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The Raw Deal: Kanpai makes fish dreams come true 

Fresh. fantastic.It isn't often that a restaurant succeeds in striking the perfect balance between deference to the traditions of its cuisine, the creativity of its

Fresh. fantastic.It isn't often that a restaurant succeeds in striking the perfect balance between deference to the traditions of its cuisine, the creativity of its chefs and the concerns of its audience, but Kanpai Sushi and Sake Bar has done it. It's fine dining for every day that manages to be both intimate and festive. That's probably why it feels appropriate for virtually all occasions and moods. You're as likely to see a patron in ski pants grabbing a bite on his way down from the mountain as a quiet couple celebrating their anniversary over candlelight and sake. From the inside out, Kanpai offers a near flawless sushi dining experience-whatever you're looking to get out of it.

The semicircular sushi bar and kitchen in the back corner are the obvious heart of the small, warmly lit dining room with rust-red walls and bamboo accents. A plastic Godzilla with rotating props dutifully guards the tip jar, a soundtrack including everything from reggae to the Rolling Stones plays in the background, and other touches lend a casual air, but the sushi itself is serious. From the cut of the fish to the consistency of the rice, the chef's classical training really pays off. Stellar execution coupled with the freshest of ingredients makes for arguably the best sushi in town.

The menu includes a good selection of sashimi (sliced fish) and nigiri (fish or other protein on rice), as well as inventive maki (sliced rolls) and hand rolls that you can order a la carte or in combination ($14-$19). It's generally pricey, as sushi is wont to be, though happy hour offers some respite for those willing to eat early. But, if you feel like splurging, I highly recommend leaving it up to the professionals. Three omakase (chef's choice) options are available for $35, $50, and $75 per person (the latter includes sake pairings from their thoughtful list). It's steep, and don't expect a mountain of food, but you get the best the kitchen has to offer, including special creations that aren't on the menu.

I chose the $35 option, and it ended up being not only the best meal I've had at Kanpai so far, but also my new favorite way to eat. After a brief interview about our overall likes and dislikes, we settled into our bar stools (omakase is available at the bar only), ordered a drink, and let the chef take care of everything. We started with miso soup and a perfect mouthful of wakame seaweed salad with a slice of crab. A stream of savory bites followed. Smaller plates included a tempura fried shishito pepper wrapped in raw tuna, seared hamachi (yellowtail) nigiri, salmon nigiri topped with lemon pulp, and sliced scallop and shitake mushroom with baby asparagus in a cream sauce, which was so good I actually dreamt about it the next night. The tuna and avocado maki topped with a layer of baked crab and the mixed sashimi drizzled with a lemon-white soy dressing and sprinkled with roe and green onion were superb. A final tuna, unagi (eel), and avocado roll wrapped in cucumber capped off the meal. Though full, I definitely could have kept going for a while.

For those unfortunate souls who haven't come around to raw fish, the menu hasn't forsaken you. Appetizers like green lip mussels stuffed with scallops and broiled with spicy aioli with tobiko (flying fish roe), scallion, and ponzu (citrus) sauce look like works of art. Entrees feature unexpected flavor combinations with both Japanese and French influences, such as green tea, coffee-scented steak and cinnamon seared salmon with wasabi mashed potatoes and mango jalapeño gastrique. However, if you have the slightest inclination to give sushi a chance, Kanpai might be the place to convert you. If fish this fresh, perfectly prepared, doesn't turn you around, nothing probably will.

Kanpai Sushi and Sake Bar

990 NW Newport Ave., 388-4636

Dinner, daily, 4 p.m. to close; happy hour, 4-5:30 p.m.

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