Twenty years had passed since Kanetha Chau first worked with Sara Molony at her popular Prytania Street restaurant Kyoto. Working under Molony's guidance, Chau learned how to run a successful sushi restaurant, and she later opened several of her own spots on the Northshore.
When Molony died in 2016 — Kyoto closed a few months later — Chau tried to purchase the restaurant's former space, but without success. When a nearby building became available early this year, Chau got the chance to open a restaurant that would honor her mentor.
Eating at Osaka Kohai can feel a lot like dining in someone's home, which may be appropriate since the restaurant occupies the bottom half of a house. Chau and her son greet guests and take turns in the kitchen, often bringing plates to the table when one of the restaurant's servers is occupied. Service can lag when the restaurant gets very busy, but it's easily forgiven because of the warm, familial approach of the hospitable staff.
When working with raw fish, the quality of the product is key, and at Osaka, the chef's dexterity with a knife matches the cuts of fish that exit the kitchen.
A glistening piece of uni tasted fresh and rich, with the consistency of foie gras. Salmon slices were bright, shiny pink, while a pale slice of yellowtail tasted downright buttery.
A selection of simple temaki hand rolls featured a trio filled with spicy shrimp, snow crab and spicy tuna, and while not overly exciting, they had simple and clean flavors. A better example of that focus on simple flavors is found in tightly bound cucumber rolls, in which seaweed bundles julienned cucumber and slightly sweet sushi rice, allowing a few flavors to shine.
Traditional sushi staples abound, and there is a selection of unique creations that show a more playful side. One of the restaurant's most popular items is the Double Bang salad, a towering mix of crunchy asparagus spears, thin cucumber sticks, bright green seaweed salad, a silky, sesame-coated squid salad and raw fish, which on one evening featured salmon and albacore — a delightful smorgasbord of color, flavor and texture.
Also good was the Kohai special, one of the chef's changing special rolls, which on one visit included a surprising mix of fried oysters atop a roll of fresh spinach, shredded cabbage, cream cheese and crawfish in soy paper.
In tribute to Molony, Chau created the Sara roll, which is filled with a dense mix of shrimp, avocado, cucumber and snow crab and topped with tiny domes of crisp fried panko and a dab of spicy sauce. It's no surprise the roll is one of the restaurant's best-sellers. Molony made her own version of the roll at Kyoto. At Osaka Kohai, it serves as an homage to the former restaurant and its beloved chef, and a reminder of where it all started.