Another sushi restaurant with a lounge in the same location as the previous sushi restaurant with a lounge? The same giant Buddha statue and koi pond? This seems familiar.
I knew Hotoke was on its way out a few years back, when in addition to not updating the majority of their menu or wine list in well over a year, they began transforming into a dance club on weekends. A drastic change to your long time business model screams desperation, and when Hotoke finally closed their doors, I’ll admit I was sad. I spent a number of special occasions there, including dinner with my parents after Rutgers graduation. But for a city with such a diverse Asian food scene, New Brunswick was lacking for high quality sushi.
After Hotoke abruptly closed its doors several months ago, the remaining straightforward sushi options included Edo, Sushi Room, Midori Sushi in Highland Park, and Ninja Sushi in North Brunswick. Ninja Sushi, my favorite of those mentioned, delivers the freshest and most creative sushi options but is still a bit of a hike from downtown New Brunswick, while the “Sushi Burrito” from Sushi Room is still one of my favorite individual plates, even if the overall quality took a bit of a nosedive after the addition of a full bar and lackluster wine list.
In mid-November Kasai finally took over the former Hotoke location and completely raised the bar. Even just sitting and perusing the menu while waiting to meet with Director of Operations Mary Malek and General Manager Jacob Gabay, I could tell that New Brunswick’s newest sushi and Japanese fusion spot was on another level entirely. While the interior and layout may look remarkably similar to Hotoke, it’s time to forget their name. Kasai is not Hotoke.
It’s been hard to miss Kasai from the George Street sidewalk. They’ve had bright blue and red lights bathing their windows since well before opening. The signature Buddhas are still in place to welcome diners, but the walls of the restaurant are now covered in eclectic black light art which gives the whole space a mid-90s Joel Schumacher Batman & Robin vibe.
Gabay, formerly of New York City’s Mr. Broadway, was selected after an exhaustive search by Malek. While waiting to chat with them I sampled a few of their signature cocktails, which run the gamut from pretty damn sweet like the sake-based “Japanese Sunset” to the delightfully spirit forward “Toki-Yo Time, ” a Japanese whiskey spin on the Mint Julep. Both the cocktail and spirit lists have something for everyone, including an ever expanding collection of Japanese whiskies (always a favorite of mine), an expertly sourced wine list, and an impressive selection of high-end sake.
Gabay crafted the menu, which will stay relatively the same following the December 7th grand opening, with Head Sushi Chefs Jianjun Yang and Ming Ming Jiao. He described it as “Japanese fusion with an emphasis on sushi” and by browsing the array of sushi and sashimi options, you can tell they were meticulous in putting it together. Gabay and the co-head chefs wanted a selection of fish you simply can’t find anywhere else in New Jersey. In addition to options like kinmedai or golden eye snapper and bluefin tuna, you’ll also find torched foie gras and an entire Gunkan Maki section dedicated to uni (sea urchin) and caviar. If sashimi isn’t your game, there is also an extensive list of creative sushi rolls that include the aforementioned foie gras, caviar, and gold flakes, as well as more familiar options. Just make sure you get a high-end sake to pair, like the award winning Yuki No Bosha Junmai Daiginjo “Winter Beauty”.
Malek, who is also Bar Manager, has compiled the largest sake menu in the state, which continues to grow and is also offered in flights. She also plans to have an assortment of Japanese whiskies to match, so watch out INC. There will be a focus on wine as well as rotating taps, which includes their own Japanese-style “Kasai Beer,” which was crafted specifically for them by a local brewery
I was able to sample a few of the menu items including their Kasai House Salad, Miso Soup with tofu, wakame, and Enoki mushroom scallion, a Rock’n Tuna Roll, Kasai Roll, and a Chef’s Premium Nigiri Selection. Finishing the evening off was a more medium than medium rare filet mignon with a side of sliced king mushrooms, bok choy, and a mushroom teriyaki sauce that Gabay promises will never come atop your steak, unless otherwise specified. Every restaurant starts off with a few kinks, and Kasai’s were few and far between. Gabay also mentioned that aside from the rice, everything (including their soy sauce) is made in house.
As a particularly big fan of foie gras, the Kasai Roll with BBQ eel and avocado topped with foie gras, caviar, and gold flakes was a decadent highlight. The Chef’s Premium Nigiri Selection also failed to disappoint and included foie gras, kanpachi, chutoro, kinmedai, jumbo shrimp, bluefin tuna, otoro topped with a touch of American sturgeon caviar, and Ōra King salmon topped with ikura, all served over rice. The opening menu is not entirely finalized, but I’ve been assured that the sushi, sashimi, and nigiri portion will remain relatively unchanged.
Kasai Restaurant has already been operating for a few weeks following their soft opening on November 20th, but will have their official grand opening on December 7th. They also plan to have guest DJs and a lounge atmosphere complete with bottle service on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 PM to 2 AM, but according to Malek the vibe will be completely different than Hotoke’s clubbier weekends. They also already have a number of events scheduled throughout the holiday season, so be sure to follow their Facebook page for more info.
I’ve been a sushi connoisseur for well over a decade now, and am thrilled to have such an exciting new option in the Hub City. If the rest of the menu is anywhere as impressive as the sushi and nigiri I had the honor of tasting, New Brunswick has quite a treat waiting for it at 350 George Street. The city has a premier sushi restaurant destination once again. Just make sure to do a sake bomb with Mary and Jacob before you leave.
Devin Healey knows food and drink. In addition to writing columns for TAPinto New Brunswick, he runs a blog network called CougEats. You can find more of his work on Facebook, Instagram, Wordpress, and Patreon.