We've always liked Carnegie (here we refer to the town, not the fellow). With its traditional Main Street and West Busway access, we think this charming town has long been under-appreciated as a desirable address. Our latest visit suggested that we might not be the only ones on this wavelength: Since last we strolled the sidewalks of Carnegie, its old post office has become an appealing coffee shop, a few new boutiques have launched sparkly holiday window displays, and Main Street features a couple of enticing restaurant additions.
One of these is Kasai PGH, a Japanese place run by a Korean-born entrepreneur. "Kasai" is Japanese for "fire," probably a reference to the hibachi dishes prepared in the kitchen — no table-side knife-flipping theater here. Other than these, and a few cooked appetizers and entrees, the menu is fairly sushi-centric.
Truthfully, "sushi" barely begins to describe all the options. Since raw fish and rice took America by storm in the 1980s, stateside sushi chefs have invented myriad new combinations with ingredients ranging from authentic (fish, of course, and vegetables) to not-so-much (cream cheese) to out there (jalapeño peppers and, uh, bacon?). Faced with this type of menu, there are two key questions: Has the sushi chef mastered the basics, and can that same chef pull off the flights of fancy?
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Spicy crab-and-eel roll
Let's address the first question. Kasai's fish ranged from decent (tuna, which in our experience ranges pretty widely in quality, not only from sushi counter to sushi counter, but from visit to visit at any given establishment) to near-perfect. Scallop, for instance, needs to be just so to convey its unique blend of silken texture and buttery, briny flavor, and Kasai's was delectable. Salmon, which we had in a few guises, was also excellent, supple and rich. And yellowtail was a standout, its bold flavor in contrast to its tender yet satiny flesh. Kasai may not pose a threat to the city's handful of truly top-tier sushi houses, but its quality ranks high among our far larger contingent of workaday sushi purveyors.
If the fish was good, its accompaniments were better. Kasai's were served with the fish cool and the rice warm, as they should be. Other fine details were observed, as well: a smear of wasabi between the rice and the tuna draped over it in the maguro nigiri; a sprinkling of bonito flakes, sesame seeds and shredded daikon in a bowl of chirashi (an array of raw fish scattered over rice).
Simple avocado and cucumber hosomaki (slender, one-filling rolls) were well proportioned, and the quality of the avocado — always iffy this time of year — was notable. An intriguing green spicy tuna roll — made with wasabi tobiko, or roe — barely deserved the "spicy" appellation, although it was tasty enough in other ways. The crispy salmon skin was our only disappointing roll. The pleasure of a good salmon-skin roll is in the crackling-like texture and rich, fatty flavor of the fried-up skin, but here, the skin was still attached to the fish, resulting in only fleeting crispness and meat that was cooked to a dull orange-gray. It wasn't bad, but it was the only roll we didn't avidly consume.
We usually avoid stunt rolls, those massive agglomerations of several different kinds of fish, vegetables and sauces in which we find it difficult to discern any individual flavor. But after the delight of our scallop nigiri sushi, we couldn't resist the spicy scallop maki. Here the spice was provided not by wasabi, but by an autumnal-hued trio of sauces: mahogany sweet soy, vermillion spicy mayo and crimson sriracha. These were served on the plate, not on the roll itself, a strategy that worked brilliantly: Sweeping each piece of roll through the sauces resulted in their combining playfully into a balance of hot, sweet and creamy notes which seasoned each bite of scallop without overwhelming its delicacy.
We were impressed with Kasai's non-sushi items, as well. Gyoza dumplings, fried to a golden crisp, were especially flavorful, with greens evident amid the usual ground-pork filling. Seaweed was salad-bright and crisp, and spicy crab-and-cucumber salad provided a pleasing combo of flavors and textures, even if it, like the green tuna roll, was scarcely spicy.
Kasai pulls its weight in lifting downtown Carnegie from its post-industrial doldrums and introducing its new reputation as a shopping and dining destination.