Just got back from lunch at Kai, the new restaurant in the Associated Engineering Building on 109th and Jasper. It has been getting a lot of buzz given it's prominent location and the fact that people have been watching it get ready to open since the first sign (calling it Tao) was up. A group of friends had tried going there already, but were told that no reservations were taken on Friday or Saturday nights, so a friend and I decided to hit it up one day for lunch in hopes that it wouldn't be so busy.
Walking towards it from the meter I parked at along 109th, it smelled delicious, and I thought, oh I hope I am catching a whiff of my future lunch. As I came in to the restaurant, it was a lot bigger than I expected. There is the front bit that has nice big windows, letting the sun in during the day, but then there is a much larger "bar" portion that continues into the back, including an area that would function as a "private dining room" with sheer curtains setting it apart from the rest. The decor is lovely, lots of wood, black, dim lighting, and a huge Bhudda statue along one wall. The waiters and waitresses are of the "Joey's" variety (i.e. young, attractive and all dressed in black), but a bit edgier perhaps? Although the weekday lunch crowd is predominantly people working downtown and out of the government buildings near-by, I have been told that on the weekend, hipsters turn out to eat, drink and mingle, dressed up to make the scene. We sat in the restaurant area, and if you do as well, avoid the booths right by the door as it gets a bit breezy if there are people going in and out.
The menu is not quite what I expected. I had figured there would be a lot of fusion type dishes, mixing a variety of unusual ingredients using different styles of asian and western cooking. In fact, the menu seems more designed to hit the middle of the road as far as tastes go. There are not a huge number of choices, but those that are there are probably going to be crowd pleasers for people who always like to have their favourites available. Standard asian dishes such as beef and broccoli, kung pow and butter chicken are available atop steamed rice. There are some noodle bowls, appetizers such as calamari, prawns and chicken wings, and additional "bowls" and sandwiches that offer minor flavour twists (such as lemongrass chicken club), but nothing that I found sounded so interesting that I had to find out what it would taste like. The salad section had a duck and orange salad that I considered (since I love duck), but nothing else really out of the ordinary. The sushi menu was brief, again with the typical choices: salmon, tuna, california roll, and dynamite roll, most available as maki, sushi or in a cone. I did not have to read the descriptions to see what was contained in any of them.
We decided to split a few choices, to give more than one dish a try. Between the two of us we got the salt and pepper calamari with chili aioli, the mexican rolls (we asked for the spicy tuna mini maki, but mexican rolls are what came), and the special bowl of the day which was a coconut curry bowl with chicken, peppers, onions and palm with coriander and pine nuts to top. The calamari was good, and cooked very well, which can be tough. I have had many experiences with calamari that has been over cooked and is therefore rubbery. The dipping sauce was also lovely - spicy and flavourful, but not searingly hot.
The curry bowl was nice. Everything was cooked properly. I actually felt this dish is the kind of dish I would expect to see at Lazia - rice, topped with a standard group of veggies, meat (chicken in this case), and a nice but mild sauce. Topping a curry with pine nuts is a bit different, and I did like that, same goes for including the palm.
Finally, the sushi. Again, it was good, but not unreal. I guess it started off as an underdog seeing as the mexican roll has tempura bits in it, and I prefer not having that in my maki rolls (it tarnishes the illusion I have that sushi is basically as good for me as vegetables). It was a bit spicy, but I think it would have seemed more spicy had it not been for the tempura and cucumber cooling it down. I would be interested to go back again and try their regular sushi or sashimi to get a better feel for the quality of the sushi. I found it strange that the sushi is sold in groups of 3 pieces as opposed to by the piece or in pairs of two (which would make it more conducive to even sharing).
Price wise, starters ranged around $10 and mains went up to about $15. I took a quick glance at the dinner menu, and it had similar offerings, with a few more choices, and entrees instead of additional bowls and sandwiches, but with basically the same flavours as the lunch menu.
The thing is, it is a really attractive space, and all the food was nice, but my expectation was that I would be eating meals that were innovative and unusual. Instead I felt like I was eating dishes that I had seen before, albeit done well. In my opinion, this restaurant will be competing with Joey's, Earls and even Suede Lounge for clientele based on price point, atmosphere and food. Again, not a bad thing, just not what I was expecting. It will likely become a popular spot for dinner and drinks for people heading out on the town afterwards.