Kenji, Adelaide – a dance with death via Pufferfish?
“Full” was a word not even close to describing how we felt by 5pm on a warm Adelaide’s spring day. And by ‘warm’, what I meant was 34 degrees. And by ‘full’, what I meant was ‘close to explosion’.
Despite the state of weather and stomach, we decided to honour the dinner booking we made at Kenji Restaurant on the quiet end of Hutt St. Even if it meant spending 5 hours at the gym next week. Being my first time in Adelaide, and probably my last for at least another year, we were looking forward to trying this restaurant which famously serves the puffer fish – albeit a less poisonous version of ones found in Japan.
Despite our state of fullness, we decided to over-order. Don’t ask me why, perhaps my stomach ruled my head at the time (it often does). Kenji offers two degustation menus to choose from: a 5/6 course degustation and a traditional 8 course ‘Kaiseki’ menu. If it wasn’t for the pitiful state of my wallet at the time we sat down, we would have ordered the Kaiseki menu. We decided to go with the 5 course degustation, and ordered two entrée’s on the side, for extra goody fatness.
I love eating at Japanese restaurants. Everything is immaculately presented on the plate and almost always too pretty to eat. This one was no exception. Let’s take a closer look at the dishes, starting from the left hand side:
First, the marinated octopus. Think tender, juicy octopus and freshly grilled artichoke pierced together onto a split skewer. It had a meticulously sharpness to it, a strong vinegar touch which worked well with the dish. We quickly moved onto the panko-fried Haloumi, which was lovely, rich and creamy with a perfect panko crumb. The third appetiser was the lovely meatball of chicken and zacha. The meatball fell apart in the mouth and delivered a tangy dressing that didn’t overpower.
Snapper wing? I had never eaten that, or if I had, I never realised what I was eating. Prior to eating this appetiser which cutely sat on top of a spoon, we had fun wobbling the jelly around. Eventually, the novelty wore off, so biting into the oozy goodness, we found the jelly delivered a flavour blast neither me nor my friend anticipated. The soy in the jelly provided just the right level of salt and the ginger gave the jelly a real ‘kick’. We had eaten sea urchin before. When I was young I thought it looked like a miniature cow’s brain and so hesitated to eat it. Kenji’s version of sea urchin miso was delicious and creamy. You gained a real appreciation of the difference in textures between the two elements of the dish. The last appetiser was the cold dashi broth, and I must admit this was my favourite. Partly because I am obsessed with noodles (and hence why as a result I have active gym membership) but in a bigger part, the broth delivered a beautiful, balanced flavour. The prawn sitting delicately on top of the noodles was perfectly cooked, interspersed with tiny yet tasty morsels of crab meat. The standout was the noodles, which were impossibly thin and to be honest if Kenji had given me a bucket full of it I would have finished the entire bucket.
This was not a part of the degustation but being in Adelaide, you cannot leave without eating as many locally-produced coffin bay oysters as you can take, so we just ‘had’ to order this dish.
The sweet dark soy helped to balance the panko crumb and fried oyster.
The chicken oyster with spicy sesame sauce was interesting. My first thought was that there was a typo in the menu. Chicken and oyster? Actually, this worked well. Cucumber and chicken are great friends, and this oyster took me back to my childhood, back to the delicious cold noodle dish (yes, noodles again) that mom made in the summer consisting of finely shredded chicken and cucumber, tossed in noodles and mixed in sesame and peanut paste. This is exactly how the oyster tasted. And chicken is my favourite “food group”, so no complaints here.
The ponzu sauce oyster was my favourite. Sour, sweet and chilli – this was the order in which flavours were delivered to the tongue as you eat into the oyster. Lastly, the panko-crumb oyster was ‘interesting’. Perhaps not my favourite when compared to its predecessors though.
I had come to Kenji specifically to try ‘Fugu’ (Puffer fish). Dancing with death sounds exciting, but while I’m not quite ready to die, I had read about this dish and the tingling sensation some diners feel when eating it, and the nothingness others feel. I was willing to try it for myself, so without delay I bit into the Karaage Fugu.
OK, so I didn’t feel anything..
No tingling sensation, no nausea, no nothing..
Getting over my disappointment however, I found a nicely fried piece of fish in a golden batter. Moving onto the Tataki version of Fugu, which I liked very much because the wrap of Fugu with finely sliced cucumber inside refreshed the palette but again, the Fugu was not high in flavour. Lastly, the Fugu jelly. We quickly worked out that Kenji makes very good jelly. Better than what we’ve ever had at any other restaurant in Australia. It was at this point that I felt a mild tingle. Was it my brain playing tricks on me? Or was the Fugu finally working it’s magic? Who knows. I just enjoyed eating the wobbly good chunk of jelly. It’s not often I eat fish jelly. I’m used to my jelly being delivered bursting with sugar and flavour colouring. It’s one thing Kenji does extremely well. It’s jellies ooze with flavour and deliver the perfect balance of flavours.
The carpaccio was delicious and impossibly thin. Right after the first bite you are hit with a tangy, spicy sensation. A huge truffle oil hit is delivered right at the end. All locally-sourced ingredients, the abalone comes from Kangaroo Island and was lovely and tender.
Lotus root with prawn and ginger cake in the middle, very interesting dish indeedy. The lotus root was surprisingly hot and we weren’t sure of the combination together with the lotus root which perhaps could have been cooked more thoroughly. However the prawn cake was the main attraction, reflecting a delicious balance of coriander with the sweetness of the prawn and a silky smooth texture. The fried scallop was delicious – the dukkah actually added a beautiful unique ‘roasted’ flavour to the dish.
The winner of the dish was the mango salad – hands down this was our favourite. The green mango created a perfect balance of sweetness and sourness to the salad. The combination of red onion, mint leaf, fresh bean sprouts and coriander finished the flavours and gave it a perfect touch.
On a completely unrelated topic, it was at this stage of the dinner that my derriere started to feel a tad numb. It had nothing to do with the pufferfish – a quick glance at our watch and we had been sitting for 2.5 hours already, with two more courses to go.
This was a welcome yet strange combination. It worked brilliantly. In fact currently I am researching other wierd and wonderful combinations to recreate at home. Spinach and garlic sorbet, anyone?
The peas were fun – they literally popped in your mouth. The white ‘blob’ you see is the eggplant cream and it’s deliciously fluffy and sweet. It wouldn’t have been my natural first choice to pair with the lamb but it worked extremely well. The skin on the perfectly-frenched lamb was lovely and chewy. Admittedly, I don’t usually like lamb because it has a complex taste and smell, but this was cooked to perfection.
Right, time for some sugar.
The soft pistachio casing hid a real gem – the vanilla cream below was a soft, fluffy snow – like thing that was not dissimilar to ‘meringue’ in texture. A perfect companion to the mango sorbet. The surprise was the white “prawn cracker like” cloud that rested on the Bavarois – sweet, crisp and light.
As soon as you cut into the soft pudding, a deep dark chocolate lava flows out and it was deliciously thick and creamy. The soft, light green tea sponge surrounding it was a welcome change to the richness of the chocolate. The green tea ice cream actually tasted like authentic macha green tea and not powdery to the slightest, as I have previously experienced in Sydney.
Worth noting that with this dessert, we found that the components were better enjoyed separately versus mixed together.
Would we go back to Kenji? Most definately. With an impressive menu, attentive yet respectful service from the staff and a great dining atmosphere, it’s no wonder Kenji is one of the best asian restaurants that Adelaide has to offer.
Kenji Modern Japanese Restaurant
242 Hutt St, Adelaide
(08) 8232 0944