Name: Kampai Japanese Steak House
Location: 3325 Vestal Pkwy E, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 798-7521
Price: $30+ per person
Kampai serves as a three-in-one Japanese restaurant: a sushi bar, a traditional sit-down restaurant, and a hibachi grill. I've been to Kampai a number of times over the years for both sushi and the hibachi and it's always a good time and a fun experience.
The restaurant is located on the Vestal Parkway near the Parkway Plaza, across the street from the new Best Buy. I believe Kampai has been there since the 1970's and it looks like not much has changed, decor-wise, since then. They could use a little bit of an update. The floors are sticky/oily and the place has a musty smell from serving up thousands of hibachi dinners over the years, so one gets the sense that it's not 100% clean.
The hibachi is an experience best enjoyed if you can get a large group of friends to go. It's not necessarily a good date place unless you don't mind eating with strangers. They won't seat you until your entire party is there, so make sure to show up on time. I highly recommend making a reservation, although if you're going on an off-night, you could probably get away with just showing up.
The seating itself can be a little bit cumbersome and cramped around the hibachi table, which can make for some slight discomfort. A friend of mine, for example, smashed his thumbnail trying to get into his seat. I'm still not exactly sure how that happened, but life goes on.
The service at Kampai can be a little spotty. The waitresses who handle your orders and refill drinks sometimes go M.I.A. for extended periods and if you order sushi as an appetizer, don't expect to get it promptly.
Anyway, the negative part of this review are mostly out of the way. I like the hibachi and the sushi at Kampai. The sushi is about average for the Binghamton area. I find it to be on par with Sakura in Endicott and certainly a notch below sake-tumi. The rolls are not particularly well prepared and have a tendency to fall apart. But it all seems to be of pretty good quality and I've had some tasty rolls there, including a spicy crab roll called the "Hot Mama." Prices for the sushi are pretty reasonable, with most rolls in the $6-$10 range.
The hibachi is the real highlight at Kampai, and is truly the reason to go there. I usually order either the Steak and Shrimp, or the Steak and Scallops. Hibachi entrees come with miso soup and ginger salad to start, neither of which is particularly memorable, but not a bad way to start the meal. The rest of the meal is prepared on the hibachi grill right in front of your very eyes, with a trained hibachi chef who performs all sorts of various tricks involving tossing of knives and building volcanoes out of onions and catching a flaming lobster tail in his hat. It's all in good fun and most of the chefs are pretty good at building rapport with the patrons despite their limited English. We went to Kampai with my 4-year old niece, for example, and I was a little concerned about how she would feel about the experience, but the chef was really friendly with her and she ended up having a great time. By the end of the meal she had even figured out how to use chopsticks! I would say this is a fine place to take kids.
As for the food itself, I think it's pretty standard for a Japanese steakhouse. The main course is served with a generous portion of rice and veggies and a couple of different dipping sauces. I am always satisfied with whatever I order. It always has good flavor and is well-seasoned. In particular, I really like the scallops. I'm not really much of a "vegetable guy" and I always clean my plate at Kampai, veggies and all. Prices for hibachi meals run between $20 and $30 each, but keep in mind, you are paying not only for the food but also the entertainment, and the portions tend to be large.
Overall, Kampai is a solid entrant to the Binghamton food scene. The interior could definitely use a makeover and a thorough scrubbing. The sushi is good, the hibachi is a fun experience, and the food is very much on par with Japanese steakhouses I've been to in other cities. Service can be a little slow, so beware of that. If you've never done hibachi before, Kampai would be a fine place for first-timers. And if you're an experienced hibachi veteran, I think you'll find Kampai satisfactory.
Photo courtesy of Glen Talmadge.