By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

When Sapporo in Scottsdale rebranded as Kasai Japanese Steakhouse in November 2018, the move infused new energy into the 11,000-square-foot airy building.

Owner Michael Russello says that energy hasn’t subsided at the teppanyaki restaurant, thanks to a pandemic break facelift.

“We took away other tables and added four teppanyaki tables, totaling 14,” Russello says. “Nowadays, people want more of the Japanese steakhouse.

“We were busy last night. Guests were just having fun. It’s a dinner show where you forget about the world for a little while. I’m blessed with the best chefs around, which make me look good.”

The teppanyaki tables seat 146. Previously, the tables were only at the back and sides of the restaurant. Now, with the addition of the four hoodless tables, teppanyaki is the dining room’s focal point.

For teppanyaki, guests are treated to seven-course meals of shrimp starter, mushroom soup, house salad, fried rice, seasonal vegetables, protein and Dole Whip Hawaiian pineapple frozen dessert.

Teppanyaki features a slew of options individually or in combinations—filet mignon ($36), New York strip ($34), sumo filet mignon ($48), sumo New York strip ($44), chicken breast ($20), soy-glazed tofu ($20), calamari steak ($24), salmon ($30), scallops ($34), shrimp ($28), sea bass ($42), lobster ($46) and Wagyu filet mignon ($70).

There’s more to Kasai than teppanyaki, though. When Kasai reopened in early July, it listed on its menu old favorites, like the Misoyaki black cod with eel sauce and togarashi butter ($18) and the Mongolian lamb chops with Asian slaw, coconut curry and beurre blanc ($24).

“We did reduce some items on the menu, though,” he says. “With coronavirus, you want to keep your inventory down. It’s a good amount of money sitting in inventory when you have to shut down. It’s not fun.

“You’re going through a lot of product. You can’t just keep produce or fresh fish around. I’m a foodie type of guy, and every item we do right now is great. We do care about the appetizers. We have incredible sushi, too.”

Russello says he couldn’t donate the leftover produce because the boxes were open.

“We’ll have 15 cases of eggs, and it’s open,” he says. “You’re not allowed to donate it. That was one thing I said when this thing started; they should have changed that rule.”

Restaurants are nothing new to Russello. He also owns the ice cream shop The Creek Cookies and Cream at The Shops at Dynamite Creek in Cave Creek.

“We have raspberry Dole Whip there,” he says, before quickly adding, “My focus is on Kasai, and we want to grow the concept in the area. There are a couple of locations that we’re eyeing. We have Downtown Phoenix ready to go as soon as we want to pull the trigger.

“We planned on taking over the space in June. With this hoodless teppanyaki grill, it’s way better. We can go anywhere and do them. There’s no teppanyaki in Downtown Phoenix.”

Colorful, potent drinks are a centerpiece as well, like the Violet Solstice made with Hendricks Mid-Summer Solstice gin, crème de violette and fresh lemon juice ($14) or The P. King cocktail (in honor of original owner Patrick King, who lost his battle with melanoma earlier this year) made with Toki Japanese whiskey, lychee liqueur, fresh lime juice and a dash of bitters ($14).

The Kasai tai, shown above, is rum, orange liqueur, amaretto, lime juice, mango and lemongrass foam ($14).

Whether it’s the bar, teppanyaki table or dining room, guests will be greeted by staff wearing masks.

“We’re really abiding by the rules,” Russello says.

“Everybody’s wearing the masks. The chefs, they’re more strict than anybody in the building. It’s a little easier for us because we have a bigger place. It’s tough to be 50% in a smaller restaurant. We’re lucky that it’s a big space.”

Kasai is still about having fun, though.

“It’s high energy, and we play fun music,” he says. “It’s not a place for a really quiet dinner. People yell at the tables. They’re just having fun. We have a great staff, and they’re pushing the fun element, too.”

This fall, Kasai will take a new turn.

“I want to do brunch in the fall,” Russello says. “We’re starting to think about it right now. It’s a two-month process for a teppanyaki brunch. I want to figure it out and get suggestions from the chefs. I think it could be a fun brunch place, too.”

Kasai Japanese Steakhouse, 14344 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480.607.1114, kasaiscottsdale.com.

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