CTbites was invited for an exclusive first look inside Chef Bill Taibe’s new restaurant, Kawa Ni, in Westport’s Bridge Square this week. Kawa Ni means “on the river,” an apt name for a restaurant in Saugatuck whose cuisine and service will take its cues from the informal Izakaya joints found in the Japanese cities of Kyoto and Osaka.
Is it an american restaurant with japanese aspirations? Or is it a japanese restaurant with american inspirations? Both, says Taibe, who distills his love of post war japanese culture and a farm house style approach to japanese food within the walls of the intimate Kawa Ni.
Equal parts food and drink, with a capital F-U-N atmosphere, the 40-seat Izakaya-inspired restaurant will get the party started by the end of the month.
What is Izakaya and how will Kawa Ni define its take on the Japanese-style tavern experience? At one end of the Japanese food spectrum is the highly constrained, food-centric and formal tradition of sushi. At the other end is Izakaya, a looser and occasionally raucous setting that is equal parts food and drink, heavy on the whiskey and beer, paired with small plates of food.
Kawa Ni’s menu will be filled with small plates of tofu, pickles, and dumplings, which are prep heavy so the service will be speedy. “You won’t need to come here to have an actual meal but you certainly could,” says Taibe.
Taibe and his executive chef and brother Jeff Taibe are still tweaking the menu, but we were promised it would celebrate their “love of tofu, lots of pickles, dumplings, and an experimentation with broths and ramen, as well as donburi.” Donburi, or rice bowls filled with raw fish, will be an important cornerstone of the menu, and Taibe will branch out from traditional pairings, borrowing heavily across cuisines, as traditional Izakaya often does.
Beverages will rise to the level of importance of the food at Kawa Ni, and in some cases, surpass it. Sake bombs, shots of sake poured into beer, will be de rigeur. Whiskey will figure prominently on the menu, focused on a slew of whiskey sour cocktails that leverage fresh fruit sour mixes. The sour mix is specially crafted from Carissa at The Stand juice bar. There will be much to look forward to on this side of the offerings, with Jeff Marron behind the stick.
Knotty cedar paneled walls, a tiled bar, and pops of floral wallpaper create a pleasantly busy textural experience punctuated by red metal pendant lights hanging over a central communal table. Scattered throughout the space you’ll see dozens of Japanese artifacts, such as the ubiquitous maneki-neko, the Japanese figurine meant to bring good luck to its owner, sake bowls used as planters, and a gorgeous vintage japanese tourist poster from 1929. In addition to table seating, there is ample bar seating both in front of the bartenders and additional slivers of bars to congregate alongside at the front window and along a wall.
With a trio of restaurants under his culinary control, Taibe explains his portfolio succinctly:
leFarm is a studio for cooking, it’s all about the food. Whelk is a bit more about the people and the scene. And Kawa Ni? It’s a party.
Kawa Ni 19 Bridge St. (Bridge St. between Riverside Ave. & Imperial Ave.), Westport.