J's Kaiyo Sushi and Bar - Scottsdale
Executive chef Jason McGrath of Kaiyo is recognized in valley food circles not only for his pedigree (his father is James Beard award-winning chef Robert McGrath), but for his own culinary merits. Although I didn't have a chance to enjoy his menu during his stint at Second Story Liquor Bar, I've been impressed by his cooking in my role as a judge for the annual Dish it Out chef competition, including this winning dish which earned him the title of 2017 champion.
At J's Kaiyo Sushi and Bar, you'll find a menu encompassing well-crafted cocktails, nigiri, maki, and sashimi at the hands of head sushi chef Todd Register, and chef McGrath's inventive globally-influenced dishes. I suggest starting with the Zen Garden, a refreshing cocktail combining Hendrick's gin, Bol's elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, ginger, and cucumber, with a shiso leaf garnish.
It's especially nice as a pairing for a starter of sushi such as the signature Kaiyo roll, stuffed with blue crab, cucumber, and tempura asparagus, and piled high with satiny cubes of big eye tuna, yellowtail, and salmon strewn with yuzu tobiko and togarashi.
As you explore more of the menu, you'll see some of chef McGrath's favorite ingredients sprinkled throughout such as Korean gochujang, Turkish Urfa biber, or Syrian Aleppo pepper. "I love immersing myself in a position like this where I have a chance to pick up so much culturally, from Japan to Morocco, from the Mediterranean to Thailand," McGrath explains. "We pull from all those influences in what we do here. As a Japanese restaurant, we have expected dishes like edamame, gyoza, and shishitos, but we also try to do unexpected things." That means smoky blistered shishito peppers are deglazed with rice vinegar and accentuated with shallots, Fresno chiles, lemongrass and garlic with a tangy vinaigrette of soy, housemade ponzu and sesame chile oil.
A beautiful crudo special features coils of hamachi and watermelon radishes nestled in a celadon-green cucumber, honeydew and jalapeño water with kiwi fruit. Decorated with golden pea shoots, flower petals, Urfa biber and bright pops of finger lime, it's art on a plate and as delicious as it looks. "It's very refreshing, with simple, straightforward flavors," describes McGrath. "We try to be adventurous but still make our menu approachable."
"I wanted to find a unique way to serve crabmeat and avocado, adding texture and flavors that work together." Mission accomplished. This crowd pleaser features torched avocado halves stuffed with sweet blue crab scented with lemongrass and ginger, a seeded crust of sesame, sunflower, pepitas and poppy seeds spiked with Aleppo pepper, and dollops of citrusy mango gel.
"One of my favorite dishes on the whole menu is these lamb ribs," McGrath says as he sets the next plate before me. "It's a dish of many cultures with a tandoori masala spice we make in house. We rub our ribs with garlic, then the masala rub, steam them in mirin and sake for four hours, and grill them." They're served with cucumber-shiso yogurt, a Japanese take on tzatziki, and a raisin and radish salad fragrant with cumin and finished with gochujang oil which he says skews more Moroccan. They are superb - tender and meaty with a flavor profile heightened by warm spices and enhanced even further with the unique accoutrements. And a tip from chef: "I encourage you to try a rib plain, then one with the yogurt sauce, then one with a little bit of everything; you'll see how different each bite is."
The next dish we try is an homage to his first experience at a Thai restaurant with his father. "I was about 11 or 12 and it made an impression. I wanted to recreate and elevate my memory of it." Bone-in chicken thighs are first brined and then grilled and braised. Tender enough to pull apart with a nudge of a chopstick, they are blanketed in a housemade green curry sauce and a drizzle of coconut cream and topped with a bright acidic thatch of banh mi pickled vegetables and colorful pomegranate arils.
A wild Scottish pheasant ramen special is a culinary eye-opener and skillfully showcases the breadth of McGrath's creativity and modern flair. "This is definitely something you will not find anywhere else," says McGrath. He starts with their three-day ramen broth and bolsters it with roasted pheasant bones. The meat is then confited and layered with ramen noodles, celeriac, nutty heirloom Steuben beans, dried corn, and earthy huitlacoche. Crowned with a drift of green onion and daikon radish, it's a melange of delicious textures and innovative flavors.
For something heartier, order beef short ribs napped in a plum-dashi demi from a deep braise of mirepoix, lemongrass, plums, and kombu seaweed. Served on a bed of velvety pureed cauliflower poached in milk with garlic, the richness of the dish is offset by the crisp clean crunch of raw enoki mushrooms.
Dessert offerings include mochi and green tea ice cream or, as I would highly suggest, asking if chef could make something off-menu. "If something sweet for dessert is requested, I can always adapt and come up with something," says McGrath. If you're lucky, it might be a plate of buttery grilled sandwiches stuffed with strawberry miso jam and peanut butter (both made in house), caramelized bananas and finger limes and, in this case, that jam also finds its way into a special strawberry-miso Manhattan!
I received a media invitation and my dinner was complimentary,