Fat City has never been the prettiest part of the metro area. But beyond gritty bars and nightclubs, the unexceptional entertainment district has nurtured a lushly diverse dining scene, thanks in large part to first-generation immigrants and other entry-level entrepreneurs opening small eateries.
Kanno is in that number, and chef/owner Hidetoshi Suzuki has feathered a little nest he found in a cinderblock strip mall. It's unique and has become one of the best Japanese restaurants in the area.
A native of Osaka, Japan, Suzuki says he was trained as a fine-dining chef back home before learning his sushi skills here in the U.S. That background might explain his penchant for small, composed dishes over the standard array of rolls.
The sashimi I've tried at Kanno always has been unimpeachably fresh and luscious. But what makes this restaurant worth seeking out are dishes like the Dijon tuna, a sculpted tower made from thick chunks of ruby-red raw fish dressed in a mixture of ponzu and mustard seeds. Miso soup is a standard, but here the "special spicy" miso soup is indeed both. The brick-colored broth — peppery and awash with minced garlic and slices of soft onion— could be a winter's cure.
There's little need for the standard soy sauce dipping plate at Kanno. The fish arrives either elaborately dressed by the chef, as with swordfish sashimi in a tangle of green and white onions, or too pristine to muddle, as with pale slices of toro brought from the sushi fridge like jewels from the case.
Kanno's menu runs the gamut of Japanese cuisine, though as it moves toward more conventional sushi bar items the chef's attention seems to wander. Some of the specialty rolls are nearly the size of burritos and prove about as messy with sauces, cream cheese and fried seafood routinely overwhelming their wrappers.
The tiny confines of Kanno itself put some limitations on the potentially epic meals Suzuki can deliver. When the restaurant is crowded at lunch the place can feel swamped, and at night the jukebox at the adjacent bar is sometimes loud enough to reverberate through the strip mall's thin wall and across the surface of your sake.
But the small scale of this place can also be a blessing, especially with the attention Suzuki and his wife Lin can pay to details. Plenty of Japanese restaurants serve broiled fish neck, but here a salmon neck is smoked so deeply your hands smell like a campfire afterwards. And while the wasabi is a reconstituted paste, as usual, Kanno takes some time preparing this staple, resulting in something that's sharp but also deeply flavored and almost creamy. Sometimes fresh wasabi root, a pugnacious rarity, turns up in a dish, and it made an erstwhile plain avocado and tofu salad downright exhilarating.
For lessons in how a deft hand can transform a few simple ingredients into a craving, it's best to just belly up to this Fat City bar and ask for something new.