The relocated Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine shows potential for greatness – for one day leading that small class of Sacramento restaurants perpetually competing for best-in-town status while also evoking dining experiences in San Francisco and the Napa Valley.
Three months into its run at its new space in East Sacramento, Kru is not quite there yet. But you can see the signposts, in its impressive food, heavily bolstered bar menu, consistently attentive service and especially, in its lovely new space.
That space is airy and elegant but also sturdy, with the thick slabs of wood atop its tables and sushi and cocktail bars suggesting a seriousness of purpose the previous space, on J Street, lacked. The abundant, light-colored wood anchors a visual tribute to Earth and sea that runs throughout the interior, from a driftwood-as-decor display near the windows facing Folsom Boulevard to a hallway floor of in-laid rocks to the gorgeous yet unpretentious stoneware on which Kru executive chef/co-owner Billy Ngo serves his thoughtful culinary creations.
The earth tones tie into the artfully lit browns and ambers of the bottles of hard-to-find Japanese whiskey lining the shelves above Kru’s bar, which now serves spirits in addition to beer and sake. The roomy bar area also contains high-backed booths, tree-stump tables and other distinctive elements from Whitney Johnson, who designed the new space. The bar area opens to a private dining room that will double as a retail bottle shop once the liquor license comes through.
Ngo and his partners, including Kimio Bazett and Jon Modrow (Hook & Ladder, Golden Bear, Bottle & Barlow) spent a bundle building out this new space, next to OBO’ Italian Bar & Table, in the old Andiamo building. They will not specify how much they spent, but you can see the expenditures throughout a well-outfitted interior three times the size of the previous one. Money also clearly is going into staffing: You can’t drop a chop stick or drain a water glass without a black-outfitted server or bartender, or a suit-clad manager, stepping in to replace, or fill.
Some would argue the old Kru already was one of Sacramento’s best restaurants. But it was not if you cared about ambiance or consistent service. It was darker and more intimate, which could make it romantic, when service was good, or dreary, when it was not. The new space comes far closer to matching Kru’s always fine-dining-level prices, though a few dishes still seem a bit costly in the new place.
One should go in to Kru knowing a truly satisfying – palate-pleasing and stomach-filling – dining experience will require an outlay of cash. And that shelling out $125 per person for the 17-to-23-course omakase chef’s menu (call in advance to reserve a spot at the sushi bar, with Ngo, or with his right-hand sushi chef Ricky Yap) guarantees a culinary good time.
During my three-hour omakase dinner, I sat at the bar while Ngo, wielding knives and a blow torch, handed me piece after piece of extraordinary nigiri. Sweet spot prawn and melt-in-mouth hamachi gave way to seared foie gras served on crunchy grilled rice and made unexpectedly chocolatey by an eel sauce with mirin (sweet cooking sake) and sugar.
Ngo mixed miso and king crab “head fat” into a sauce that teamed with the poached crab it covered to create the ultimate “from the ocean” taste. For another piece of nigiri, Ngo shaved earthy black truffle onto seared, sumptuous wagyu beef.
The duck-dumpling course produced umami heaven in a small, broth-filled bowl. The mirin-sweetened broth held three types of mushrooms and a delicate wrapper containing ground duck expertly seasoned with ginger and scallions.
If three hours, and a $125-per-person price tag that excludes tip and the cost of drinks are more than you can spend, here’s what two people should order to experience a variety of culinary treats for a reasonable amount of money: the Brussels-sprouts ($8) and charred-broccoli ($9) starters, two soft-shell-crab hand rolls ($6 apiece) and the 15-piece sashimi mix ($28).
Fried to crispy outside/tender inside perfection, the sprouts offer just enough lingering bitterness to tussle intriguingly with their tangy-salty-spicy cod roe aioli dipping sauce. A jalapeño aioli lends spark to the charred broccoli starter, which also holds cauliflower, shrimp, candied garlic and toasted peanuts and speaks to chef de cuisine Tyler Bond’s flair for flavor and texture commingling.
The hand rolls, with their hearty helpings of rice and crab, contribute necessary heft to the equation. Because the sashimi mix, though gorgeously presented on a bed of ice with carefully arranged garnishes does not offer a lot of food despite its entree-level price. And we do not go out to dinner to sacrifice for art’s sake.
Knowing we had ordered enough reasonably priced items to compensate helped us better appreciate the dazzlingly fresh taste of the salmon, sea bream and other fish selections before us, along with the diverse flavors of the pickled wasabi, fresh shiso leaf and fried leeks served alongside the fish.
Though the $12.50 -$16 multi-ingredient, saucy “special rolls” seem like another bang-for-your-buck option, Kru is not at its strongest when venturing into Mikuni territory. Too many things were happening (soft-shell crab, avocado, albacore, salmon) with the Tesla roll yet too few in the similarly populated (salmon, crab, albacore) Hapa Hapa roll, which lacked flavor apart its accompanying garlic sauce and chili glaze.
The Kings roll, which holds refreshing slices of lemon to sharpen the flavor of its lobster tempura, crab, avocado and shrimp components, was the tastiest roll we tried. When we ordered the lobster tempura on its own, the batter’s saltiness combined with acidity from the lemon aioli served with the dish to obscure the lobster flavor.
We ate the Hapa Hapa and Kings rolls at lunch, during which Kru offers a more limited menu – heavy on rolls and bento boxes – than it does at night.
As an experiment, we ordered what a non-adventurous first-timer, on a workday lunch break, might order: a two-item bento box, with California roll and sesame chicken, plus miso soup and salad. The soup was fine, and the salad featured nicely smoky, salty bonito shavings but too little salad dressing. The sauce on the chicken was one-dimensionally sweet, the rice too dry and the overall amount of food small for $17.
Were this my introduction to Kru, I would hesitate to become a second-timer. But I might be hooked were I to start instead with the lunch menu’s stellar ramen ($13) with lightly fried tofu in a miso broth. One of the first new dishes added with the move (most are holdovers from J Street), this dish hints at tasty things to come in the new space.
It was hard not to compare Kru’s mostly unimaginative lunch offerings unfavorably to those at Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining, whose chef/owner, Craig Takehara, also incorporates Japanese and other cuisines. Binchoyaki’s lunch “sets” include more elaborate salads and bigger portions than Kru’s. Takehara also offers his extensive grill menu, along with several daily small-plate specials, at lunch.
With the openings last year of Binchoyaki and Japanese-leaning midtown seafood restaurant Skool, Ngo is no longer the only innovative Japanese fusion chef in central Sacramento. But his is the nicest restaurant in the bunch, by far, especially when considering Kru’s bar, which is loaded with high-end whiskeys and talent. Kru employs two of Sacramento’s best barkeeps, Chris Dooley and Stephen Berry, formerly of Ella Dining Room & Bar. Dooley and Berry perform management roles under opening beverage director Chris Tucker, of Hook & Ladder.
On two of our visits to Kru, Dooley acted as a welcome guide to premium whiskeys, including the 12-year-old, single-barrel, smokily intriguing Hakushu Mizuwari whiskey we drank in $16 high-ball form. Berry was equally smooth when he waited on us, recommending Kiku Masamune sake to go with our sea bream nigiri. Paired with the fish, the sake was as palatable as cream soda.
No Kru craft cocktail we tried was as special as drinks we have sampled at Hook & Ladder and Bottle & Barlow, and Kru probably should have retired the “Holiday Mule” long before early February, when it was still on the menu.
It’s natural for the cocktail menu to still be evolving within a business that did not serve spirits until three months ago. But you can see the foundation for an exceptional bar experience, in all those whiskey bottles and the presences of Dooley and Berry, just as you can see a foundation for excellence throughout the new Kru.
Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine
3135 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento. 916-551-1559, www.krurestaurant.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday. 5-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar. Craft cocktails. Premium whiskeys by the glass and in high balls. Sparkling, white and red wines by the glass and bottle. Sake by the carafe or bottle. Ten beers on draft.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Moderate to high. Kru is not especially noisy, despite its concrete floors, open ceiling with exposed beams. Walls separating the waiting and bar areas from the dining room seem to break up the noise.
Ambiance: The new space is a big, airy, elegant improvement over the sometimes cramped-feeling older space on J Street. The design’s only drawback is an odd bathroom setup of individual rooms without sinks. One must use a communal hand-washing area outside the room.
Overall ☆☆☆ 1/2
The food remains high quality, and it is now served in a much nicer space. The addition of spirits, including Japanese whiskeys, is welcome.
The omakase – or many-coursed “chef’s choice” menu – offers an exquisite dining experience. But the quality was more mixed outside of it.
Service ☆☆☆ ☆
Almost note-perfect, especially at the bar.
Getting full at Kru, where a 15-piece sashimi mix costs $28 and a two-item bento box $17, requires an outlay of cash.