The dining room at Kaze officially opened Jan. 14, but I spent an evening dining in the bar area a few weeks before then — first, to avoid deadline pressure and second, to take along an ex-pat American friend who has been living in Tokyo for the past five years. Sometimes, it's good to have a ringer on your tasting team.
The build-out at Kaze is breathtaking. The old Cincinnati Color building on Vine Street is such a landmark that it would have been dreadful had it been torn down, and Kaze saved it. The two spaces — the bar and the dining room — are distinctive and distinctly different from each other. The focal points in the bar are giant pleated lampshades — ruby red — and a wall of cleverly lit sake barrels. An outdoor garden will open in spring.
We sat on oversized red leather hassocks against a wall with inset video screens, and the selection of shows was pretty eclectic — from an authentic Japanese game show where the contestants try to remove women's bras via a series of wires and clips that cause the contestants extreme pain, to scenes from the film masterpiece Ran by Akira Kurosawa.
It all makes sense after a few glasses of sake, right? The warm sake — Tozai "Living Jewel" — ($14/carafe) at Kaze was most welcome on the freezing-cold night we were there. It's not premium sake — they are generally served cold — but it was plenty good. Have cold sake, like the sparkling Kurashizuku ($21/carafe) with an Uni Shooter ($6), sea urchin instead of oyster.
I enjoyed one of the six featured cocktails, the Araki ($9), a delicious Eastern take on a rye Manhattan. There's something for everyone on the beer list, starting with $3 PBRs and $3.75 Hudys, up to Dogfish Head Sahtea ($30) and Rogue Imperial Pils ($25) — big beers at wine bottle prices.
We tasted the entire menu, and there weren't any disappointments. My favorites were the pork buns ($8) — crisped pork belly with curly frisee and tart apples on house-made yeast buns — and the short rib sliders ($8) with cucumber pickled kimchi style and a rich Korean barbecue sauce. As my friend said, "Any fool would know the short rib sliders were going to be amazing, but who woulda thought that the ‘Wa' Castle turkey sliders ($8) were so good? But they had bacon on them, right?" Right.
We found another perfect way to warm up: Kaze's amazing bowl of Ramen Tonkotsu ($10). According to my Tokyo guest, "There are a million different kinds (of ramen in Japan) and everyone argues about which one is ‘the best,' but the style at Kaze — pork bone broth with egg and bamboo shoots — is very typical. Their ramen was delicious and they could definitely sell it [in Tokyo], no problem."
The other special ingredient in Kaze's ramen? Pork belly. My friend insisted that he didn't need to swallow it — it just melted down his throat.
There's a bigger selection of sushi in the main dining room, but we tried and enjoyed the Bigeye Tuna ($8) and The OTR roll ($7) — both with top-quality tuna — and The Drop Kick roll ($7). It's accompanied by mustard sauce that's meant to be super spicy, but is really just a pleasant buzz. Your conservative eater will love the karaage fried chicken ($8) — grownup chicken nuggets with two good sauces: a hot mustard with mayo and pickle, almost like tartar sauce, and the smoky ssam sauce.
When you leave the bar and head to the main dining room, you follow a bridge lined with bamboo shades that leads to a wall of overlapping copper panels, like square shimmering fish scales, that wrap the end of the kitchen. In an izakaya in Japan, you typically have your own private or semi-private dining area, and Kaze will be screening some of their booths for authenticity.
My friend regaled us with a tale of "maid cafes" in Tokyo where the servers dress in French maid costumes and you can order any number of specialties from their menu. For the equivalent of $10 in yen, the "maid" will slap your face. For a slight upcharge, you can lay your head in her lap while she cleans the wax from your ears. And for $100, she will sit with you at your table and play The Game of Life. That's a little beyond Cincinnati's comfort zone, but Kaze, I think, can still teach us a few new tricks.
Go: 1400 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight Sunday