Japanese-style pub Kaizen offers an informal, peaceful atmosphere
When you walk into a restaurant and see one of Knoxville’s top chefs enjoying a birthday dinner with her family, you figure you’re in for a good meal. “I would come here five nights a week if I could,” says Holly Hambright, with a grin. It’s no wonder Hambright loves this place. Kaizen, which moved from Clinch Avenue in 2020, takes an innovative and fresh approach in merging a multitude of Asian culinary traditions.
We sat on the patio, a re-imagined beer-garden space with plenty of tables under leafy tress. The brick walls surrounding the patio still bear the hallmarks of ages past, in this case, some are from the former Crown and Goose. It provides a wonderful sense of Old City history.
Before you enter the patio, be sure to stop at the generous bar, where mixologist Rachel Santella will tempt you with a menu of cocktails. We couldn’t decide. The Bossy Boots (tequila, sake, elderberry liqueur, grapefruit soda), the Mall Girl Pearl (gin, vermouth,) or the Gary’s Got Legs (Toki Japanese Whisky, Chinola Passion Fruit Liqueur, yuzu, bitters)? Fortunately, a little bird told us about the Secret Menu, so we went with Rachel’s pièce de résistance, the French 75. A word to the wise – this drink is named for the 75mm Howitzer field gun used by the French in WWI, which was known for its accuracy and speed. Enough said.
We started with the Steamed Buns. These are one of Kaizen’s most popular dishes, and one bite will tell you why. There are a wide variety of filings to suit any taste, but our favorites were the Bang Bang Shrimp, the Thai Sausage, and the Pork Belly. We aren’t telling, but there may have been a small tussle at the table over the Pork Belly, served with kimchi, a miso mustard, and hoisin sauce.
Several dishes have stayed on Kaizen’s menu from its beginning. The Dan Dan Noodles served chilled with pork, black soy and vinegar, toasted chili oil, and pickled cabbage is a house favorite. Shrimp lovers may lean toward the Bang Bang Shrimp Fried Rice (delicious), while the plant-based crowd may opt for the Mapo Doufu. This tofu-based dish uses fermented black beans and bean paste served over fried rice.
Speaking of fried rice, it was exceptional. We asked Chef Jesse Newmister how it was done. While loath to give up his secrets, he did reveal that he uses a process of cooking the rice, then freezing it to maintain the mouth-feel of individual grains, before then seasoning and cooking. Rather than just a base to the featured ingredients, the rice adds a dimension all its own.
Newmister was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he was always cooking, but yearned to break away from the regional fare. “Any cuisine that’s not German in Terre Haute is exotic,” he laughs. He went to culinary school at Sullivan University in Lexington, Kentucky, worked in Charleston, South Carolina, then moved to Knoxville to help open the Northshore Brasserie. He and co-owner Margaret Stolfi operated Kaizen on Clinch Avenue near the YWCA until they moved to the Old City in early 2020.
We couldn’t resist the Gyoza, perfect little dumplings with garlic beef and onion, served with a sweet Thai dipping sauce. One standout dish was the Dry Fry Eggplant. Newmister creates crispy little eggplant straws dusted with Szechuan pepper, chili oil, and fresh herbs. Get one for the table.
If you are feeling indulgent, the Spicy Pork Fat Noodles arrive with generous pieces of diced pork belly, glass noodles, cabbage, and onions, topped with a peanut sesame crunch. If you love kimchi, go for the Hot and Sour Duck Noodles, which comes in a kimchi broth with pulled duck confit (hat tip to the Northshore Brasserie), Napa cabbage, peppers, and udon noodles.
The trouble you may have at Kaizen is choosing among the wide variety of dishes, each better than the last. You may just have to go five nights a week.