About 20 years ago I was incredulous when someone told me that the best oysters in New Orleans weren’t in Orleans Parish at all, but at a Croatian family owned neighborhood restaurant in Metairie.
“You know,” he said, “right near the Kenny’s Key West.”
My first taste of the charbroiled oysters at Drago’s instantly proved my friend right.
Although that restaurant has since gained considerable notoriety, the incident forced me to wonder what else might be out there. What other amazing dish or experience could be flying under the radar, held dearly secret to those in the know?
I recently found my answer in a meal at Kanno, a small, unassuming sushi bar sequestered in a Fat City strip mall and helmed by a boisterous, Osaka-bred chef named Hidetoshi Suzuki, who goes by “Elvis.”
Kanno left me with the impression that I’d been missing out on some of the most interesting, creative and savory Japanese food in — and around — the city of New Orleans.
Elvis opened Kanno 12 years ago with his wife, Lynn. The chef spent a fair amount of time in San Diego in his youth, but was ultimately called from Osaka to New Orleans to be a sushi chef at Shogun. Several years later, he started his own shop.
The restaurant advertises itself as “California-style sushi,” and indeed you’ll find all of the requisite West Coast sushi favorites on the menu.
But if you want the best experience — the experience that’s won Kanno a fierce following of diehard regulars — you’d be well-served to leave the crunchy tuna and California rolls behind, and put your dining fate in the masterful hands of the chef.
“What I do here isn’t just sushi,” Elvis said. “It’s really about making traditional Japanese cuisine. The cooked food as well as the cold, all together.”
Asking a sushi chef to essentially “feed me” is a Japanese tradition known as omakase. On a recent visit, this resulted in Kanno’s “Chef Choice Special,” a $35, five-course-plus-dessert prix fixe meal found on the dinner menu.
First arrived a tuna tartare, but not the boring, ubiquitous appetizer you might remember from the ’90s.
The raw tuna, served with crab, avocado, caviar and apples atop a bed of spinach and a balsamic reduction, was a delightful, delicate start to the meal.
Next, a dish of marinated albacore tuna with rice noodles and onion, while as unassuming as the restaurant’s exterior, detonated with flavor upon each bite.
Following that came a plate of raw salmon, served refreshingly with mango, yuzu and wasabi fish roe.
A fourth dish was somewhat of a surprise: a warm plate of gently cooked bigeye tuna, served with portobello mushrooms in a dark, bold peppercorn sauce, robust in both flavor and texture.
A generous plate of smoked salmon, avocado, apples and mango mixed with a tart Dijon mustard sauce rounded out the meal, followed by a small plate of cool, creamy chocolate squares handmade by Lynn.
Certainly, letting Elvis feed you is the way to go, but also be aware that the chef’s specialties include several fantastic sushi rolls unlike those to which you might be accustomed.
Substituting snow crab for rice and colorful soybean paper for seaweed nori, the Godzilla roll (shrimp tempura, cream cheese, and crunchy tuna) and the Elvis roll (fresh salmon and avocado, topped with overgenerous hunks of colossal blue crab meat) are packed with fresh flavor without kowtowing to American sushi conventions.
As for the chef’s nickname and the shelf filled with Elvis nicknacks and memorabilia, the chef explained, “ ‘Elvis’ came to me as kind of a joke. A guest once called me ‘The King of Sushi,’ and, if I was the king, I must be just like Elvis. Now, I guess I’m stuck with it!”
To which I say: All hail the King.