Chicken Katsu, Kaizen, 416 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, September 2019
(Photos and article provided by AppalachianGastroventures for Inside of Knoxville. This is the third installment in their monthly series of restaurant reviews, allowing for further exploration of local restaurants after their opening. Check out their blog for many more dining experiences!)
“Anytime I’m eating spicy noodles in a bowl, I’m happy.”
Celebrity chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain left plenty of nuggets of wisdom during his too-short days on this earth, but one of the simplest might have been among his most prescient, and it’s that one that came to mind as we dug in for a recent meal at Kaizen.
Kaizen has been a downtown staple since 2016 when Jesse Newmister opened his first restaurant. He’s since opened Tako Taco in Old City, melding the Asian influences found at Kaizen with Mexican, but Kaizen remains limited only by the cozy confines of the Japanese-style pub restaurant.
Kaizen mixes inspiration from all corners of Asia, drawing from Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisines, and that’s evident from the menu. There are steamed buns like those in China, Japanese-inspired fried chicken, Thai-style sausage, and Korean-inspired sauces.
It all adds up to a menu that can hit you from all sides, keep you on your toes, but most of all, make you very, very happy.
Those Chinese-style steamed buns are a perfect way to start a meal. They have a distinctive pasty white exterior but the steamed nature of their creation provides a delicate fold for an array of ingredients. Kaizen features buns of Thai sausage and tofu, but we tried the chicken Katsu and the Nashville bun.
The chicken Katsu featured small pieces of fried chicken with a zesty sauce and pickled cabbage, while Sambal chili and Maggi spicy seasoning gave a serious spicy bite reminiscent of Nashville’s hot chicken scene to the latter, only with a distinctive Asian flair.
Pork dumplings in the Chinese Shumai style are always on the menu, mixing well-seasoned pork, scallions and sesame seeds with soy dipping sauce in a happy little pillow of deliciousness. They’re easy to pop in your mouth, and easy to order over and over again.
The fried chicken theme is one that’s repeated several times on Kaizen’s menu, and for good reason: it’s not to be missed. The Karaage fried chicken, translated as “tang” fry in Japanese, produces a delicate but exceptionally crispy piece of chicken, and it’s tossed in Korean gochujang sauce, a spicy red chile paste that provides a Nashville-style kick of heat. Pickled cabbage and pickled jalapeno round out the dish, offsetting the spicy with a splash of sour.
Kaizen’s jungle curry is an amalgam of influences: self-described as “funky, spicy, & herbal,” the dish doesn’t disappoint, and adheres to Bourdain’s happiness mantra. While the fat udon noodles are Japanese-inspired, Thai-style green curry dominates, providing a perfect base for bok choy, onions, peppers, mushrooms, duck confit, and eggplant. The curry is topped with a perfectly cooked medium rare duck breast sliced thin which would have been the star in most dishes, but it instead is a perfect complement to a well-rounded dish.
If you didn’t quite get your fill (although we’d find it hard to believe with the options) Kaizen’s dessert menu is always inspired. While it may not be listed on the menu, there are a couple of options they will happily tell you all about. Green tea ice cream is one option that we haven’t tried yet but Kaizen’s creme brulee comes in a couple of different flavors.
Our favorite? The Vietnamese Coffee Creme Brulee. It’s reminiscent of the coffee of our youth: creamy, sweet and like velvet covering your tongue. When you want coffee after dinner, this is the perfect, chilled alternative that has landed itself in our top three favorite desserts from exploring the world of writing about food.
A perfect meal? It was very close. But as “kaizen” means improvement in Japanese, it’s not hard to imagine things will be even better the next time around.