When I heard that Kawasaki on North Charles Street would be opening the Kawasaki Cafe in Fells Point soon, I got to thinking that it had been awhile since the original restaurant had been reviewed. In fact, I found when I searched The Sun's archives, it's been more than a decade.
Kawasaki, named for Baltimore's sister city in Japan, boasts that it's the city's oldest continuously open Japanese restaurant. (It opened in 1984.) I can't dispute that. The only other contender that I can think of, Shogun, went through a period when it was Jpn. before it became Shogun again.
Since Kawasaki was last reviewed by The Sun, all sorts of competitors have sprung up. Sushi is what Kawasaki does best, but a lot of other places do it well, too -- not only other Japanese places but also the sushi bars in many of the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants in the area.
Still, Kawasaki is one of those restaurants that sets the standard. When I was visiting someone in the Greater Baltimore Medical Center recently, I was impressed by the fact that Kawasaki had been chosen to supply the hospital cafeteria with sushi twice daily. That shows both how ubiquitous sushi has become (if anyone needs showing) and how much the Japanese restaurant is trusted.
Indeed, the raw fish at Kawasaki is sparkling fresh. And the presentation of the food is clean and subtle, with no artificial garnishes: dark red curls of fresh tuna poetically arranged against a deep green leaf, perhaps, or a pleasantly vin-egary shark fin and jellyfish salad with the ingredients slivered matchstick-thin and tossed together in a translucent tangle.
Kawasaki has an outstanding selection of sushi and sashimi (raw fish without the rice), plus some intriguing combinations. The "Spicy Sushi Roll Combination Dinner," for instance, gives smoked salmon, raw tuna and crab meat rolls extra kick (besides the fiery wasabi garnish). There are also plenty of choices for those who don't want to eat raw fish but love the combination of vegetables, vinegared rice, pickled ginger and wasabi -- like the "Vegetarian Sushi Dinner, assorted sushi for vegetarians and beginners."
The sushi chefs will make any roll of your choice if the ingredients are at hand. My daughter, for instance, wanted what she had always seen called a "squash roll" on other Japanese restaurant menus. The waitress had never heard of it, but the sushi chef knew immediately. (It turned out, for some reason, to be made with papaya.)
Much of Kawasaki's menu is traditional, but the restaurant is keeping up with the times with trendy items like edamame. These are fresh soybean pods that are steamed and salted; you eat them by sucking the beans out of the pod.
Some of what isn't sushi at Kawasaki is superb, like chicken katsu, bite-sized pieces of white meat delicately fried to a crisp gold. Some isn't, namely the tempura, vegetables and shrimp fried in a batter that was at once heavy and soggy. Too bad about the tempura, because otherwise the pretty combination dinners in their lacquered boxes, which all include some tempura, would be the thing to order here if you didn't want sushi.
Be warned that no utensils except chopsticks are used. (Soup is drunk directly from the bowls.) That's never bothered me before, but this time we ordered ice cream because there was no fresh fruit available for dessert. A small round of the green tea, red bean or strawberry ice cream comes with a rice-paste coating that allows you to pick it up and eat it with your fingers. It won't replace the ice cream cone.
All in all, though, Kawasaki remains one of Baltimore's fine Japanese restaurants. The row upon row of cases on the wall where chopsticks are stored for regular customers attests to those customers' loyalty and also adds to the atmosphere. The restaurant has a real sense of permanence and authenticity that some of the newer places aren't always able to duplicate.
Where: 413 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open weekdays for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$12; main courses, $9.50-$21
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *