When Kalu Asian Kitchen opened within a few blocks of the Arena last June, the main complaint was parking. Owners Jason and Keisha Vicks solved that problem with valet parking last fall. Kalu continues to be a work in progress, with Jason Vicks, who also owns the Red Lion in Ayrsley, tweaking various aspects of the business.
Located in a desolate part of First Ward, Kalu blooms with a well-appointed dining room and sweeping multi-storied windows one wished looked out on a busy urban landscape rather than a parking lot. Green touches include a long half log table near the downstairs lounge, which contrasts with the ornately carved Asian piece upstairs. It's reminiscent of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market in Manhattan. Kalu's bars are lit with programmable color schemes.
Vongerichten is also one of the chefs in whose kitchen Executive Chef and General Manager Bryan Emperor once worked. Emperor, a Culinary Institute of America grad, also worked in Nobu and trained in Japan, where he currently resides until February, at which point he'll be leaving the kitchen in the hands of his sous chef and kitchen team — many who have been with him for several years. Being a globetrotter is a trend in that spangled world of super chefdom, but not necessarily great for the consumer if that chef is also the general manager.
Emperor's menu is described as "New Asian" with the focus on Japanese, Chinese and Korean. The style is small plates and sharing is the best approach to this cuisine. You will want to share.
Rarely does a stunning presentation meet the expectations of the palate, but it does here. The kitchen excels at meat: The Korean kalbi skewer of thinly sliced Wagyu short ribs is happily married to kochujiang sauce while bacon lovers will crave the fatty pork belly skewer with wasabi and shiso.
Emperor creates an artisan-styled Hong Kong classic steamed Bao dim sum with flavorful lamb within. On the other hand, what's described on the menu as Hawaiian blue pawn Har Gow is not dumplings (also Har Gow) but tempura. Excellent, just not expected. On the sushi list is escolar (Hawaiian walu), a cooked filet with black sesame citrus sauce and a dish devoid of rice. Better was the eel and avocado roll, its delicate flavor intact and dotted with whole pepper berries.
The hearty iron rice pot (kamameshi) is cooked to order and worth the wait, yet the most spectacular dish at Kalu is the Ishiyaki steak. Slices of well-flavored, pan-seared waygu hanger steak straddle a red-hot stone. The point here is to remove the meat when cooked to a preferred temperature. Dessert is a shot of citrusy custard.
Dishes are pricey, but given the ingredients, not unexpected. On the downside is the quirky service. Although well-meaning, servers seem scattered and uninformed, leaving the delivery of the food to the runners who do their job well. The wine list is in a state of flux as well. Although Emperor has a notable list of sake, for wine lovers the list is limited and on one night, one bottle was substituted for another without warning.
But Charlotte is in need of a culinary jolt and gets one here. At Kalu, Emperor has created dishes that bring pristine ingredients and flavors together with an alchemist's magic.