By Caitlin Elftman, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Oct 11, 2017 at 3:06 PM

Welcome to Eat, Play Applaud, a new OnMilwaukee series where we serve up a perfect pairing of dinner and a show – tied together by a common thread, both tasty and theatrical. Make your next night out in Milwaukee even more memorable!

Everyone has a favorite section of a newspaper or online publication. Some people skip immediately to the sports pages, anxious for updates on their preferred teams and players. Others instantly proceed to the travel articles, eager for inspiration for their next getaway. Me? I go right to the arts and entertainment section. I monitor local theater performances like some people monitor the stock market, and when I see a show that intrigues me, I instantly look at the calendar, get my husband’s credit card (thanks honey!) and immediately purchase tickets.

It was during this incessant perusing of Milwaukee theater seasons when I came across Skylight Music Theatre’s production of "The Hot Mikado." Despite never having heard of this show, the premise greatly intrigued me – and just like that, an instant date night was purchased.

And what date night is complete without enjoying a meal out?

While there are many outstanding restaurants in our fabulous Brew City, I wanted the night that I saw "The Hot Mikado" to feel like a trip to Japan. For this theme night, an opportunity to experience Japan – both authentic and jazzed up – in Milwaukee, I chose to start the evening out at the exceptional Kanpai Izakaya.

Eat: Kanpai

(PHOTO: Kanpai Facebook)

Although I am a stranger to Japanese soil, I am far from naïve when it comes to Japanese cuisine, particularly sushi. It’s a type of dining where every bite is an adventure, and that's an eating philosophy I can 100 percent get behind.

While Japanese cuisine has evolved over centuries of social and political changes, one thing has remained consistent with the passage of time: the passion for bold, innovative flavor in Japanese cooking.

When you are enjoying a Japanese meal, you are truly enjoying a work of art. That’s because there is a constant emphasis on using quality ingredients, particular seasonality and impeccable presentation. No aspect of the meal is unplanned, no detail in execution overlooked. Even watching a Japanese chef prepare your meal feels like a performance in and of itself – the rapid yet delicate movements as they compose your entrée is as precise as a conductor leading a symphony. Yes, Japanese cuisine is the perfect marriage of precision and dedication – but that being said, I can’t think of another culture that has fun with their cooking quite like they do.

You’ll certainly experience this sensation when you dine at Kanpai Izakaya. Before my performance of "The Hot Mikado," I was feeling slightly adventurous, so I chose to take a risk and abandon what I normally order. I asked our server to bring whatever she recommended, proud of myself for trying something new yet simultaneously feeling anxious about what the staff had in store for me. If I made the wrong choice, would my imagined trip to Japan be over before it even began?

Fifteen minutes later, I discovered I had no need to be nervous: The waitress delivered a wonderful mix of sashimi (an entrée for a more experienced diner in Japanese fare) and maki rolls (a dinner a newbie would enjoy). Of course, no meal is complete without the perfect beverage to wash it down. The cold glass of sake, a Japanese rice wine, was an ideal drink choice for the evening. In fact, after tasting it, I don’t think I’d ever drink anything else with sushi ever again (sorry, vino).

Do yourself a favor and try something new: skip the expected and trust the recommendations of the expert staff at Kanpai Izakaya. They won’t lead you astray; they will take you on a journey filled with unmatched flavor and adventure.

Kanpai Izakaya has the added bonus of being only a quick walk away from the Skylight Music Theatre. And trust me: I needed a little bit of exercise after all the food I just ate. After a perfectly satisfying opening act, now was the time for the main event: the performance of "The Hot Mikado."

Play: Skylight's "The Hot Mikado"

(PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

When people remark "less is more," they're not talking about "The Hot Mikado." The show certainly presents a "more is more" take on Japanese ideals, with bold action, dynamic characters and brash excitement at every turn. After all, bringing the Gilbert and Sullivan classic "The Mikado" into the 1940s wouldn’t be complete without boisterous big band numbers – and few genres are as emphatically playful or electrifying as big band. It’s a loud, spirited production that demands your attention at every moment.

But like the meal I just enjoyed, the smallest of details played a vital role to my enjoyment of the show and my understanding of the story. Just as every ingredient of the Chef’s Selection Nigiri perfectly combined to make an exceptional meal, so too did the detailed costumes, set pieces and props impeccably combine to give an immediate impression of a bold, diverse take on Japanese culture at a particular moment in time.

Nothing about my Japanese themed evening was dull or timid. From the first bite of my Kanpai Maki Roll to the rousing finale of "The Hot Mikado," the combination took me on a daring and vivacious journey into all sorts of flavors of Japan.

You too can take a trip to Japan without ever leaving Milwaukee. Visit Kanpai Izakaya at 408 E. Milwaukee St., for an authentic and delicious culinary tour of Japan, while performances of "The Hot Mikado" continue at the Skylight Music Theatre, located at 158 N. Broadway, now through Oct. 15. For tickets, visit or call (414) 291-7800.