3201 Corrine Drive | facebook.com/kappoeastend | $$$
There’s just something about Japanese culture that spawns a great number of shinnichi around the globe, be it anime weeaboos or Harajuku fashionistas. Some Japanophiles look to the culinary traditions of the Land of the Rising Sun in order to make a name for themselves. Three such dedicated youngsters – Mark Berdin, Lordfer “Lo” Lalicon and Jennifer Banagale (none of whom are Japanese) – take their craft seriously at Kappo, a wee “restaurant” at East End Market amounting to a counter with enough stools to seat 7 people comfortably. The word kappo, in fact, refers to an establishment in Japan serving fine cuisine (not just sushi) in a kitchen environment with the chef(s) and customers facing each other. There were moments during the meal when I looked up and thought I can’t possibly be dining in Orlando, but that’s a testament to this trio, who are as serious about creating an authentic experience for their customers as they are about the food. When I asked what attracted them to Japanese gastronomy, “a focus on precision, aesthetics and cleanliness” was the reply. Needless to say, the response rang like music to my ears.
Berdin, Lalicon and Banagale all hold impressive résumés, having worked for notable chefs in New York, London and Kyoto, but the Sunshine State beckoned the three University of Florida grads back to Orlando. What they offer is nothing short of a singular dining experience in the city. I speak specifically of the omakase, or chef’s choice, menu (around $85, depending on menu) served Thursday to Saturday. On our visit, our meal comprised seven courses, which kicked off with melony Effingham oysters and briny Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia. Both made for remarkably fresh, yet remarkably distinct, slurps. Next came five small plates of various seafood – pickled flounder; tuna with tororo (a mucilaginous Japanese mountain yam) and toasted nori; tuna with asparagus, scallion and sesame sauce; crab topped with foie gras and quail egg; and sea urchin (uni) topped with clam jelly, our favorite.
Pompano lightly fried in potato starch was the star of the third course served by Lalicon – a clear soup of shrimp broth, clams and the native fish. At this point, we could see Berdin carefully positioning various sashimi on the filleted body of a lionfish. This was clearly his masterpiece – when served, Berdin pointed out the charred red snapper, Spanish mackerel, luscious Arctic char, ruby red tuna and slivers of lionfish, which had a surprising toffee-like essence. The decorative plate looked too good to eat, but eat it we did, and it’s a course that’ll be etched in our memories for a long time.
As we savored sips of junmai sake ($22), the scented waft of seared meat and butter overwhelmed our senses. “I don’t know what that is,” proclaimed my dining comrade, “but I wanna eat it.” Lalicon soon presented us with kurobuta pork served atop a konro – a decorative tabletop charcoal barbecue – along with a square of daikon crowned with a sliver of shishito pepper. Sublime.
We quickly polished off well-balanced, albeit pedestrian, tuna chirashi in anticipation of Banagale’s dessert offerings. The first, a sorbet fashioned from purple shiso (an herb grown in East End’s garden), made an ideal palate cleanser. The second, puréed persimmons topped with vanilla crème and feuilletine flakes (pastry crunch) offered the sort of flavor and sweetness you want lingering in your mouth for a long time.
And the longer those flavors last, the better. Reservations for their omakase dinners are hard to come by – they’re already taking reservations for December – so if you find yourself dining here, savor the experience. Until then, all I can tell you is that good things come to those who wait.