Kawa Ni transforms restaurant experience

Ale Benjamin, Managing Editor

The tune of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” bounces off green wallpaper speckled with white flowers. Delicate Japanese cherry-blossom china crowds wooden shelves. Maroon, upside-down domed lamps swing low over a room-length communal table. Old and new, foreign and familiar swirl together as seamlessly as the scents of spicy soups that fill the air at Kawa Ni.

Kawa Ni is a self-described “Izakaya-Inspired” restaurant that opened at 19A Bridge Square in Westport last year near its companion and Westport fan-favorite, The Whelk. Like The Whelk, Kawa Ni is supported by local Connecticut farms whose ingredients are featured frequently on its menu.

At first glance, you might miss the white-washed corner of Bridge Square – the restaurant’s name is pronounced to passersby only in Japanese lettering. But keep your eyes peeled, because you don’t want to miss Kawa Ni.

Its menu, which changes for seasonal produce availability, is divided into five sections: Yushoku (dinner), Onigri (rice balls), Sashimi (raw fish), Don-buri (rice bowl) and Men (noodle soups). Yoshuku, Onigiri and Sashimi are appetizer-style small plates, while Don-buri and Men are entrees.

I started with Kani crab salad made with mango, cucumber, tobiko and fried onions. Although it was a tough choice between other killer apps like roasted beets or gyoza dumplings, the creamy dressing, slurpable sliced vegetables and tangy aftertaste bore zero regrets.

As background Hendrix faded into Black Keys, the Onigiri arrived. Picture a crisp fried mound that cracks open to reveal risotto-style creamy rice, collard greens and candied cashews, making every bite a savory sensation.

Finally, floral bowls delivered steaming vats of jam-packed ramen. I went with the spicy kimchi – a heavily seasoned red broth cluttered with chunky miso noodles, tender roasted pork belly, burnt greens and – my favorite part – a shimmering egg yolk.

It’s a zesty, punchy kick to warm winter bones and clear out lingering colds. But if you’re wary of heat, a dish like the garlic pork ramen is a milder, but still majorly flavorful broth – straight up comfort food.

And what’s a meal without dessert?  I’m usually first to choose chocolate over fruity, but yuzu mouse broke my golden rule. Fluffy, key-lime-pie-type whip with crackling caramel glass leads the way to freezing green tea cremeux and honeycrisp bunches beneath it. A simply sweet conclusion to an audacious and innovative experience.