Looking for some small plates and some interesting cocktails on a Saturday night, we ventured downtown to make “Kamei Baru” our destination. I was sold on its comparison to Guu and other like Japanese tapas by my guests. I have never heard of the place or been past it, so was surprised to read that its conception was in 1972. A fact proudly displayed on their red back lit sign that was also highlighted their name. By the entrance stood a table, on it a copy of the menu fanned out. It gave pedestrians passing by the option to see before they taste, look before they buy.
The restaurant’s windowed walls were opened along the side walk. It allowed in some much needed fresh air, as well as giving those sitting by it the feeling of being outdoors on a covered patio. Walking inside it was surprising how much the room opened up. Two floors in one open space. Vaulted ceilings and make shift rooms separated by blinds. There were plenty of corners for seclusion and nooks for private parties. Though despite the ample breathing room, the actual room was stuffy. The multiple spinning ceiling fans did not help, they simply pushed the hot air around. Luckily for them when its hot you want to drink more.
Their chandeliers were eye catching, a mass of snarling branches gathered together and hung over tables. The limbs of each reaching out in several directions, and from a few hung glass balls and paper charms. Truly unique. But the well stocked bar is the first thing you actually notice. Its backdrop a watery theme against hard wood. An orange life saver, a sealed porthole, a wooden paddle, a rusted propeller, a crab basket, and a jumble of fishing nets. They certainly made for a rousing game of I spy.
We were immediately given a table without the need for reservations or to wait. We were walked to one free, tucked away in corner. Though found it odd that out of all the empty seats we were directed to the one closest to a couple on a date. We felt too close for comfort and hidden away. Though in this area the wall was lined with faux leather booths that partnered with tall backed chairs. Both sat across from one another sandwiching a darker wood finished table. And with this arrangement there was no negotiating, no argument on who would call dibs on a booth seat first. I won by claiming the comfortable leather chair, and felt relaxed in it all through dinner and all during drinks. Each table was set with one time use chopsticks wrapped in paper, a wad of napkins in a tin, and a tiny jug of soya sauce so that you could help yourselves.
Both female and male servers were dressed in traditional kimonos. The women in bright colours and bold patterns that ran down to the top of their feet. The men, darker shades and more simple patterns that went no further then their hip. That and their accents certainly added to the authenticity of the Japanese restaurant. Though I couldn’t imagine the heat they endured from being bundled up so tightly, in a room without air conditioning. And how the woman were able to move so quickly with their movements so restricted in their tightly bound tightly belted garments.
Like the sign posted outside mentioned, our server clarified that they would not be serving oysters tonight because of out break of red tide. Just as well, in this heat raw oysters were the last thing I was craving. Their menu was an easy to navigate reading of Japanese tapas and traditional and fusion sushi rolls. Each offering was described and paired with coloured photos. As a visual eater this allowed me to make my choices base on what dishes would look the best for my food photography. Also very helpful was their drink menu. Each sake available had its flavour described followed by suggested food pairings to bring out its natural essence. The menu also mentioned their two hour maximum seating because of a busier weekend.
“Chi chi” made by mixing vodka, pineapple juice, coconut syrup and milk; then lightly blending everything together with ice. It was sweet and refreshing, very tropical.
We shared the “Baru sangria”. A smaller pitcher for $20. The steep price didn’t seem fair given its portion size and its unusual taste. It helped that the glasses provided too were on the smaller side. Though the slice of orange on the rim was a nice touch. I believe the mix was made using box wine and canned pineapple chunks with the can syrup the fruit sat preserved in. The lack of fresh ingredients translated to a sour drink, it was also probably what gave it its murky complexion.
Mid way through our meal we were handed the happy hour menu with food and drink specials specifically meant to encourage patrons in after 9pm. We would have been disappointed if this new menu listed what we had already ordered and agreed to pay full price for, was now offering it for less. Luckily that was not the case. Though for everyone else it would have been nice to be told that happy hour starts at 9pm. Especially for those like us, who were seated after 8:30pm.
“Calamari Agedashi tofu”, combining two popular dishes into one. Deep fried tofu and calamari in an Agedashi tempura breading and traditional tempura sauce. Best eaten right when served to ensure the most crispy of textures. The sauce was slightly spicy, without it there was no flavour and the dish was bland. Hidden under the mound of deep fried goodness the brown sauce was hard to get to. The fried vegetable chips that surrounded the portion in decoration were a nice touch. They were slightly sweet and like everything else fried, got soggy real quick.
With all their specialty sushi rolls you can either order a half or full order. The difference is between four and eight pieces. A good option for those who want to try multiple combinations. Though I found the price of half orders steep, they were the same price for full portions else where. “Samurai power roll” a crab meat and avocado roll wrapped with BBQ unagi and topped with red and black tobiko. Served with an unagi and wasabi cream sauce. We ordered a full order, but a mistake was made and we had two sets of four instead. The sauces were so flavour filled that they eliminated the need for soya sauce. Each bite was creamy and on the sweeter side.
I am already a fan of aburi sushi so with the possibility of enjoying the searing process at my table, this was an easy sell. I felt compelled to take advantage of a show with my dinner. “Saba inferno”. Either cured mackerel saba or toro, box pressed with sesame and sushi rice; I chose the former wanting a fattier fish as appose to a saltier one. This was definitely more for the show then the taste. A one note flavour that tasted underwhelming compared to the other dishes above.
“Ice cream sundae”. We choose green tea ice cream over the possible black sesame or vanilla. A well dressed dessert, though practically speaking it was
hard to get a comprehensive bite of. You wanted to enjoy the toasted granola, mixed berries and grapes all together, in one bite with your ice cream; but negotiating small spoon deep into glass mug was a challenge. The caramel feature on top was visually a nice touch, though I found it did nothing to compliment the lightness of the sundae. Over all this was nothing special and nothing you couldn’t replicated at home for less.
“White wine jelly”. The name alone was appealing. Wine flavoured jello? We didn’t taste any wine from any of the cubes, but texturally it was still a very enjoyable dessert. Jiggly jello and creamy vanilla ice cream is a good mix.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – Yes.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – No.
There was so much more I wanted to try off the menu, shame I came in full not expecting to indulge. Lobster motoyaki baked in their house made mayonnaise. Their seafood paella with shrimp, squid, and mussels; you don’t often see a Spanish dish on a Japanese menu. Their $28 signature sushi course: five courses, eight different tastes. “Artistically designed” traditional sashimi prepared by their “master chef”. Rainbow carpaccio, bonsai beef carpaccio, and garlic pepper tuna tataki. Just to name a few. These were some of the many delicious sounding and looking dishes at very reasonable prices. They are also known as an oyster bar, so it would be nice to come back to try them when available again. Oysters offered steamed, baked, panko fried, and fresh. I like the food more than the environment. It was a lounge-like setting, dark and casual, a busy spot to sit and enjoy at whist being in the middle of that rowdy the weekend vibe. And if you want to celebrate a birth here they do it big. They turn off the regular music and play a prerecorded happy birthday for everyone to hear. This accompanies the presentation of your cake. The whole restaurant stops, everyone looks to your party and claps in celebration of you. Don’t deny your cravings.