There wouldn’t be many Japanese restaurants in the world that feature a soufflé on the menu, or a rack of lamb with feta and pumpkin – but this is Kenji, and it clearly doesn’t play by the rules.
Situated at the South Terrace end of Hutt Street, the small but busy establishment has built a solid reputation as one of South Australia’s best Japanese restaurants.
A lime-green interior contrasts neatly with white-clothed, smartly set tables. The small bar that greets patrons upon entry hides behind rows of traditional sake and other Japanese spirits.
Service is prompt and as soon as we are seated we are offered a choice of aperitifs to get the night underway.
The wine list is up-to-date, very well-rounded and reasonably priced. It also offers a offers a small selection of cocktails.
Kenji has a rather strange menu: there is the traditional Japanese cuisine of tempura, sushi and sashimi, but there is also a small selection of modern Australian dishes – rib-eye, barramundi and lamb among them.
Also offered are a few different degustation options, ranging from $80 a head for five courses to $110-per-head for a more traditional Japanese set menu.
The smaller of the choices begins with a large plate holding a variety of tasty morsels. A small sushi roll, a cold mushroom-flavoured soup, a scallop and a mixed-vegetable compote get the night started.
Next is a salmon belly and “paradise prawn” with mozzarella, salmon roe and a balsamic ponzu sauce.
This dish ends up being the highlight of the night: the salmon melts in the mouth, the par-cooked prawn is fresh and amazing. Crunch from fennel and zucchini and burst of salt from the salmon roe combine perfectly with the slightly bitter citrus sauce.
To follow is a small portion of fried quail with shiitake mushroom and spanner crab meat, and a slow-cooked pork belly with a pork and chive dumpling.
Both dishes are stunningly presented on large plates. The quail, with a distinctly Japanese pickled chilli and garlic aioli, is perfectly cooked, with crispy skin yet moist flesh. The small mouthful of spanner crab adds a nice freshness, and a vinegar/cucumber/soy jelly cuts through with a salty finish.
The pork belly is, as it tends to be, sweet fatty goodness. A decent crackling adds a nice crunch while the apple and kim chi salad completes a well-rounded dish with a sour crispiness.
The food is very flavoursome. Weird combinations on paper come together wonderfully and, as tends to be the case with Japanese cuisine, it is the play of textures and the balance of salt and sweet that is the highlight.
To top off the night – again, unusually for a Japanese restaurant – we order the chocolate and banana soufflé. It is perfect, light and fluffy, the classic combination of banana and chocolate subtle yet sweet.
While Kenji does offer the sushi and sashimi experience, it excels by ignoring tradition for a bit of extra local style.
The food, although relatively small in serving size, is beautifully presented, complex and bravely unique.
Chef Kenji is obviously enjoying his now long-standing experimentation with Australian produce, using some traditional Japanese techniques yet refining dishes with modern and unique methods.
It is for these reasons Kenji remains a darling of the Adelaide dining scene and a must-try.
Four out of five.
242 Hutt Street, Adelaide
Telephone 8232 0944
Open: Monday – Saturday for dinner from 6pm
Cuisine: Modern Japanese with an Australian twist
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