With its menu of Asian, Latin and Continental influences, Kasa shines downtown.
Pad Thai calamari is a Kasa specialty, boasting squid, red pepper, snow peas and carrots drizzled in a spicy sauce.
It’s been fascinating to watch as SunRail, the Amway Center and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts have brought both tourists and entertainment-seeking locals back to a downtown scene once invigorated by Rosie O’Grady’s and the Cheyenne Saloon—and then forgotten for the sake of CityWalk and Pleasure Island. Pioneers such as Kres, The Rusty Spoon, The Boheme and Amura hung on during stressful times and paved the way for a new generation of exciting downtown restaurants such as Artisan’s Table, Church Street Tavern and, now, Kasa.
Owners Jim Tung, Johnny Tung and David Yu of the Bento Group spent a purported $1 million on revamping the former Urban Flats location at the base of the Chase Plaza building. It’s a spot that has become a prime crossroads for Church Street partiers, guests of the Grand Bohemian hotel and pre- and post-performing arts center audiences.
The Group has run downtown fave Bento Café in The Plaza building since 2008, and also owns the Vain nightclub, Avenue gastrobar, Ghost Bar on Pine Street, three nightclubs and restaurants in Gainesville and four other Bento locations.
Kasa Restaurant and Bar
This familiarity with contemporary nightlife has informed Kasa’s thoroughly enjoyable Deco-midcentury-Danish Modern ambiance, replete with bamboo and light woods, mint green leather and wonderfully retro circular banquettes. The view through the full-length wall of windows onto Orange Avenue adds a big-city downtown feel as auto traffic and micro-skirted partiers in stratospheric heels inch by.
The menu, with its Asian, Latin and Continental influences, was created by Shawn Kaplan, a Canadian by way of Napa Valley who is the excutive chef at Kasa. He had initial help from his former kitchen mate at Fuku in Palm Beach, Food Network Star alumnus Josh Lyons.
Offerings center on “Tastings,” entrees and a small raw bar selection. The small-plates trend is very popular here, with items like Kasa corn ($6), stubs of roasted corn ears dusted with a Japanese pepper, seaweed and citrus blend called togarashi and powdered manchego cheese. The savory notes of cheese, salt and pepper are cut by the bursting bite of sweet corn, and it’s an impressive presentation.
Also impressive: the taste of Pad Thai calamari ($9), ribbons of fried squid replacing noodles, mixed with red pepper, snow peas and carrots, drizzled in a slightly spicy, slightly sweet sauce. Shrimp a la Plancha ($12) consists of five expertly grilled jumbo shrimp in a chili lime coconut sauce with the essence of a fabulous Thai soup. And crab cake a la Kasa ($12) serves two panko-crusted patties on a salad of onion, pepper and fennel, dressed in a mustard dill sauce.
The Azul spring roll ($14) presents a checkerboard of salmon, tuna, escolar, avocado and hearts of palm, wrapped in a skin of cucumber and accompanied by sweet guava sauce, tart tropical salsa and delightful dice of pickled watermelon rind. It’s pretty to look at, but a bit too one-note in its soft textures. Conch ceviche, salmon sashimi and tuna on mini plantain tostones also appear on the international raw menu and might be better choices.
Service is friendly if a bit slow, but orders come astoundingly fast out of the kitchen and may, in true tapas style, arrive all at once. In the perfect nexus of movie screens (and may I say that I adore the Plaza Cinema Cafe), bars and Broadway shows, Kasa is a welcome, and welcoming, addition to a reviving downtown.
There are some afternoon delights on Kasa’s lunch menu that might make a noontime visit mandatory. The dense panko-crusted crab cake comes in BLT form with bacon, lettuce, tomato (naturally) and avocado on a brioche, while Kasa’s version of a Cuban sandwich layers rich adobo-spiced pork with Canadian bacon, provolone and the obligatory pickle. Lunch menu: $9-$14.