The Secret Flavor Palace

Nov 27 • GRUB & GUZZLE, Restaurant ReviewsNo Comments

Kabuki Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar
4102 Oleander Drive
(910) 350-3332
Bottom line: Amid the tricky search, Kabuki is absolutely worth finding.

Kabuki’s Korean barbecue delights the palate

Korean barbecue is a bit of a mystery to me. But mysteries are worth solving; and so, on a rather dreary evening, I sought out Kabuki on Oleander Drive to expand my epicurean horizons. I’d only been told two things about the place: their noodle bowls were excellent and they had a way with spicy sauces.

Navigating my way there, however, put some obstacles in my path. I almost gave up my search. Oleander Drive doesn’t necessarily mean Oleander Drive as I came to learn. I found Kabuki tucked behind a gas station on what can only be described as a madman’s impression of what a side street should look like. Nearly invisible from the road listed as its street address, one must not drive over 30 miles per hour for fear of missing the rectangle building tucked behind Han-Dee Hugo. Turn by 41st Street to find it.

I dined early and avoided crowds, sharing the restaurant with only a party of three seated to my left. A helpful woman offered a menu, and I immediately selected chicken bulgogi. One of the few things I do know about Korean barbecue is that CNN listed bulgogi as #23 on its list of the world’s 50 most delicious foods. That’s not scientific proof, but it seemed like a good place to begin.

I started with a bowl of rather generic miso soup. Other than noticing the tofu cubes were smaller and more numerous than I’m accustomed to seeing, the soup had no remarkable flavor qualities. Yet, on a chilly evening, I really enjoyed it nonetheless.

Each entrée at Kabuki is served with four side dishes. They’re the accoutrements known well at Korean barbecue joints. The shredded daikon/carrot blend and bean sprouts in light vinegar are meant to soothe the tongue after some of the spicier offerings. The spicy pickled cucumbers and kimchi are used to amplify the heat. As the carrots and radish were otherwise unseasoned, I found them somewhat unremarkable. However, the bean sprouts, crisp and juicy, accented by the vinegar, tasted delightful.

Flecked red with shredded peppers, the pickled cucumbers blended the tangy vinegar with spicy heat in a way I’d not experienced before—and I just couldn’t get enough of them. Kimchi, the classic Korean dish of spicy pickled cabbage, proved only slightly less entrancing. I enjoyed it, but the cucumber stole the show.

My chicken bulgogi arrived still crackling on its skillet, the scent of caramelizing onions wafting through the dining room. I smirked, thinking only a few miles away some family must be sitting down to fajitas at On The Border—served on this very same skillet. The poor unsuspecting fools wouldn’t be getting nearly the treat I prepared to enjoy.

I must admit I expected a spicier dish, but after a second glance at the menu, I was reminded bulgogi could be served spicy or not. Alas, I’d neglected to specify. Once over my initial sadness, I began to appreciate the sweeter style I’d been served. Candied like caramel, with a smokiness reminiscent of bourbon, the generous cuts of chicken retained a perfect juiciness. (One day some kind chef will take pity on me and teach me how to keep chicken from drying as it cooks, but ‘til then, I’ll simply treat it like magic when I encounter it.)

I amply spiced up the bulgogi with slices of kimchi added to forkfuls of chicken and onion. The result mixed sweet and savory in a way unmatched by most any food pairing (the natural exception being the chocolate-covered pretzel—man’s most perfect invention). The half cup of steamed rice ensured I wouldn’t leave much of the caramel brown sauce for the dishwasher.

Though fully sated after such a repast, my duties as a reviewer meant that dinner wasn’t over. I ordered one of Kabuki’s famous noodle bowls, only to find that half of the eight on the menu were unavailable. I considered seeking more information, but immediately got the impression none would be forthcoming.

And so I decided to try one of their spicy entrées: a chicken and shrimp dish covered in a tear-inducing red sauce. I had to push the numerous sliced peppers aside; they proved a bit too much for my palate. The sauce itself, however, captured just the right touch of capsaicin. The dish warmed the gullet without overpowering the tongue, and the chicken, being the white canvas on which chefs paint, absorbed the flavor elegantly.

The mid-sized shrimp added a briny flair to the dish, though I must warn diners that the tails remained attached. That first bite can be unpleasant when not taking notice of the shell. Of course, it’s a mistake one only makes once.

Adorned with small Japanese lanterns and worn-out booths, Kabuki may feel like its best years are in the rearview mirror. Yet, after a while, the tattered décor developed some appeal. Ambiance is great and all, but good food tastes good anywhere—and bad food isn’t helped by good lighting.

I skipped the sushi bar in favor of Korean cuisine, but Kabuki does deserve credit for having a fairly extensive offering in that department. It does not, however, deserve any credit for its wine list, which read like a top 10 list of my least favorite grocery store wines. The Wine Sampler is directly across the street; someone from Kabuki should spend a few hours during the shop’s tastings to see what they’re missing. Yet, with its selection of Asian beers and sake, much can be forgiven.

Desserts also seem a promising change of pace at Kabuki. Though I had no room to taste them, I’ll leave room next time for an Asian bon bon, served in mango, chocolate, green tea or red bean. Apparently they consist of gummy rice candy embracing little balls of flavored ice cream. It seems like an interesting twist to the normal chocolate-covered bon bons we Americans often pop.

At $35 for two entrees and a soda, I highly recommend Kabuki. The quality of the meal far surpassed the prices paid. And if you have too much trouble finding it, then that’s just too bad. It’ll be my little secret.

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