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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sushi Bar Is Best Bet at Kippan

August 13, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lunchtime in Beverly Hills: We park in the public lot and walk north on Beverly Drive, past the intrepid huckstering homeless, past the Tribeca-restaurant swirl of big-haired women and young suits in a fog of Calvin Klein's Eternity. We pass the Carnegie Deli, too, its display windows framed in plump cabbages. We turn in at Kippan, a slim, quiet restaurant.

The atmosphere is immediately calming, despite various post-modern architectonics. The colors are rich: gold, eggplant, brick. The sushi bar gleams. We'd heard a rumor that Kippan played contemporary Japanese classical music, but today, it's the Gipsy Kings "ah-ya-ah-ya-ya-ing" on the sound system. As we walk in, somebody strums the hanging silver chimes at the end of the sushi bar; they make a shimmery, melodic noise, a noise used in movies to signal something supernatural: the wave of a wand, the sprinkling of fairy dust.

There's nothing supernatural here, however--Kippan is basically a neighborhood Japanese restaurant. The only thing sprinkled about is dried bonito flakes.

The hostess seats us at a handsome blond wood table along the wall in the back dining room. We're the notorious bad-luck dining combo--two women--and our status, as such, is quickly established. The table of men seated a few minutes after us is given menus and served drinks. We must flag down a waitress, request menus. The men are eating before our order is taken.

Lunch specials are generally less than $10 and business is brisk. We try "garden of udon ," cold, resilient udon noodles with seaweed, egg, chicken and a light ponzu sauce: a dish of stunning blandness. "It's like eating texture," says my friend. "Like eating the color white."

Chicken sukiyaki is an attractive iron pot full of mushrooms, Napa cabbage, chicken, transparent noodles: Too bad the broth is so sweet.

If lunch is acceptable, dinner is disappointing. Kippan is even prettier at night, subtly lit, relaxing. We have no quarrel with the appetizers, standard pork-filled gyoza , delicately battered tempura, a delicious salmon skin cut roll from the sushi bar. Entrees, however, are depressing. Chicken curry, a bland, predictable concoction, is served on white rice with a sizable heap of sweet pickle relish. Salmon teriyaki is a nice length of filet sadly overcooked and doused in sticky, sweet sauce. Marinated black cod is wonderfully light, but small.

The best thing about Kippan may be the tableware: Chopsticks rest on origami storks; a tiny complimentary bean sprout salad comes in shallow hand-pinched earthenware bowls; tempura is in cunning iron baskets, salmon on a colorful porcelain platter; the variety seems endless, delightful.

I find myself sluggish at the prospect of returning to Kippan, but I have hope for the sushi bar. I slip in with a friend on a weeknight. The place is quiet, nearly empty except for a young couple, two self-described Kippan regulars who swear this is the best sushi around.

We start with toro sushi, smooth, cool, impeccable. Freshwater eel, grilled to a seductive brown, melts in the mouth, but I've definitely had perkier salmon eggs.

Kippan's sushi menu is notable for its rolls. In addition to old favorites--spicy tuna, California--there's the Rodeo, the Beverly, the Spider rolls.

The Rodeo roll, suitably enough, is essentially a California roll--cucumber, avocado, etc.--with shrimp. The crunchy and colorful Dragon roll has a core of tempura shrimp and an exterior of Caltrans-orange smelt eggs. The Beverly roll has vegetables and soft-shell crab. "And what," we ask, "is in the Spider roll?"

"Spiders," says the sushi chef.

"Sea spiders?" I ask hopefully.

The chef's hands make crawly motions. "Spiders," he says. "Just spiders." His hands crawl up the wall. "Deep-fried," he says.

A long moment passes before he cracks a grin.

It is at the sushi bar that we have the memorable, sublimely simple, insanely flavorful salmon skin salad. Hot, toasted bits of salmon skin are tossed with radicchio, endive, the weightless crunch of bonito flakes and a light tokubetsu dressing. That noise that those air chimes make? That's what this salad feels like in your mouth.

* Kippan, 260 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 858-0535. Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner seven nights. Beer, wine and sake. Major credit cards. Valet and nearby lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $19-$50.

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