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Sunday, June 16, 2024

A New Import

On occasion, Jayson Munoz sports a chic, leather designer belt. He bought it for a generously discounted price in a small Nashville boutique owned by a friend. The belt is a simple item, but it matches the design sense Munoz showcases in the revamped Kanpai, a longtime Evansville restaurant he bought from Sun Wortman in early 2010. He wears it while working the dining room. He doesn’t force conversation on patrons who clearly came just to eat, but should someone take interest in the menu, he’s delightful and chatty.

Kanpai (4593 Washington Ave.) came to Evansville 14 years ago when longtime local sushi chefs Mitsuko Schafer and Hiromi Adams opened the restaurant. A few years later, Munoz, a St. Louis native, learned of Evansville when his parents, Julie and Ed Munoz, moved to Newburgh when their son was in college. The couple loved Kanpai, and when an opportunity arose to buy the restaurant, they convinced their son to own it with them. With 12 years in the industry, Munoz made chic changes to the founders’ interior. Glow from the modern light fixtures bounces off the hardy green on the restaurant’s walls. The floor is a dark wood, and a stainless steel wall from the open sushi kitchen extends into the dining area.

He also revamped the menu, which feels new but not unfamiliar. The Asian bistro dishes, made with organic vegetables, have international flavor: tempura and sushi from Japan, General Tso’s chicken from China, bulgogi from Korea, and pho soup from Vietnam. The latter was the reason I ate at Kanpai, and Munoz’s version doesn’t disappoint: Inside a large bowl comes thinly sliced steak swimming above a bounty of rice noodles, and jalapenos, bean sprouts, and onions give the piping hot broth flavor. The bulgogi is a Korean staple, and here, the smoky sweet beef comes served atop stir-fried vegetables. The spring rolls, which Evansville Living named the Best Healthy Dish in the 2010 Best Of Awards, now are super-sized, but the dish — sliced beef wrapped in rice paper with shrimp, lettuce, onions, and cilantro — still makes a light appetizer despite the expansive size.

Just as varied as the culinary dishes is the beer menu. Munoz began in the restaurant industry at age 16. For the Macaroni Grill, he worked in the human resources department with a former head chef at Asian restaurants (Munoz credits this relationship for inspiring new recipes offered at Kanpai), and in Clarksville, Tenn., he managed an Old Chicago, a chain known for its 110-beer menu. Munoz’s list at Kanpai runs about 40 deep and changes as often as the seasons. This fall, expect nut brown ales or amber beers such as Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale, a deep reddish amber spiced with cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg and made with pumpkin and butternut squash. Munoz has wine — but no wine list. This conundrum comes from his desire to rotate the wine selection. This is not the restaurant to pair wine with meals, but for wine at $15 a bottle and $8 every Wednesday offered as a ladies’ night special, it is the restaurant to find good wine at an inexpensive price.

Ladies’ night also brings live music. Munoz — a former resident of Nashville, a city with a big music scene — invites in acts from the nearby Southern city. “If you live in Nashville for long enough,” Munoz says, “you know everybody sings, everybody plays, everybody writes.” One monthly performer is Josh Doyle, who was one of Rolling Stone magazine’s best guitarists of all time when he played in the rock band the Dum Dums years ago. The United Kingdom native, as he admits in an interview on his website, “kind of went crazy” and decided “to sell all my possessions” and move to Nashville. (His wife is American.) Because of the proximity to Nashville, Doyle, who tours throughout the country and records albums, comes to Evansville and plays an acoustic set of original songs in the corner at Kanpai. “He does it more because he is a friend of mine,” Munoz says, “and he’s helping my dream.”

Within sight of the bistro is the upscale casual restaurant Lorenzo’s Bistro & Bakery (972 S. Hebron Ave.), a welcomed neighbor for Munoz, who loves locally owned restaurants. He’s confident that Evansville customers can create a loyal following for such establishments. “In any other market I’ve been in,” he says, “the power of word of mouth never has worked as well as it has in Evansville.”

Location: 4593 Washington Ave.  •  Phone: 812-471-7076
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 3-10 p.m. Sat. Closed Sun.
Adult Beverages: Yes  •  Prices: Average lunch is $5-$10; average dinner is $10-$15
Reservations: Yes
  •  Payment: Major credit cards accepted

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