The Contender: Kaze

Kaze, Jon Zipperstein’s new American izakaya, takes a paintbrush to the Vine Street scene.

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On the facade of the 110-year-old building that houses the restaurant Kaze, a vintage sign still hangs 11 years after the Cincinnati Color Company moved out. Inside, on the third floor, there’s an even more remarkable site: a space with 18-foot ceilings, arched windows, and round portals that was home to a boxing gym in the 1940s. World Heavyweight Champion Ezzard Charles trained here. Core Resources (the general contractor for this building) has moved its corporate headquarters to the third floor site where Charles once polished his dynamite right. And in January Jon Zipperstein and Hideki Harada entered the ring, opening Kaze (pronounced kah-zay) on the first floor—the largest establishment so far in what’s become Cincinnati’s restaurant mecca.
Not surprisingly, they came out swinging.

While Harada is Kaze’s executive chef, it is Zipperstein’s nearly 40-year tenure in the restaurant industry that distinguishes Kaze as one of the more ambitious establishments on the Vine Street scene. Zipperstein himself has some serious cred as a chef: a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, positions in half a dozen high profile New York City kitchens before moving to Cincinnati to become executive chef of Jeff Ruby’s Waterfront restaurant during its late 1980s heyday. But it’s his long partnership with Gregg Pancero—owner of Trio Bistro and Embers restaurant—for which most locals best know him. At Embers, an early model of the sushi-and-steakhouse concept, Zipperstein hired Harada as the sushi chef fresh from a gig at Nobu in Manhattan. After a year at Embers and a few more in several other local kitchens, including Boca, Harada moved to Japan to reconnect with family and dive deeper into his culinary heritage.

Kaze showcases many dishes and traditions of Japan, but it’s a stretch to identify it singularly as a Japanese restaurant. It has roots in an izakaya eatery, best defined as casual gastropub or small plate restaurant, traditionally serving noodles, skewered meats, sushi, and sake (izakaya translates somewhat to “hang out in a sake shop”). These items are all present, as is an impressive beer and wine selection, but Kaze still has one foot in the great American canon of hearty main courses—pork tenderloin, hanger steak, king salmon, and pork cheeks among them—and rich desserts. It’s likely this something-for-everyone style is informed by Trio, where Zipperstein was executive chef for a decade, and Embers, where he has spent nearly as much time as managing partner. Both are very successful restaurants with a similar prescription. Both survived a sluggish economy and have thrived as the local restaurant scene has experienced a turnaround.

The integrated personality of Kaze’s menu suits the three distinct spaces that flow into one: a comfortable dining room that seats roughly 100 diners and includes a sushi counter overlooking an open kitchen, an industrial-chic indoor bar that often thrums to the beat of a DJ or karaoke (with go-go dancers!), and a partially covered outdoor bar with a gas flame fire pit. The indoor bar, accessible from 14th Street, is stage-lit by two enormous light fixtures of pleated red silk, a wall-size grid of glowing sake barrels inked in Japanese kanji, and a bank of televisions screening Japanese art-house movies and anime. A lantern-lined hallway connects the bar to a dining room notable for its magnificent semi-circular wall tiled in copper and verdigris panels, and a shimmering chandelier of translucent capiz shell. Including the indoor and outdoor bars, Kaze is a sizeable 200-seat restaurant serving both a full and limited menu that doesn’t rely on fancy footwork as much as familiar dishes and fresh ingredients.

Most of Harada’s menu items are inviting and executed with precision, but not everything has the wow factor.Start in the small plates section of the menu—dubbed “Share,” though you may be reluctant to do so—with the pork buns, a duo of steamed buns à la David Chang with crispy pork belly, frisee, slivers of apple, and a smidge of mustard vinaigrette. And maybe not the Korean-style Niku sliders either, whose classic combination of beef short rib, cucumber kimchi, and sweetish barbecue sauce tucked into a sesame bun affirm that the best marriages require both tenderness and contrariness. Less consistent in the small plate choices are the yakitori, a selection of marinated, seasoned, skewered, and grilled proteins (chicken breast or thigh, shrimp or Kobe beef) that—with the exception of the shrimp—all leaned toward a well-done temperature, a few degrees too far for bite-sized portions.Among the salads the mesclun/arugula mixture with blood orange dressed in ginger vinaigrette is refreshing, and the house salad breezily pretty with pert watermelon radishes and crisp lotus root.

Main courses are substantial and deeply flavored, leaning on Asian ingredients—dashi, ginger, yuzu, enoki, shichimi togarashi (a peppery seven-spice seasoning)—and deftly strike a balance between fat, acidity, and texture. Notable are both the sesame encrusted King salmon with seaweed and a wonderful onigiri (rice ball) that’s done yaki style—seared on the flattop grill for a crisper and more seasoned version; and fork-tender pork cheeks with braised daikon, baby kale, and a dashi soy broth.

With the exception of the dreamy housemade ice cream (hello, chocolate wasabi!), desserts are clunky, large, and seem incongruous with the rest of the menu, a departure from the just-right balance of sweet heat and depth that most of the other savory dishes get right. The oversized fortune cookie that accompanies the ice cream, as cute as it is, is too thick, breaking into shards rather than snapping like the thin tuile it should be. Nor could we get behind the cloyingly sweet riff on a s’more, the current poster child of restaurant desserts (chocolate molten cake, you’ve been served). Housemade graham crackers (again, too thick to cut), are piled with marshmallow mousse and zig-zagged with chocolate sauce in an unappealing plate presentation more suited to a high school Home Economics class or a second-tier steakhouse than a contemporary urban restaurant. Boys, call a pastry chef, stat.

Harada’s maki rolls are inventive and the Nobu influence—yuzu and chimichurri sauces; jalapeño paired with kampachi—is apparent. The sashimi fish is brightly hued, fresh, and served properly with the chill off of it. The nigiri rice has the right hit of seasoned vinegar. There is not an ounce of cream cheese in sight (thank you).

So why aren’t I more dazzled by Kaze’s sushi? Perhaps it’s because with all of Harada’s experience, including studying with acclaimed Chef Norihisa Horiuchi while he lived in Osaka, I was hoping to have more of a Big Sushi Moment. Or perhaps it’s because the body blow Harada delivers with his seemingly humble bowl of ramen tonkotsu makes the sushi seem pale in comparison. Ramen tonkotsu is considered the Holy Grail of Japan’s noodle soups, and Harada’s is a knockout: a full-bodied (but not weighty) broth that’s almost creamy—rich with pork bone marrow, chicken, and dashi. The verdant bok choy and scallion, tempura encrusted nori, slices of pork belly, and soft-boiled egg come together with the squiggly al dente noodles to create a dish as seductive as it is sincere. Shhhh…don’t wake me up. I’m down for the count on this one.

1400 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 898-7991, kazeotr.com

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