In the world of food writers, I’m a relative pauper. I don’t realistically see myself ever being a world traveler. I suppose that’s why we invent words like WANDERLUST. It was specifically created for people like me, and I reckon that’s why food and travel shows take up so much of my free time. The act of living vicariously through television is a yet to be named mental syndrome that I’ve developed over the years.
The word ‘vicarious’ often times connotes punishment. Therefore, in my case, vicarious is the proper word choice. Not being able to trot the globe is excruciating for someone with an intrinsic love of global cuisine. I think my blood lust burns hottest when I watch some spoiled host fall all over themselves while dining in Japan. If I ever had the chance to visit any of the prefectures, getting me to come back home would be a colossal task.
With that said, my recent trip to Orlando reassured me of the fact the Orlandoans have some very special new dining establishments. While I was in town, the city reactivated my faith in having the traditional experience right in my backyard.
I suffer most when I watch these guys walking through some back alley in Tokyo with their guides, and just so happen to stumble into a tiny izakaya or a micro sushi bar that was literally cut out of a wall. Generally these types of places seat no more than a handful of patrons at a time. I envy the admiration and communal attitude shown between patron and host. It’s a completely raw atmosphere involving only a cook and their guests.
Tucked in the rear of the deservedly popular East End Market in the Audubon Park district, lies Kappo, a 6-7 seat food stall specializing in Japanese specialties made from the heart, with ingredients source primarily from local vendors.
This is exactly what I was looking for.
I know that Central Florida has made some pretty decent strides to expand the culinary parameters of acceptance. However, until Kappo raised their clunky metal security partition for business, it was the first time someone dared to take a chance on the local palates. At the very least they’ve brought a new approach to our dining scene, one that’s causing food lusters to flock like rats in Meyers flats for a chance at the Sunday lunch omakase. Their setup and the way they treat their guests is eerily reminiscent of a high energy family meal. All that’s missing is the wonderfully boisterous pinpoint sound of my Nana’s voice coming from all directions like a swarm of killer bees.
The restaurant (which is not really a restaurant, but more of a proof of concept food lab) is run by five people that flow through the kitchen like a steady and uncompromising current. Some cut their teeth in New York City, a battleground for aspiring chefs, but all of them were friends before being business partners. If memory serves me correctly, all or a majority of the team spent time studying at the University of Florida. The interaction they have with their patrons is part of what moved me in such a positive way. I enjoyed my first meal at Kappo alone, seated with a group of strangers, some of whom were regulars and some, like me were there on their maiden journey. I wasn’t saying much because I’m not socially awkward or anything. I like to call it guarded. I’m always ready to parry an opponent when the situation calls for it. I wasn’t talking to anyone but simply watching the technique, since I find we can learn much from watching others work. The chef asked me, as he was a mere three feet from my face and I was hunched over staring at his mushroom cleaning technique, “Do you not like the food?” I replied. “I like it very much so. It’s actually making me exercise my brain.”
The food was entirely thoughtful and inventive from my point of view, with ingredients that I’m positive, have never been on any menu in this region. Truthfully they aren’t even on Kappo’s either when it comes to their Sunday lunch service, which changes not seasonally, not monthly, not even weekly, but per seating. What is eaten during the noon service might be totally differed from what a diner at 3 pm has, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
The meal is structured similarly to a traditional Kaiseki style service. It’s not just a whole bunch of sushi and sashimi, although when they do offer you a plate of either, you will want to eat it post-haste. Each dish is presented as a ceremony that ends up being a party.
The meal began with a rectangular bento box, from left to right, it contained a single bite of chopped horse mackerel sushi with matcha salt shishito pepper party umbrellas, followed by a duo of oysters, one with sake gelée and cucumber jus, and the other with lobster roe, bombarded my receptors with a tiger uppercut of oceanic flavor bursting at the seams. On the right there was foie gras of the sea, monkfish liver with grated daikon radish, which provided a paté like consistency.
Following that we enjoyed a delicate plate of flounder, snapper and salmon sashimi with salmon roe and cucumber relish.
Kurobuta pork belly kakuni with coarse country store grits from a mill up in Tallahassee was a comfort reminiscent of both a steamy bowl ramen and a creamy serving of porridge, while the pork confit, milk poached sweetbread croquette with pan roasted shimeji mushrooms, shiso dressing and a nori schmear was a nod to the more complex and time-consuming methods that the French have taught us to toil over. I think the croquette was the best bite of the day, as it was such a welcoming surprise. As the chef explained what lay before me, I had to ask myself, “Wait, what? Where am I?”
By this time in the meal, all of us former strangers now had a common bond, that of receiving a fantastic meal from some seriously genuine folks. We began to converse and relax a bit, all while groups of people from the market buzzed around trying to see what all the fuss was about. It was a good feeling to have, as if we were privileged in some way. Which in part you were as only 50 people in the entire world got to eat what we ate that day.
The last savory course was said to always include rice, so we were presented with a vibrant bowl of chirashi adorned with thin strips of omelet, diced scallop and salmon belly along with pickled vegetables and pickled plum.
The chef instructed us to start eating. As we began to devour our rice bowl, two of them walked around our area and started pour shrimp head broth into our bowls, and made a second pass to sprinkle various crazy condiments as if we were part of some food related ceremony/drum line. First came the dried ume flakes, then togarashi, matcha, salted pop rocks and dried milk powder. They kept telling us to keep eating so that every bite is different. It was such a fantastic and interactive interpretation.
For dessert, we were treated by the pastry chef to a perfectly made tuille, filled with silken tofu mousse laced with coffee soaked cherries. It was placed in a sake cup filled with coffee and dried cherries to give an even more pronounced familiarity.
Finally, we were treated to the creamiest, most luxurious matcha green tea ice cream I’d ever had. It was accompanied with some sweet red beans and a bed of honeycomb nougatine which caused the levels of flavor to jump passed the power of reason. I said out loud that my wife was going to be so mad that she missed out on this, as she is an expert on the subject.
Without fear of public retribution, I can honestly say that it was the best meal I’ve had this year. We use these terms loosely because cuisine is so subjective, and often times those words lose their meaning, but I mean it. If I could choose, I would want to enjoy that type of dining experience every single day. I don’t want to be a Kappo stalker, but I can see how that could easily become a thing.