Delhi is obsessed with two words. They come accompanied with chopsticks, have a dipping side of sweet chilli sauce, and dangle on two ends of a hyphen. We’re talking about ‘pan-Asian’, and if you hadn’t guessed it so far, you probably aren’t a member of the fan club. The reason for its popularity may be that restaurants serving these dance on the periphery of authentic just enough to please the more experimental eaters with their sushi and bibimbap, but also serve comfort on a plate with classic ‘Chindian’ fare.
So how does a new restaurant on the block, one that claims to serve authentic Japanese food, join this game? I find out at Kampai, the newest restaurant at Aerocity, New Delhi. Kampai has come to serve Delhi’s ever-increasing appetite for eating out, and also serve as a watering hole for the city’s (especially Gurgaon’s) increasing Japanese expat community. It has been started by Avantika Bahl, who has a culinary bone in her family (hint: they come from the much revered Embassy legacy in CP), and the kitchen is helmed by Chef Shoji Morita from Japan.
I visit Kampai one mild winter evening with a friend who had recently ticked her lifelong dream of visiting Japan. Apart from being my authentic-radar, my friend (let’s call her ‘V’) was also to act as the non-vegetarian accompaniment to my vegetarian sensibilities for this dinner.
We begin the meal with a light shiitake broth with garlic and spring onions, which turned out to be a good way to wake up the taste buds. While we are merrily slurping, a few appetisers arrive at our minimally decorated table—assorted vegetable tempura, a braised Belgian pork belly and a Korean style fried chicken. The fried chicken, says V, is one of the lightest, most well done and a rival to Kentucky, and the dipping sauce has similar praise. The pork belly too, is a winner, with its delectable honey and soy jam. The tempura, however, which is a batter-fried assortment of sweet potatoes, carrots, baby corn and others was rather bland, and the accompanying truffle aioli and ginger soy don’t do much to lift its flavour, unfortunately for me. So far, it’s vegetarian -1, non-vegetarian – 2.
As with every menu, I am delighted to reach the subheads ‘dimsum’ and ‘sushi’. The three-mushroom gyoza (who doesn’t love the pan-fried, slightly-charred taste of gyoza?) is splendid, and I’m tempted to order another, a thought soon brushed aside as the server sets down a goat cheese, water chestnut and spinach dim sum. Sounds exciting, but the goat cheese is no equivalent for the usual Philadelphia cream cheese filling, and the platter lays forgotten. Meanwhile, two large assorted platters of vegetarian and non-vegetarian sushi arrive. Not only is the plating a visual delight, but these are also delicious. Here are the highlights—a Philadelphia roll (with chopped apple, ginger and cream cheese), the vegetarian caterpillar roll, the rainbow roll (with crabstick and avocado), salmon katsu roll and California roll.
You would think that we would be full till now but not quite—V ordered the shoyo ramen with pork, and I went for the ma-bo-nasu, which is eggplant cooked in a mabu-sauce and had tepanyaki noodles on the side. The ramen, is not up to the mark, and lacks the complexity of flavor one expects from a ramen, but—and I’m surprised—my humble eggplant dish more than makes up for it. The vegetarian food balanced the non-vegetarian, and as Avantika and V talk about their visits to Japan, I happily slurp on my noodles, which are homely and reminiscent of a chilli garlic variant I know my mother (the less experimental sort) would enjoy. My only advice here, however, would be to skip the desert—at least the matcha tiramisu, which is too dense for my liking.
It would be imprudent not to talk about the ambience of the restaurant—it does make up half the experience, after all. Pantone may have declared coral the colour of 2019, but we love ourselves a little lilac, and Kampai’s interiors are gorgeous, making you feel as though you are sitting in a chic cherry blossom wonderland. With sheer wine curtains, the tables could be turned into a private dining area with an air of privacy—your private hanami (flower-viewing) ground, if you will. Just around the corner, there is also a private dining room for groups with traditional tatami tables and a concealed leg space.
Is the food authentic? Well, as much as it can be, considering how far the ingredients have travelled and whom it is meant for, ultimately. And are we going there again? That’s a soya-soaked yes.