Dramatic gestures

Travel to Korea and Japan at Centerville’s Kabuki

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Ika Tempura at Kabuki in Centerville

Kabuki is the Japanese term for a kind of dramatic theatre featuring exaggerated gestures and body movements. In the Centerville restaurant’s case, the emphatic gesticulations came from the owner as she quickly and efficiently ushered in the steady stream of couples and large groups dining there on a bustling Saturday. The promise of an entertaining evening was fulfilled even before we entered, as PIP (Palate In Progress) and I opened the car door to the savory aromas emanating from Kabuki’s kitchen. Once inside, the element of drama was evident from the sight of elaborately colorful platters heaped with sushi and rolls being paraded through the dining room, as well as the smells rising from steaming tureens of earthy soups and stews.

We were ushered through the warmly lit dining space with bright red walls to a roomy booth and given menus by our server. Kabuki offers Japanese standards like tempura, sushi, katsu don, udon and a tempting variety of rolls, many of which are pictured on the menu. What caught my interest (and kept us from ordering a roll) was the list of Korean offerings. I was familiar with the kalbi, bulgogi, bi bim bap and dolsot dishes listed, but there were several new things I hadn’t had the chance to try before.

While we were deciding, we chose a few Japanese-style appetizers, knowing we would be going full on Korean for the entrees. A Sushi Sampler ($6.95) featured three nice pieces of fish, all pleasant in taste and texture. We were disappointed with the Tuna Tataki ($14.95). While the sliced fish gets high marks for flavor and texture, a crusty sear was missing from its surface. The clear favorite was the Ika Tempura ($5.95), a pile of fluffy battered squid topped with ribbons of bright green wasabi sauce and sesame seeds. “This sauce is fantastic!” exclaimed PIP. Our server, Michelle, informed us that ALL sauces—including the soy—are made in-house.

Squid is a seafood, unlike shrimp or scallops, that varies wildly in texture, tenderness and mouth feel. This squid was not the delicate little rings or tiny tentacles kind. These were big meaty strips, which were certainly not rubbery and had a hearty crunch and chewiness to them.  “This is not starter squid. This is manly squid—it’s not for wimps,” PIP assessed. Manly yes, but I liked it too.

Hot under the collar

As PIP perused the menu, looking specifically for fish, I noticed an ocean offering I was sure he’d never tried. It was time for him to discover grilled Hamachi Kama ($16.95), otherwise known as yellowtail collar. What are collars? Exactly what the name suggests: a cut from along the fish clavicle, right behind the gills. The collar runs from top to bottom (including stiff pectoral fins along the way), with especially rich meat along the belly, ending in a little fat cap. The cut is anchored to the collarbone, but once cooked it separates nicely—and with no smaller bones to navigate, something PIP hates.

Collars have long been popular in Asia, but we’re only starting to explore them here. In this current world with the focus on sustainability and nose-to-tail dining, why haven’t we been eating the collar? I’d suggest it’s a case of aesthetics and underexposure. They aren’t neat little fillets we favor—they come with chunks of skin, bone and fin. There are also only two per fish, and they’re cut only from fish that are big enough to yield a decent-size collar, like yellowtail, lingcod or halibut. The result is some of the richest, softest, most delicate fish flesh you will ever eat. Kabuki served theirs grilled with a toss of sesame seeds and scallions, simply and perfectly showcasing this most delicious cut of fish. PIP’s reaction? “Where has this fish been all my life?”

Kimchi 101

It’s impossible to talk Korean food without talking about kimchi, which was the basis for my entree, Kimchi Je Gea ($13.95). Kimchi is usually served as an appetizer and as a condiment throughout the meal, or as an enhancement to many traditional Korean dishes. It’s almost the salsa of Korea, albeit in a more substantial form. Kimchi is most regularly made with napa cabbage and can be only cabbage, but often other vegetables such as cucumbers, mustard greens or radishes are used. Kimchi looks limp, and you’d expect then that the texture of the cabbage would be soft, but it’s exactly the opposite. Kimchi’s surprising mouth feel is a toothy and chewy crunchy.

What accounts for kimchi’s crazy fiery, pungent, fermented, vinegary, salty taste? A Korean culinary staple for more than 2,000 years, kimchi achieves its flavor by burying the briny, spicy marinated nappa in crocks or barrels for days to weeks at a time. Kimchi is now making its way onto some American dishes, like the hot dog, where it’s a worthy upstart rival to the traditional sauerkraut.


What exactly is Kimchi Je Gea? It’s comprised of kimchi, pork, tofu and scallions. Called a stew, it’s really a soup/stew hybrid, as everything is bathed in peppery, savory, red orange broth. Arriving in a volcanically hot ceramic crock, the slabs of silky quivery tofu and meaty slices of pork were a great foil for the kimchi. And how sweet the fresh green onion shoots tasted swimming in that amazing broth! I was lucky to be eating Kimchi Je Gea on a busy Saturday night, according to our server Michelle. “Mae (the owner and chef) doesn’t usually make it to order on our busy nights. You need to call ahead for that and a few other things on the menu since they take a long time to make.”  I was dying to try something I hadn’t had before, so Michelle asked and Mae graciously agreed to make it. And I was richly rewarded!

If you are thinking of going to Kabuki, call ahead and ask for Kimchi Je Gea or one of Mae’s other homestyle specialties. And don’t forget to try the Hamachi Kama. Kabuki offers some dinner theatre you’ll remember.

Kabuki Korean Japanese Restaurant is located at 848 S. Main St. in Centerville. For more information, please call 937.435.9500 or visit eatatkabuki.com.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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