Just outside of Atlantic City, Kitaro is the latest addition to expanding Downbeach dining scene
We visited Kitaro for dinner on a weeknight just prior to Memorial Day thinking — very much incorrectly, we must add — that this slower evening would afford us an early-season opportunity to check out the latest addition to an eclectic Downbeach dining scene.
Situated midblock on Atlantic Avenue in Ventnor, the restaurant previously existed as The Nostalgia Room. Present ownership did away with all remnants of what had become a tired, ’80s décor.
Instead, a fresh, minimalist Asian motif prevails, nicely communicating and reinforcing the dramatic change in cuisine that has also taken place.
Seated at a spacious four-top, a nice touch, despite the 60-odd seat space being more than half full by 7pm, we observed other diners.
This is one of our favorite food tricks. Try it, even before you receive anything; cautiously cast your gaze upon those already into their meals. You’ll be surprised how much you learn.
We saw pretty plates of vibrant, steaming food being happily consumed. That’s a good sign.
But we also noted, and experienced on our own, service stumbling more than a bit to accommodate those already arrived. Not so good.
The problem was simple: not enough personnel to handle an unexpected surge of dinner patrons. We expect this will get better — the venue just recently opened — which it did as our night progressed.
Our first two samplings from the kitchen — seaweed salad and a spider roll — were both well above average. Seaweed, for us the surest barometer of fine Japanese fare, was crunchy and nicely seasoned without any of the residual oiliness that can sometimes plague this staple.
The roll — a combination of fried soft shell crab, avocado, lettuce, smelt roe and sweet sauce — though delectable, was a visual disappointment. Sliced into four too-large-for-the-human-mouth bites, it was literally difficult to swallow.
Once accomplished, the pure, clean, seasonal flavors of soft shell paired melodiously with its accompaniments. Presented more professionally, cut on a nice, wide bias, this item would be top-notch stuff.
Another app we tried, seafood meuniere, brought a pretty pairing of shrimp and scallop. In contrast to the spider roll, this plating was righteous, even picture perfect. Of equal importance, the seafood had been masterfully cooked, retaining all of its natural moisture and oceanic essence. A finishing swipe of dark green, asparagus based sauce (we asked) closed the deal.
A choice of miso soup or small salad comes with entrées. My dining partner and I both went the miso route, and were thrilled.
My companion’s entrée, pan seared sea scallops, brought six large, mid-rare beauties, a real value. These were perched atop the strangest, but also one of the most delicious versions of ratatouille you will ever encounter. The veggie blend, including tomato, onion, pepper, broccoli and edaname, was prepared by a skilled hand. This created a product that was a light, healthful, textural triumph.
Finished by a pink-hued strawberry balsamic sauce, the entire construct — scallops, sauce and offbeat vegetables — meshed together astonishingly well.
But the kitchen had saved its best effort for me. I chose lamb chops, which along with lamb rack, are both on the menu.
This delivered three hefty lamb t-bones, each the size of a fist, seared to an achingly good mid-rare. Thicker and meatier than most racks, this lamb was succulent, filled with fragrant floral palate notes. Like tasting the air in the meadow upon which these animals had grazed.
Beneath this springtime treat was a middle layer of softly sautéed spinach, treated with dignity like that ratatouille. Serving as the base was a mound of superior truffle risotto, whose woodsy flavor profile thoughtfully matched the protein.
Applying that aforementioned watchful role throughout our experience at Kitaro – named for a Japanese musician and composer – we gained more than a few insights.
How do we let the voice of the people be heard and not just the ones who shout the loudest?
There is no more telling indicator of spring’s arrival hereabouts than the opening of new businesses, especially in food service sectors. In spite of a still-moribund economy, the Atlantic City region continues to percolate with activity. Here are a few of the 2010 season’s most hotly anticipated arrivals.
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