VENTNOR - All the traffic signals were dark along the barrier island; as we got closer to Kitaro we realized that storefronts too, failed to offer their normal neon light. We pulled up in time to see a server dragging tables and chairs from the outside patio indoors. We knew that wasn't good.
A quick call to the restaurant confirmed our worst fears, power had been out for hours, the boss already sent the rest of the crew home. Kitaro would be closed that evening.
We had better luck the next night.
We sat down to a table that rocked like an old boat, not a remnant of the previous storm, but something we kind of fixed with a folded up paper menu strategically placed under one offending table leg.
Water and a greeting were immediately served but if there were other beverages available none were offered. The menu listed no beverage selection.
We peered through curtained French doors at the colorful flowers in sundry planters outside, but this evening the tables were still too rain soaked to employ.
We smiled at the many misspelled items on a Japanese menu with some French and Italian inflection. All of the special sushi rolls were there but starters and entrees were tweaked a bit, pan seared scallops were served with ratatouille and lamb chops with a truffled risotto, fusion cuisine, where east meets west.
We began with deceptively simple steamed edamame ($5), young soybeans served in their pod with a sprinkling of sea salt. It seemed so simple I almost asked my dining companion not to order it. Would it be a test of what the kitchen can do? Yet, it turned out to be such a comforting hands on dish, we enjoyed doing a little work on our own to remove the sweet peas and pop them into our mouths. My friend selected two sushi rolls as an entree and I selected two as an appetizer, and we asked that they all come out together. The Green dragon ($12) was the most impressive of all.
Cooked eel and rice was delicately covered with paper thin "scales" of avocado and topped with flying fish eggs. The eel was coated with a sweet sauce of mirin and soy. Spicy tuna crunch ($8) had crunch from deep-fried tempura flakes and a whole asparagus stalk down the middle. My co-dinner prefers only cooked sushi rolls and chose the popular California roll ($5), Ika tempura roll ($8) with crispy calamari and the shrimp tempura roll ($8) with a fried shrimp handle jutting out of the end for easy pick up.
Presentation is a very important part of the sushi aesthetic. Our sushi was fresh and expertly prepared and yet served on a simple white dinner plate. Why not on a wooden sushi board or a fancy platter? If it was a reflection of the chef's minimalist leanings to let the food do the talking, we got the message from the sushi which was exemplary. Kitaro's own website promises to serve "the finest and freshest ingredients in a fun, elegant, New York style environment." I wondered if this simply presented plate is currently the rage in the Big Apple. With another sushi restaurant on the very next corner we thought that Kitaro might have to rethink their presentations to win at dueling sushi.
My entree of crispy red snapper ($23) was a large portion of fresh fish, tempura battered and fried with a mild tamarind sauce. The advertised wok stir fry mix veggies must have been the chopped bok choy and shredded carrot because the rest of the plate consisted of some steamed broccoli florets and three steamed baby carrots arranged in a classic French style on the plate. Tempura fried ice cream was the last thing we wanted after eating tempura red snapper, the only dessert that was house made according to our server.
Waiters dressed in black and white and provided a service that at times seemed almost half-hearted. Maybe they were trying to be serene.
The decor of Kitaro is intended to present a meditative vibe, with black tiled floors, bare tree limbs separating the dining areas and bare essentials on the table tops for that minimalist feeling, with plenty of new age music playing in the background. We were there to meditate on the food but a careless cell phone user received so many calls that her dining companion told her it was rude; unfortunately for the rest of us, she was oblivious to her intrusions.
Maybe she was unaware of the sound of one hand clapping.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
5214 Atlantic Ave.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $5 to $10, entrees $15 to $27, sushi rolls $5 to $15
Our bill for two: $74 plus tip
Web site: www.