When I sang the praises of downtown’s Hale House last week, I hinted it was one of three fantastic new restaurants to have recently emerged on the local dining scene.
Kita Modern Japanese Restaurant is the second one.
After news broke that yet another Asian-themed eatery would be opening in the same Southridge location that formerly housed a struggling Red Fire Asian Grill and a few failed follow-ups, I was afraid its fate would be much the same.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Owned and operated by new and very respected international restaurateurs, Kita has already blown me away with progressive, inventive, top-quality Asian cuisine and what is among the best service I’ve experienced in any restaurant, in any city, ever.
Although very similar-looking from the outside, Kita’s interior has been revamped to maintain Red Fire’s “cool” vibe, but with a much cleaner and more modern feel.
The hibachi grills have been moved to a back room, where you can still enjoy an interactive table-side cooking experience, if that’s what you’re after. But trust me, the new main dining area they’ve created — and its incredibly creative menu — is where it’s at.
There, you can enjoy a wide range of inventive sushi, sashimi, hot and cold appetizers, noodle and rice bowls, ramen dishes, bento meals, entrees, and a large selection of new tapas-like Japanese specialties that are tailor-made for sampling — and sharing.
Enjoy cold starters like tuna tataki with daikon, garlic chips, ponzu and micro shiso; flounder with Peruvian yellow chile pepper, orange yuzu, red onion, heirloom tomatoes, chive oil and cilantro; and salmon crudo with orange ponzu, citrus oil, black fish roe and wasabi.
Try hot apps like assorted tempura, stuffed bao buns, filled wontons, calamari with fried jalapenos, and Korean-fried chicken wings with a soy garlic or hot sauce glaze.
Sample tempura candied bacon with honey aioli; brisket spring rolls with roasted mushrooms and black vinegar sauce; Kalbi short ribs with kimchi; tempura bagel roll sushi with salmon, cream cheese, avocado and tempura; or the “Fry Me A River” roll, featuring a variety of chopped fishes that are rolled in salmon and fried.
Or venture into more adventurous territory with steamed sake mussels with chili spice, bacon, corn and shiso; miso-marinated black cod with pickled ginger; and slow-cooked beef short ribs with aromatic curry spices and coconut milk.
And we haven’t even gotten to the entrees yet.
There’s pan-seared Faroe Island salmon with braised soybeans, crisp onions and lemongrass pesto; pork katsu with sweet potato, miso gravy and a fried egg; a whole fish with grilled orange, fried rice and seasonal vegetables; pork tenderloin with seasoned furikake rice and sweet soy glaze; butter-basted New York strip with mashed Japanese mountain yams; and tonkotsu ramen with pork belly broth, a soy egg and scallions.
Among Kita’s most popular dishes are a handful of can’t-miss items made on the restaurant’s unique “robata” grill. Short for robatayaki (meaning “fireside cooking”) robata is similar to barbecuing, in which foods are cooked over very hot charcoal. This unique cooking style results in a deliciously charred crust outside and juicy, tender beef, chicken, seafood or whatever inside.
Robata items here include plain (but incredible) chicken and steak satay, plus grilled lobster tail with yuzu butter, togarashi spice and grilled lemon; a thick-cut pork chop with plum glaze and nori butter; lamb chops with red miso and lime; Chinese barbecue pork spare ribs with peanuts and scallions; braised and charred octopus with tonkotsu ramen grits; plus rib-eye and prawns and tuna and more.
I mean, seriously, the choices are mind-blowing. I’ve already eaten at Kita three times, and it’s been ridiculously good across the board.
On my first visit, just days after the place opened, we sampled half a dozen plates that included crispy pork belly with fried onions over creamy tonkotsu grits; the house specialty “BFF” roll with tuna, avocado, scallion and tempura salmon; grilled beef ribs; and a baked Asian pear topped with maple sauce, candied pecans and vanilla ice cream.
As good as that visit was, it still couldn’t have prepared me for the tasty tour de force that came a few weeks later, when a large group of us met at Kita for a birthday lunch, where we enjoyed a special menu sampling that included a bounty of phenomenal food.
That day, we were first mesmerized by the presentation, then speechless by the deliciousness of a bounty of treats, like Japanese seven-spice edamame basted in garlic butter and topped with “living” bonito flakes. I say “living” because not only were the flavors incredible, but the bonito (thin dried fish flakes) fluttered back and forth on top of the dish as the steam from the edamame slowly rehydrated them, making for a real “wow” presentation.
Then came plate after plate of gems like pork dumpling gyoza with chili soy vinaigrette; crab-fried rice with garlic, ginger, egg and cilantro; yakisoba noodles topped with a glistening fried egg; an assortment of robata skewers; and two different sushi rolls.
The surf and turf (panko shrimp, bacon, scallop, avocado, asparagus and seared rib-eye) has quickly become a signature offering, but I thought the zippy Fiesta Roll (yellowtail tuna, jalapeno, scallion, avocado, crab delight and pico de gallo) was even better.
Saving the best for last, our dessert that day was a platter filled with wedges of buttery Hawaiian cake and Japanese kabocha (pumpkin-like) bread pudding with toasted pumpkin seeds and scoops of red-bean and green-tea ice cream. It’s my new favorite dessert in town, hands down.
That culinary extravaganza was so amazing I took my family back three days later for the same experience, with a few new dishes thrown in for good measure. We enjoyed many of the same delights, along with bacon-wrapped asparagus from the robata grill, seared tuna and new sushi combinations.
As many great dishes as I’ve enjoyed so far, there’s still a world of other choices on the menu to try.
During every visit, we’ve been enthusiastically greeted at the door, quickly escorted to our table and completely catered to throughout our meal by warm, attentive, happy servers, whose joy has been infectious. (While they do know who I am now, we received this same service on our first visits before they did.)
And if you visited Kita when it first opened a month or so ago and were sad at the absence of adult beverages, I’m happy to report the restaurant now offers a fully stocked bar.
On that note, I’d like to toast this hot new spot for providing some of the best overall dining experiences — we’re talking ambiance, food and service — that I’ve enjoyed in the Kanawha Valley.
Kita is killing it, and I sure hope everyone will give it a try. We so need a place this good to stick around.
IF YOU GO: Kita Modern Japanese Restaurant, 2815 Mountaineer Blvd. at Southridge, is open from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 304-205-5200 or visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.