Article Originally published on Jan, 19, 2022 by JH News & Guide and written by Evan Robinson-Johnson Source: https://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/business/kampai-brings-japanese-craftsmanship-to-jackson-hole/article_45504c05-a241-5504-8dbb-a2479166e226.html
By Evan Robinson-Johnson | Jan 19, 2022
When you belly up to the bar at Jackson’s latest sushi restaurant you can trust the chefs to lead you on a journey. General manager Dan Janjigian hopes Jackson’s piece of Japan has something for everyone.
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A5 wagyu beef and black truffle shavings aren’t traditional sushi toppings, and at $27 a bite they’re a taste few taste buds will experience.
But for the Jackson Hole high roller in search of haut cuisine nestled beneath the mountains, such decadence is now possible at the newly-opened Kampai — if you can still get a reservation at the North Center Street restaurant (KampaiJH.com).
Owned by an anonymous Jacksonite, Kampai is managed by Jackson local Dan “Jiggy” Janjigian and its menu is set by head chef Chris Massad, who helped lead the sushi scene in another Rocky Mountain resort town, Vail, under the famous Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Massad said Jackson’s food scene is 10 years behind Vail, but it’s catching up fast.
“There’s definitely a high-end client over there that’s looking to eat something other than steak and nachos. And I think that exists here too,” he told the News&Guide while isolating at home with COVID-19.
“I’m probably the only chef in the history of restaurants that has opened a restaurant and taken two weeks off,” he said.
Kampai, located in the former home of E.Leaven at 175 N. Center St., is aimed at adventurous diners, particularly those with large pocketbooks.
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Lucky for Massad the talent pool runs surprisingly deep at Kampai. Janjigian said that despite 30% absences due to COVID-19 since the mid-December opening, for the most part operations have run smoothly. The restaurant is requiring all guests to show proof of vaccination in order to dine.
“We want to make sure we’re protecting our staff,” Janjigian said.
Massad said they’re still actively hiring “as much local talent as possible.”
With chefs poached from New York City and Vail, and a slower-paced dining room with limited seating, Kampai seems poised for its leap to the Snake River Grill echelon. The restaurant won’t seat more than 125 people per night, and reservations can be booked six weeks in advance.
But its manager said they’re not interested in exclusivity; Janjigian hopes varied prices and the drinks bar for walk-ins will still allow locals a seat.
And for the record, the A5 wasn’t entirely Massad’s idea — he’s more than happy to delight guests with premium fish from his on-the-ground buyer in Japan — but he knows there are clients in Jackson seeking to satisfy a certain gourmet palate.
The design of the restaurant reflects the desired elegance in its details: imported ceramics and exquisite sake vestibules, hand roll holders crafted by a Wilson carpenter, and milled architectural accents commissioned from a designer in upstate New York.
A ‘premier dining experience’
For those with the budget, Kampai’s sushi bar invites guests to put their trust in the chefs in front of them. The News&Guide bellied up to Chef James Torres, who greeted yuzu miso eggplant with expertly sliced nigiri laid on beds of warm, red vinegar-soaked rice, and topped with powerful accents like wasabi and citrus zests.
Kampai serves a variety of fine sakes and whiskeys to complement its haut sushi.
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For some the chef’s detailed descriptions accompanying each smoked, cured or garnished piece are sure to spark conversations about past fishing excursions and delight the mind before the tongue. Others may simply smile along absently, barely recognizing the ingredients but appreciating the culinary voyage all the same.
“Approach it with an open mind,” Massad advised.
Similarly, Janjigian hopes Kampai diners choose their own adventure, go at their own pace and delight in the restaurant’s unique offerings like highball (carbonated whiskey) and sake, both on tap.
Ever wanted salmon caviar on your Brussels sprouts? Your pizza topped with sashimi? Both forays are possible before your main dish arrives at Kampai. Those appetizers join foie gras dumplings and king crab tempura or a more humble salted edamame for those not quite ready to dive in the deep end.
Up and rolling
Massad was proud of the restaurant’s “zero to 100” opening in less than a year, and Janjigian expressed gratitude for the community’s warm welcome. Notable restaurateurs from around town have already come to dine and returned for more, he said. Though as he toured the rooftop of Kampai’s at 175 Center St., imagining plans for plein air dining dished from a dumbwaiter, the manager’s optimism was measured:
Kampai Head Chef Chris Massad slices into a fish fresh off an airplane from Japan.
“The task at hand is to get the restaurant running full-speed,” he said. “Right now we’re still kind of at a trot.”
In the few days when Massad was able to exit the planning stages and entertain Kampai’s first guests, he said the restaurant reminded him of his favorite nights leading West Coast kitchens.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m back in San Francisco,” he said, characterizing the confluence as: “high-end ingredients, knowledgeable clientele, good energy in the room and really adventurous diners.”
Chef Torres felt similarly. While happy to accommodate a simple salmon avocado request, he delights in taking guests beyond the menu. Like a culinary charmer, he asks questions to draw out desires and tunes in to personal tastes to cater the experience.
At a time when many are leaving the service industry to pursue other ventures, Torres said he’s grateful to have the trust of his boss and his clients.
In fact, all the staff who spoke with the News&Guide said they appreciated the paced and compassionate culture Kampai’s management is creating.
“The quality of staff that we have is surprising to me based on the lack of supply,” Janjigian said. “I’m really blessed.”
How that lasts heading into summer’s tourism crush remains to be seen. But with limited dining times capping a maximum 125 guests an evening, the owner’s dream could become a reality.
“More than anything,” Janjigian said, “he wanted to have the restaurant in order to bring a different class of dining to Jackson.