sliders and the Momo. There’s an obvious focus on presenting the food as art, and each selection was laid out as beautifully as it was delicious. The Niku Sliders consisted of Korean barbecue style short rib with cucumber kimchi nestled into small buns. The short rib was incredibly savory with just the right touch of sweet to not be overwhelming.
The Momo was a pair of grilled chicken thigh skewers accompanied by dabs of both Japanese honey mustard and saam sauce. The chicken itself was grilled perfectly – tender and juicy but with just the right amount of char. As good as they were on their own the two sauces made them fantastic. Caroline’s favorite was the Japanese honey mustard, which had the normal sweet & tangy flavor combination but with a hint of what I think was wasabi. My favorite was the saam sauce, which added a little more sweet than the honey mustard and brought more balance to the grilled flavor of the chicken.
Either way, they paired really well with the Sapporo.
For the second act our server brought our half-and-half order of the Cobra Kai and Big Ass Rolls. This is the one area where I have to admit that I was a touch underwhelmed. The Cobra Kai rolls were shiso, kampachi and cucumber with a jalapeno ponzu while the Big Ass Rolls contained Eel, egg, crab, Kaze’s house made pickles and an old-fashioned Edo style tsume sauce.
It’s not that the rolls weren’t good – they were. It’s just after the fantastic Niku Sliders and Momo my expectations were for greatness and they just didn’t quite deliver. Both rolls had very subtle flavors, the Big Ass Rolls having just a touch of sweetness to them while the Cobra Kai carried more of the delicate flavor of the kampachi. I remained unimpressed though, and look forward to trying some of their more traditional sushi offerings to see how they compare.
For what it’s worth, the flavor of the Cobra Kai blended well with the house sake which – for a hot sake – was surprisingly fruity with a sweetness that highlighted the fish in the rolls.
Almost as soon as we finished the waiter whisked away our plates and returned in a few moments with our entrees and any amount of disappointment over unmet expectations left linger from the rolls was washed away.
The Pork Cheeks sat in an artful pile atop the perfectly cooked and nearly translucent daikon which itself was laid atop baby kale, onions and what I think were slivers of garlic in a dashi soy broth. Every bite of pork was soft enough to melt in your mouth and provided an explosion of flavor with each bite. Combined with the braised daikon and a touch of the kale it was perfection.
The Hanger Steak was thinly sliced and perfectly grilled to a beautiful red. It was arranged neatly on a bed of roasted fingerling potatoes and onions with a light drizzle of Argentinian chimichurri on top. All together it was wonderful, the steak and potatoes made for a delicious combination and the chimichurri added that small extra touch needed to bring out the flavors. Even so, I didn’t like it quite as much as I had liked the pork cheeks.
Then I hit the bacon.
On the bottom lay thin strips of bacon that, when combined with the potatoes and steak, elevated the dish from really good to incredible. Best of all, while the prices are relatively high and the portions are relatively small, we found we were completely satisfied by our entrees – again Kaze knew exactly what it was and delivered it perfectly.
When the server came again to clear our plates we originally thought our meal was at an end – but then we were offered dessert. The desserts aren’t listed on the menu, so the server described what they had available. We chose his two recommendations, the house made fortune cookie with salted caramel and chocolate wasabi ice cream and the s’more made with a marshmallow mousse on also house made graham crackers.
Both delivered just as much as the entrees had. The fortune cookie was ok on its own, but was excellent with the ice creams. The chocolate wasabi in particular, while potentially sounding off-putting, was excellent in much the same way a good chocolate & cayenne ice cream is. The s’more was heaven. Kaze could’ve easily made the mistake of producing a s’more that was cloyingly, obliteratively sweet – but they showed restraint tempering it with just the right amount of saltiness in the marshmallow mousse to give it the addictive quality of chocolate covered pretzels.
We left Kaze that night with extremely happy taste buds and the growing suspicion that we would be back many, many times in the future. By 6:30 the lounge area had filled with a large crowd undoubtedly there for good drinks, good sushi and good conversation and it showed no sign of slowing down by the time we left.
Verdict: A Required OTR Stop
Kaze simultaneously has a bit of a split-personality and yet is extremely confident in what it is and wants to be. The front dining area (which you should definitely get reservations for if you want to dine in) was a contemporary and serene oasis of inspired modern Japanese cuisine. The lounge area on the other hand was upbeat, loud and nearly the dichotomous opposite of the space right behind the shared wall.
This dining duality is deftly handled as Kaze is unabashed about who it’s for and what it offers. It doesn’t pull any punches. Case in point, I heard the f-word no less than 5 times in the music they were playing (which was excellent, by the way). A more timid restaurant would’ve worried about offending people. Not Kaze. That sense of confidence was exuded by everything from the decor to the dishes and it really pulled together the whole experience of the evening.
Beyond all that the food – with the possible exception of the underwhelming sushi rolls – was absolutely fantastic. Every dish delivered in both flavor and presentation in a way that left us completely satisfied. While a potentially pricey option there’s no sense of extortion at Kaze that can come from some upscale restaurants – you may have a sizable bill at the conclusion of your meal but you’ll leave knowing you got every bit of what you paid for.
We’ll be going back. Often. I encourage you to do the same.