Venue Review: Kalu Asian Kitchen
The Charlotte Observer
505 E. 6th Street
What chef and general manager Bryan Emperor has put together at Kalu is a beautiful, flawed, stunning, infuriating, oddly placed, intriguingly positioned venture.
And by venture, I mean risk. Will Charlotte diners be willing to find it (a block south of ImaginOn uptown), to look past early stumbles and continuing issues of product availability in order to embrace a place with terrific Asian food (when it's in supply) and a gorgeous aesthetic (when staff isn't pretentious)?
Because make no mistake, this is some extraordinary fare: Wagyu hanger steak with yuzu and coriander pesto, served on a stone. Exquisite layers of texture and flavor in an individual pot of Thai curry-sauced rice. Succulent lamb seasoned with spices from China's Xinjiang province (think Mongolia), with perfect pickled potato salad. Burstingly juicy dumplings in bamboo steamers.
It's just that sometimes, you've got to really want to experience it. In our handful of visits, all sushi and sashimi were unavailable one night; all wine (!) was out once; every valet parking spot was filled once (Bobcats' opening night); and the menu's salad of artisanal greens has never actually been in the house when I was.
There are reasons. Emperor explains the summer heat was too much for the delicate lettuces he is having grown locally (they're coming along now at Tega Hills), that he was revamping the wine list (now complete), that the parking usually works well, and is free. He's not sure what happened with the sushi/sashimi.
Servers are disconnected: Ours said the salad greens can't be gotten around here, and "Chef doesn't like the taste" of those that can. That's a whiff of the pretension or misinformation servers must lose quickly if Kalu is to succeed in the long haul.
Here's what they should be walking people through, specifically: Dishes come in tasting sizes and come to the table as they're ready. So two people should plan to share several items and graze as they arrive. Maybe mizuna salad, Japanese-style chicken wings, calamari tenpura, negima (a rolled Wagyu ribeye with teriyaki sauce), curry rice and pork shiu mai. That would come to about $75. You wouldn't be taking home a doggie bag, but you'd have tried a good cross-section of the lineup.
Emperor says his success relies on ingredients from Asian sources to which he has unusual access: Mongolian mountain salt, charcoal from Kyoto, certain sesame oils, artisanal soy sauces. But he says he also uses local foodstuffs. Servers need to be clearer on this, and even more.
For example, the rice that costs $10-$16? Here's why: Cooked in individual pots and brought to the table in wooden frames, the result is a marvelously varied texture - a bit of caramelization, a bit of crunch, a softer interior, dotted with toppings that melt or soak or are stirred in. If rice is rice to you, don't order this.
That rice is traditional Japanese fare not often seen in America, and was Esquire's restaurant writer's favorite at Kalu, which he ranked among America's top 20 new restaurants in the November issue. (Of course, he raved about the Korean-spiced chicken wings, too, which baffles Emperor, since he much prefers the Japanese-style ones.)
Ask about off-menu specials, since servers don't always offer. We had excellent lamb dumplings and hamachi maki (yellowtail roll). Don't miss skewered Wagyu with garlic chips, chicken with yuzu (a citrus) and pork belly with lemon. Emperor wishes more diners would try the BLT skewer (pepper bacon, lettuce, tomato and Japanese mayo) and the sushi roll with sweet omelet and shiitake.
Richly toned light fixtures and bold artwork add color to an airy space divided into bar, lounge, dining room and upstairs. The music can be loud, and anime screens are everywhere.
That Esquire note helped business a bit, Emperor says, but he knows he'll have to figure out Charlotte on his own. His background, briefly: Born in Brooklyn, he headed for a finance career and went to study in Japan during college. After becoming a sales trader there for Lehman Brothers, he realized (at 30) he really wanted to cook. Thus began a back-and-forth: Culinary Institute of America; Tokyo externship; stints in U.S. kitchens of star chefs Nobu Matsuhisa, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz; helping open a Beijing place; back to Virginia, then New York, then Oregon - good press all along the way.
A chance for his own place in Portland fell through and he met Jason Vicks, who owns Kalu with partners.
And what will Charlotte say? As a suitably cryptic Japanese proverb goes: If you speak of tomorrow, the rats in the ceiling will laugh. In other words: Who knows? I say this: Kalu needs to straighten out service and to move hard-to-stock dishes to a specials list - but it deserves a chance, for food we're not going to get anywhere else.