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31.10.2018

Leaving aside roadside chow mein, unaffordable five-star hotels, and Delhi’s immortal Aka Sakas and Ichibans, three newer categories of east Asian eateries abound in the NCR these days. The first: pan-Asian delivery joints of varying quality, from the comfort curries of Culinaire to the poké bowls of newer contenders like Orient Heritage. The second are unassuming, low-frills establishments typically run and frequented by Korean, Japanese, or Chinese expats. Clustered around Gurgaon, they sport bilingual pictorial menus, sometimes scribbled receipts (what GST?), and occasionally, ingredients clearly smuggled into the country in suitcases.

Kampai, recently inaugurated by the Japanese ambassador, may aspire to this group, yet it fits pretty firmly on the upper end of a third category: dine-in restaurants run by entrepreneurial Indians, often with foreign degrees in Luxury Brand Management with a minor in Eating Out a Lot (only one of those is made-up). In the case of Kampai, which squats on one wing of the obsidian-walled Worldmark commercial centre, the owners are the younger generation of the Embassy Restaurant and Catering business—yes, that Embassy—presumably diversifying into trendier territory.

Mirin Image

Kampai’s recent launch was attended by a pantheon of local socialites and food bloggers, and the restaurant is finely tuned to influencer frequency. Furnished in upscale Asian kitsch reminiscent of nearby Hong Kong Club (murals of Ruby Woo-lipped women, fake plastic cherry blossoms), Kampai has a semi-open kitchen, two tatami rooms, a DJ area and a bar, but no liquor license when we visit.

The crowd is sparse on a Sunday night; there’s a Japanese couple, a few businessmen, and at least one Zomato power reviewer, who later posts that she was “totally avenged at Kampai” for much “sub par sushi off late”.

To be fair, the sushi is pretty good. We order a chef’s sampler, which consists of salmon nigiri and three kinds of maki: spicy tuna, ebi tempura and aburi salmon (flame-kissed by a blowtorch before serving). The rice is enhanced with toasted sesame seeds, and we dig in with a vengeance, sipping on a yuzu sparkler between bites.

Hip, Hip, Okay

Shoyu ramen is less satisfying—in terms of protein, it has only a thin sliver of boiled pork and half a hard-boiled egg with a desaturated white yolk. Similarly, our main courses are neither objectionable, nor particularly memorable. A plate of roast sliced duck with yakiniku sauce (Japanese barbecue or grill sauce) comes to the table after being photographed for Kampai’s ‘gram, and it does look mouthwatering, but turns out to be a bit on the chewy side. The sea bass in miso and gochujang has flaky flesh and slightly crisped skin, but its mild flavour is undercut by the stronger vegetables—capsicum, broccoli—on the plate.

Kampai calls itself a “contemporary” Japanese kitchen. At least in these dishes, that seems like shorthand for “safe”. There are no explosions of flavour or truly unexpected combinations, which would be fine if the restaurant weren’t promising “the best Japanese cuisine this city has ever had” on its feed. It’s a case of outsize expectations, with a bill to match. A wee green tea panna cotta sweetens our departure—subtly bitter and savoury, topped with a tart raspberry—but this pleasant aftertaste can’t secure our hearty cheers.

Getting there: Kampai, G-02 Worldmark 1, Aerocity (011-4140-4177). Open daily, 11am-1am. Meal for two from Rs. 3,000.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.

Accessibility: The restaurant is wheelchair accessible.

This review was contributed by journalist Sonal Shah. She’s on Instagram at @toutress.

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