The son of a Scottsdale culinary cowboy makes his own mark with a creative, well-executed Asian menu that reaches far beyond the norms of neighborhood sushi.
Neighborhood sushi bars-cum-Japanese restaurants are a dime a dozen in this town, so the opening of yet another one seldom engenders the slightest interest for me. But J’s Kaiyo, which quietly debuted last spring in a former Arby’s at Camelback and Miller roads in Scottsdale, is not your typical sushi bar. In fact, it’s not predictable in any way – not the upscale, ocean-themed space, not the menu and certainly not the executive chef, a self-possessed 30-something named Jason McGrath.
For starters, Jason – who impressed with a short stint at Second Story Restaurant & Liquor Bar before opening this restaurant – clearly inherited the cooking gene, and you need look no further than the technical proficiency and sophistication behind the wildly creative dishes at J’s Kaiyo for the delicious proof. The ramen, udon, tempura and poke bowls are all onpoint, but the young chef’s skill set extends well beyond those faithful standards,
helping conjure an Asian-inspired menu with a global and utterly modern sensibility.
Having sampled head sushi chef Todd Register’s pimped-out nigiri and fresh, imaginative sushi rolls (my favorites: Colleen’s Dream, Kaiyo and King of Persia), I’d venture that this sushi bar is superior to all but a handful of the Valley’s best, which isn’t surprising, given that Register’s résumé includes stints in California, Boston and Roka Akor in Scottsdale. What is surprising is discovering that the restaurant’s general manager is Robert Morris, a Lon’s at the Hermosa alum and the wine wonk who co-owned Cork (a wine-centric Chandler restaurant) until its closure in 2014. At J’s Kaiyo, he’s pulled together a progressive wine list – short, effective, affordable – the better to accompany McGrath’s complex flights of fancy.
Avocado halves stuffed with blue crab salad prove my point nicely. Although the dish sounds straightforward, it’s anything but. Generous clumps of crab salad, bolstered with cream cheese, are sparked with ginger, garlic, shallots and Fresno chiles; meanwhile, the smoky, torch-blistered avocados that cradle them come coated with black and white sesame seeds, pepitas and Aleppo pepper. Puddles of golden mango vinaigrette gild this creamy-crunchy lily with a touch of tangy sweetness.
Crispy Seoul spicy wings, bright red and wonderfully sticky, are far less complicated but no less satisfying. Brined in kombu (the seaweed from which the Japanese stock called dashi is made), the chicken wings are fried to craggy crispiness, then slathered in sweet-hot chile oil and given a final flourish of snipped green onion. I’m telling you, the word “Buffalo” will slip from your memory forever after you taste these wonderful little numbers.
Mini entrées called “small plates” sound suspiciously similar to “shareable plates,” but don’t fret about the confusing nomenclature. The happy result for us diners is a menu that offers loads of geeky, fun choices – none too big, none too small – at affordable prices. For example, it’s possible to get unctuous, lightly crisped pork belly, glazed in honeyed miso, for a piddling $10. Sided with rich, tangy, kimchi-style cabbage (sautéed, not pickled) and a curly salad of bright, briny seaweed (which McGrath has smoked), the dish puts a playful Western spin on typically mundane Asian standbys.
The fun continues with silky, crisp-skinned sablefish (called black cod in sushi bars), which marshals the salty, umami flavor of black miso butter, contrasted brilliantly with a moat of smooth, faintly spicy green gazpacho, the soup dotted with puddles of black garlic sauce and gochujang (Korean red chile paste). Blackened shishitos and sliver-thin disks of crisp black radish provide the perfect punctuation of piquancy. My least favorite dish – but one my companion loves – is braised chicken thighs, ladled with seriously spicy green curry enriched with coconut crème. Dotted with tart, juicy pomegranate seeds and garnished with a crisp rice chip, it’s not equal to the exemplary Thai green curries I’ve eaten over the years and, therefore, not a standout for me.
Ironically, I find myself enormously pleased with two of McGrath’s more straightforward entrées, both reminiscent of his father’s work. Everybody serves beef short ribs these days, but precious few are as memorable as McGrath’s ultra-rich, meltingly tender version, burnished with plum dashi demi-glace for even deeper flavor. Set over creamy cauliflower purée (so swoon-worthy you won’t miss mashed spuds for a second), and garnished with delicate, uncooked enoki mushrooms, it’s the best short rib dish I can remember eating, presented in a striking and thoroughly modern way.
Still, the most Robert McGrathian dish on the menu is surely the chile-cured duck breast, offset by bitter bites of bok choy and a haystack of crispy slivered leeks. Purple drops of berry marmalade offer sweet counterpoint.
The menu doesn’t feature a single dessert. McGrath says few people are interested in them here, and that’s surely true, given that at most good sushi bars, sweets are generally little more than a sop for sweet-toothed Westerners. J’s Kaiyo, however, is really two restaurants in one: an appealing, far-better-than-average sushi bar and an edgy but utterly grounded Asian-fusion restaurant, presided over by a wonderfully talented, woefully underrated chef. The combo may be counterintuitive, but who cares when the results are so delicious?
J’s Kaiyo Sushi + Bar
Contact: 4412 N. Miller Rd., Scottsdale, 480-427-2526, jskaiyo.com
Hours: Lunch M-F 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner M-Th 4:30-10 p.m., F-Sa 4:30-11 p.m.
Highlights: Crab-stuffed avocado ($12); Seoul spicy wings ($10); lamb spareribs ($16); crisp-skinned sablefish ($20); beef short ribs ($22)
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