Kawa Ni, Westport's izakaya by the river, has been both a haven of Japanese-inspired food and a boisterous drinking scene since its opening just over a year ago. The party is about to start earlier, as Bill Taibe and co. have announced the debut of their new happy hour menu of food and drink at the Bridge Square, starting now.
Izakayas are small taverns which cater to the occasionally raucous after work set in Japan, so the new menu, with its focus on a limited number of small bar bites backed up by almost twice as many drinks, is right on theme. The prices of food and drink alike are sharply reduced for the happy hour, which runs Tuesday -Friday 4-6PM.
Any mention of a Taibe Bros. establishment has to start with the bites, and our attention was immediately hooked by kushiyaki: the bits of skewered and grilled goodness which are borderline necessary alongside your beverage of choice. The current menu has three options, none more than $8: duck and foie meatballs with an umeboshi glaze, Bulgogi aged beef with gochu jong sesame, and confit farm veggies - with potato and shiitake - spiced with a chili powder mixture called togarashi.
One of the main reasons to eat at Kawa Ni is a big bowl of steaming ramen, and a ramen of the day is included on the happy hour menu. There are Koren chicken wings with a honey gochu jong sauce for those looking to get their crispy meat fix, and tofu pockets stuffed with crab, uni, sushi rice, yuzu tartar, and pumpernickel available in individual servings.
If you can't make up your mind, or just want food for the table, a pu-pu platter with crab rangoon, chicken meatballs, Bulgogi aged ribeye, a brisket&havarti spring roll, dashi braised radish, and kelp salt miso butter should hit your various spots. Need something to wash all this down? Pitchers of sake and rum punch are yours for the asking price of $20. Which brings us to...
Large volumes of light lager are often the after work go-to, and Kawa Ni makes it easy with $3 cans of Cisco Sankaty Light, and $4 Sapporos. If the basics don't make a dent, sake bombs made with either yuzu or Thai chili should loosen the proverbial knot in your tie. Neither one tops $5, nor will a glass of wine. A single sake is $3, or $6 for a flight of three.
The only thing which should be taken seriously at a Kawa Ni happy hour is the cocktails. New bartender Craig Ventrice, formerly of Mediterraneo in Norwalk, has overhauled the imbibing side of the menu with some creative mixology. Say "bartender's choice" and they'll deliver whatever he feels like for $6.
"I didn't have a huge background with Japanese and Asian spirits, so Bill challenged me to learn as much as possible in the time that I've spent here," Ventrice told CTBites. "Bill and Jeff are putting out incredible food, influenced by dishes from all over Asia, so we want the bar to reflect the same philosophy. We didn't want a 'classical' Japanese cocktail program, but we certainly want the influence to be present."
He said the goal was to create a boozy and progressive, yet balanced menu.
The Kyushiki (literally "Old Fashioned") is a favorite of the salaryman, but Ventrice's revised version incorporates both bourbon and scotch, plus Amaro, bitters, and Kakugiri Kokuto "black sugar." This last is a hard, honey and molasses brick which is reduced to a syrup and smooths the wavefront of the two whiskeys, while leaving a nice bite. Served over a big block of ice, this is a real "damn, I need a drink" drink, and it's dangerously easy to do so.
Kawa Ni's Saketini is made with sake, vodka, licorice flavored kummel, suze - which is made using Gentian root - and celery bitters. The drink ends up rolling around quite savory and little bitter on the tongue. A shiso leaf dropped in the glass adds little bumps of mint to the flavor, and visual appeal.
Plum wine is only the third ingredient in the Ume-Rita, despite being the first half of its name. The -rita part is taken care of by reposado tequila, mezcal, lime juice and agave syrup, but the secret sauce to this cocktail is a Japanese soft drink called Calpico, which is made from nonfat dry milk fermented in water by lactic acid. Neither tequila nor mezcal stand in the spotlight, but instead take turns on the palate, with the salt on one radius of the glass's rim latching onto the ume and bringing out the plum. Salty-smokey-citrusy-plum, goes this cocktail. There is a tiny, yogurt-like sweetness imparted by the Calpico, and this may join the Kyushiki as Kawa Ni's signature cocktails.
All of the cocktails above are currently available on the happy hour menu for six bucks, but it's our job as journalists to bring you, our cherished readers, the whole story. So we had several more.
First: The Obligatory Fall Cocktail, as in, that's the actual name of the drink.
"No, we did not do a pumpkin spice drink," started Ventrice, and somewhere in the recesses of my brain a tiny Balky Bartokomous did the Dance Of Joy. Gourds being an inescapable symbol of autumn, what they did was roast honeynut squash, add maple syrup and allspice, and mix the resultant puree with cognac and B&B. A single star anise floated in the brown drink, and added to the nose. The fact that this drink contains real squash, actual produce, is apparent in each sip. Also readily apparent is the fact this produce has the potential to knock you on your back like the fruit fermenting apes of Borneo. There's some heat underneath this voluptuous body. The drink's richness probably means one at a sitting will be quite sufficient, but then again, it's meant to be a limited edition seasonal.
A few familiar cocktails have been given a new treatment, including the Yuzu Mule. Craig told us he loves the Moscow mule, but wanted to make it boozier and fit in with the theme at Kawa Ni. The almost peppery snap of the sour yuzu brightens up the drink considerably, and Crabby's ginger beer was used in place of more standard brands since it contains alcohol, and adds some kick of its own.
Possibly the oldest drink in the book, the sazerac here is made with Kiuchi no Sizuku, distilled at the brewery from Hitachino White ale, and contains coriander, which plays well with the anise, per Craig. The Shizuku is the main ingredient, and comes off like Bols Genever in flavor. The other ingredients are the standard Pernaud's bitters and absinthe, and the drink is big, hot with alcohol, and utterly different than the sharp, tannic punch of the traditional rye.
The Paper Crane is a take on the Paper Plane often served nearby at The Whelk. This cocktaildoes contain rye, and is mixed with Aperol, chartreuse, honey and lemon. It's the black sheep of the drinks menu, in that it's not meant to be as smooth as the others. The inherent sweetness here is overbalanced by a strong acidity which manages to avoid being raspy. The citrus in the flavor is less fruit, and more expressed oils from the lemon's skin. This last is the clear choice for drinking while sitting on a terrace in Singapore as you mop your brow and discuss moving the latest shipments of Malay latex from your warehouses.
Finally, the restaurant offers an after dinner drink they call Kawa Ni Cold Brew. The drink begins as a reduction of house made cold brew coffee, to which is added whiskey, cacao, and egg white to create a protein-rich froth. I had my first sip and just started cackling because, and here a tablemate finished my thought: "that is dangerous." And yeah, I could live on these for a night, propped up by the caffeine in the concentrated cold brew, and in the fresh coffee grounds which repose in a fat line across the custard of egg white which caps the drink. As of now, it's a real, live option.
Kawa Ni 19 Bridge St. (Bridge St. between Riverside Ave. & Imperial Ave.), Westport.