Chef Mike Kimura at Kihachi.
Photo by Chris Casella

Michelin Man?

New York City – the gold standard metro area for dining in the U.S. – currently has 65 restaurants with at least one Michelin Star. Columbus has none. Zero.

But the restaurant scene here has made strides in the last decade, and it seems likely that a Columbus establishment will be awarded the prestigious designation at some point. The question is which one.

In the April issue of (614) Magazine, Executive Chef Bill Glover from Gallerie Bar & Bistro pointed to his personal bet – Kihachi. This may not come as a huge surprise to some gourmands, but it’s not necessarily a name at the tip of the mainstream tongue – it’s not located in any of the hip culinary neighborhoods, instead tucked into a middle slot in a strip shopping center in Dublin. The bulk of the menu rarely changes; the traditional Japanese food is often unfamiliar to locals; and it’s open just 24 hours each week.

If you were to create a restaurant specifically to win a Michelin Star, it wouldn’t look like this, not here, no way. Yet Kihachi, and its owner Chef Mike Kimura, has as good a chance as anywhere else. Maybe better.

His name isn’t really Mike. It’s Ryuji, but he’s gone by Mike ever since he worked in Tokyo in his homeland of Japan. The nickname was bestowed one night at a restaurant when serving an Australian named Mike who was eating a lot, and drinking a lot. Eventually Ryuji sat down with the man, and he too began eating a lot, drinking a lot. One of his friends pointed and said – Hey Kimura, you’re just like Mike! He’s been Chef Mike ever since.

After a stint in New York City, he opened Kihachi Japanese Restaurant in 1993. “From day one, he had the idea of what he wanted to do, and for 22 years now, we’ve stuck to that,” says his son Tom while prepping for a Thursday night alongside his father. While the Michelin would be a lofty and welcome prize, it was never a part of that idea. “Personally, I think he deserves it. He deserves two or three. But I don’t think that’s really a goal.”

I ask about the inspiration for the menu, and Tom looks over his shoulder in deference to Chef Mike – it’s all his design. It doesn’t come off as a statement of filial submission but as recognition that Chef knows the way: high-quality ingredients, proper technique, preparation, simplicity.

Tom pulls tiny shoots of green onion from a container, and another cook whisks broth in a steel pot. This ritual of daily prep takes four to six hours before the restaurant opens for its four-hour service each night. At the far end of the prep table, Chef Mike guts and cleans a fluke, a type of flounder. The turn of a large, very sharp knife and a push from the elbow, and there’s a snap and a crunch, then the fish is splayed open. In a matter of minutes it’s transformed from dead animal to very pretty slivers of food – fluke sashimi cut so thin that the texture of the plate shows through.

This dedication to traditional, exceptional cuisine has brought Kihachi and Chef Mike some renown in the past. Four years ago, Anthony Bourdain stormed through the Midwest on a whirlwind tour for his No Reservations show, and Kihachi was his only stop in Columbus. “Chef was… I’ve never seen the man more nervous in my life,” Tom says. Bourdain was impressed, and business spiked after the episode aired. Tom says that locals nowadays are more open to trying international cuisine, though Honda – and the considerable Japanese population accompanying its presence – has played a large part in keeping Kihachi in these unassuming environs.

I ask Chef Mike about the acclaim from other chefs and tastemakers; he answers with a story about rare matsutake mushrooms. There may be something lost in translation – his English isn’t great and he mostly defers to his son – but there’s also a sense that Kihachi’s reputation comes from his love of the ingredients, the depth of his passion for this food. He doesn’t want to make California rolls or fusion; he wants to stay true to his roots. Otherwise he’d have to get a bigger space, and more employees, and a large sushi bar. He likes it small so he can approve every single dish.

In a restaurant that’s open 24 hours a week, the aging chef works 80 to 90. “When I was young – ‘Why I have only one day off or two days off? I need a long vacation,’” he says, feigning his former burnt-out exasperation. Then he turns and says, “I don’t have any plans to vacation. I’m happy to stay here.” He keeps going because the customers keep thanking him for his superb food. He’s paid off a mortgage and a car loan but they keep coming, he says, as if he doesn’t understand that his finances weren’t their motivation – that they’re a part of the reward for his excellence. “That’s a really nice job. I’m a happy guy.”

Chef Mike produces the dishes he and his staff of two have prepared – the fluke sashimi; braised sea bream roe; beef sashimi. The food has an intoxicating subtlety to it, so that the first bite is good, but instead of eventually tiring the palette, the flavors deepen and expand as you eat, and the sixth bite is exponentially better than the first. Will he win a Michelin? Should he? I have no idea, but no star could change Kihachi’s taste.

While I fumble with the chopsticks in my dumb fingers, attempting to artfully eat some of the best food of my life in an empty restaurant on a Thursday afternoon, Chef sits on the step of an elevated booth and watches me eat. Is it good? he asks, and I nod, mouthful of food, speechless. And then he smiles, pleased that his cuisine still has this effect.

If you’d like to know more, you have to go. Kihachi (2667 Federated Blvd.) has no website, no active social media. You could try Yelp, but in our humble experience, food tastes better in person. The restaurant is open from 6 – 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.