Sushi lovers Chris and Penny Ellis met Chef David Kanai more than three years ago, when he was creating sushi at Tokyo Steakhouse, then at 21st and Maize.
They loved his work — so much that they'd visit his restaurant for dinner at least three times a week.
Now, the couple along with Chris' brother, Curtis, have teamed up with the chef to open a new west-side sushi restaurant named, appropriately, Kanai.
So far, the restaurant is proving that the Ellises have great taste, and that Chef Kanai has great talent. The sushi at Kanai rivals that at Wichita's most popular and well-respected sushi restaurants, including Sumo and Hana Cafe.
Kanai was born in Kyoto, Japan, and has worked as a sushi chef in Los Angeles. In Wichita, he's worked at both Tokyo and Sumo.
ON THE MENU: The sushi menu includes 34 varieties of sushi nigiri and sashimi (slices of fish, served raw or cooked on a bed of rice or alone). There's also a huge array of inventive sushi rolls, made with everything from shrimp tempura to white asparagus.
An appetizer menu includes sushi restaurant standards like edamame and shrimp tempura, and a Japanese "pub menu" offers interesting choices such as grilled dried fish and squid salad.
Those averse to sushi can choose from items such as salmon or chicken teriyaki, Japanese-style fried chicken, sauteed beef and more.
DON'T-MISS DISHES: Kanai's sushi creations are the kind of delicious that leave you thinking about them for days afterward.
The rolls were a particular highlight. Following the owner's recommendation, we ordered a roll called Flat Land Dream, one of many featuring a creamy crab center; this one also featured scallops, shrimp and cream cheese with a topping of albacore, avocado, tataki sauce, mayo and sriracha.
The generous roll ($12) was cut into eight colorful pieces and was as beautiful as it was fresh and delicious.
Another recommended roll was called Mucho Caliente (eight pieces for $7.50) and featured the delicious crab mix in the center, a coating of crunchy tempura flakes and a unagi sauce topping. The roll wasn't particularly caliente, but the crispy coating and creamy crab made for a nice texture.
The Yamato roll, made with a shrimp tempura and crab center, was inexpensive (eight pieces for $8) and delicious, but when stomachs started getting stuffed, it was easy to pass it over for the more complex Roppongi Roll, a spicy tuna and shrimp roll topped with tuna, masago, scallions, mayo and tataki sauce.
As we waited for our sushi to arrive, we observed Chef Kanai working behind the bar with a massive piece of dark pink tuna, which soon arrived at our table in the form of a generous serving of nigiri. The slice was easily four inches long. (It was $6 for two pieces.)
The red snapper ($4.50 for two pieces) was smaller but just as delicious, but it couldn't compare to the escolar, the super white tuna recommended by Kanai. Its texture was like butter melting in your mouth.
We also chose the right appetizer, the Eby fry, which featured two jumbo shrimp coated in panko and fried to brown and crunchy perfection without the slightest trace of greasiness. It was served with a dollop of spicy mustard on the side and cost $8.75 for three shrimp.
AMBIENCE: The restaurant is small — it seats only 48, so the wait on a weekend night can be long. The dining room is tastefully decorated with tables and small booths, and the sushi bar is situated in a spot where diners can watch Kanai practicing his sushi mastery.
PRICE RANGE: Reasonable. Rolls range from $3.25 for a basic cucumber roll to $21 for a roll made with lobster tail. The average price for a roll is around $8. Nigiri and sashimi ranges between $4 and $8 for two pieces.
SERVICE: Excellent. Our waiters were well-informed, efficient and professional. Be prepared — the staff and chefs loudly greet customers in Japanese when they enter and bid them a Japanese farewell when they leave.