Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Saltwater Eel Master (or, The Easygoing Anti-Sushi Nazi of Kaito Sushi)

While Summer usually marks a chance for me to visit my friends in San Diego, for some reason, I've never thought about getting recommendations for truly great, Chow-worthy destinations while visiting. Maybe it's because I'm so happy just to see my friends after an extended period of time that I'm focused more on getting down there and hanging out, rather than where and what to eat. (^_^; But this year, I thankfully remembered to gather some recommendations and am glad I was able to finally combine the meeting of friends with good food at the same time in San Diego. :) One of the most interesting recommendations has been for Kaito Sushi.

Thanks to the strong recommendations by cgfan and many other SD Hounds, we eagerly headed over to Encinitas in search of good Sushi. :) One important thing to note is that Kaito Sushi has no sign (except the lettering on its window). So while driving through the massive, stretching mini-mall that it sits in, be on the lookout for the lettering on the window, not for any traditional, lit signage.

Stepping into Kaito Sushi, we're greeted by a slightly disheveled, easygoing person behind the Sushi bar who turns out to be Head Chef Kazuo Morita. A native of Chiba, Japan, Kazuo-san grew up training as a Sushi Chef for years in Tokyo before coming over to the U.S. As I exchange greetings with him in Japanese, he introduces himself as simply "Kazu." When I call him "Kazu-san" he immediately stops me and insists (in Japanese) that I call him "Kazu" only, and drop the "-san"; this is the equivalent of someone named, say, Chef James Smith, insisting that you just call him "Jimmy." It's an act of extreme humility and that one moment summarizes the type of Itamae (Sushi Chef) Kazuo-san is.

(Note: English and Japanese names listed as presented by the Itamae.)

We order the "Omakase" (leaving it up to the Chef), and Kazuo-san starts us with Hirame Sashimi (Thin Slices of Halibut) from the East Coast.

I see Kazuo-san taking the Halibut from the case and notice the Konbu (Kelp). I confirm with Kazuo-san that he prepares the Halibut via Kobujime, having the Halibut rest atop the Konbu helps to infuse the fish with the Kelp's flavors; a nice touch. He serves it topped with fresh Shiso Leaf, a touch of Yuzu Kosho (Spicy Yuzu Citrus Paste), and freshly-grated (hand-grated) Himalayan Pink Salt.

(Here Kazuo-san is pictured hand-grating the Himalayan Pink Salt for another table's order.)

There is unfortunately one piece with gristle/connective tissue, but otherwise, the Hirame is very fresh, mild and nicely paired with the Shiso and Himalayan Salt combination.

Kazuo-san recommends Kikusui Junmai Ginjo Sake from Niigata, Japan to go with our dishes this evening, so we go with his choice. I've had Kikusui many times before: It's a safe, light, relatively smooth Sake with a slightly rough finish, but it's fine given their limited Sake menu.

Our second course arrives minutes later: Katsuo Sashimi (Thin Slices of Skipjack) from Northern Japan. The Katsuo itself has been quickly seared on the skin side, resulting in a nice textural mix between the crisped Skipjack Skin and the meaty, tender inside. The Katsuo inherently has a more pungent aroma, but the classic pairing with Shoga (Ginger) and Negi (Green Onions) help to neutralize the stronger aspects and enhance each bite.

During the course of the evening, it's apparent Kazuo-san is truly a unique individual: Very humble and self-effacing and really friendly. :) When he learned that we arrived from L.A., he apologizes immediately, saying he's sorry that he doesn't have any special fish just for our long journey over here. He continues and says that whatever fresh fish he has, he serves to all of his customers. :) He also humbly insists that Kaito Sushi isn't special or flashy, but he hopes that we enjoy our dinner.

Next up is a little appetizer - an original creation - by Kazuo-san made up of Ika (Squid) with Konbu (Kelp) tossed with Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) and a little Sesame Oil. It's a relatively simple dish done very well; not too salty, with a great textural exploration between the Ika, Konbu and Tobiko, with the chew of the Squid, the soft, gelatinous nature of the Kelp and the little crunch explosions of the Flying Fish Roe.

But the next course is what makes Kaito Sushi (and Kazuo-san) shine: Anago Tempura (Saltwater Eel) from Japan, hand-filleted from a whole Anago by Kazuo-san himself! (The vast majority of places have these pre-cut because of the hassle of the tiny bones in Anago.)

Taking a bite, the Tempura batter is very light and crisp. It's cooked at a good temperature, as the Tempura (thankfully) retains very little oil (unlike too many places in So Cal these days). But the Anago itself is so fresh, slightly buttery and creamy, with a good flakiness still, and simply enjoyable. :) I also love the fact that they serve part of the Spine of the Anago, fried until the bone easily breaks apart in a satisfying crunch with one bite. One of the best renditions of Anago Tempura I've ever had.

The next dish continues the excellence with Ikura (Salmon Roe) from Canada. The Ikura look strangely darker than what I'm used to seeing, and it turns out that Kazuo-san marinates them in a homemade Shoyu (Soy Sauce) mixture before serving. This turns out to be a surprisingly mild, mellow pop of oceanic, liquidy goodness. :) The texture of the Ikura is outstanding with that soak in the homemade Shoyu: It has a slightly more saturated gelatinous shell (moreso than normal) but gives way with just the slightest effort. Delicious!

We're presented with some simple Tsukemono of Pickled Cucumbers at this point. The Cucumbers are refreshingly cool, bright and have a great snap with each bite.

Next up is Kinmedai (Golden Eye Snapper) from New Zealand.

The Kinmedai has a gorgeous texture, going beyond the softness of a good Maguro (Tuna), but retaining enough musculature to give it a standout mouthfeel. The mildness of the Kinmedai also allowed me to really focus on the Shari (Sushi Rice): It's a decent blend, not too sweet or salty for my tastes, and much better than the last outing at Sushi Zo.

We move on to Kaki Furai (Fried Kumamoto Oysters).

The Oysters are served immediately out of the fryer, so they're still piping hot. Taking a bite causes a flavor explosion of a very hot, beautiful oceanic brininess, with a great crust. Excellent. :)

Continuing on, Kazuo-san presents us with Ika (Squid) from the East Coast, and Tako (Octopus) from Japan. Unfortunately, the Ika is extremely chewy with lots of "gristle / connective tissue" throughout. My guests all confirm the same result. :( This has to be one of the worst pieces of Ika I've had in the last ~4-5 years, a far cry from the legendary creaminess of the Ika at Sushi Mizutani in Tokyo.

The Tako (Octopus) from Japan fares much better, being very juicy and extremely clean-tasting. There's a good chew (nothing as distracting as the Ika thankfully) and the Shari is a good match here. I prefer the Mizudako (Great Octopus) from Aomori at Mori Sushi over this preparation, but it's a solid offering.

The next dish erases the badness from the Squid in one beautiful bite: Kanpachi (Amberjack) from Kyushu, Japan.

Taking a bite... amazing! (^_^) There's this gorgeous, creamy, softness, but there's also this viscosity to the Kanpachi that really makes it shine (beyond something that's only "meltingly tender"). This is probably my second favorite Kanpachi after Urasawa.

Kazuo-san continues with an interesting Roll: Aoyagi Uni Maki (Orange Clam + Sea Urchin Roll), with the Aoyagi from the East Coast, and the Uni from San Diego.

I wasn't sure if this would work, but the combination is spot-on: There's a great, mild, sweet creaminess from the very fresh Uni that coats and supports the crisp crunch from the Aoyagi. The Cooked Seaweed topping adds the perfect finish with a light salty, savory touch.

The next dish is a nice surprise: Kamasu (Barracuda) from Shizuoka, Japan. Kazuo-san shows off 2 preparations side-by-side, both of them feature a lightly torched, crisped skin, but the topping is slightly different.

We start with the Kamasu (Barracuda) topped with the spicy Yuzu Kosho. This is definitely a firmer, meatier dish: The strong aroma in the meat stands up really well to the equally powerful Yuzu Kosho.

I prefer the Kamasu topped with Shoga (Ginger) and Negi (Green Onions) in terms of flavor, but sadly a big piece of gristle shows up in this second piece for me. Overall, Kamasu isn't something I'd be seeking out next time, but I'm glad I tried Kazuo-san's preparation.

In another of Chef Kazuo's interesting foibles, he excuses himself and dashes off for a smoke break(!). It's at once slightly shocking, odd, funny, and charming that this humble Sushi Chef has to have smoke breaks throughout the evening.

When he comes back, we're presented with the always lovely Chutoro (Medium-fat Bluefin Tuna Belly) from Spain. The good, lush butteriness comes through immediately, lightly sweet and very good.

In what has to be the strangest pacing moves I've ever experienced in a traditional Sushi bar, Kazuo-san presents us with... Tamago (Egg) before the end of the sushi course(!). Usually, a Sushi Chef's Tamago is a good test of their skills, but I'm glad it's not 100% the case, because the Tamago that we got was (I apologize in advance for the harshness, but I have to be honest) completely *awful*. This is the worst Tamago I've ever had in a traditional, upper echelon Sushi restaurant. :( The Egg was dried out, mealy and slightly crumbly. It tasted like it had been sitting for days.

With the Tamago coming out, we had thought that it signaled the end of the meal, but imagine our surprise when it continued with Aoyagi (Orange Clam) from the East Coast. This was a good rebound from the disastrous Tamago (Egg), reflecting a great crispness to the Aoyagi, along with a beautiful tender portion as well.

Continuing with the odd pacing, Kazuo-san serves us Maguro (Bluefin Tuna)(!) (after serving us Chutoro) from South Africa. This is a good preparation of Tuna: Very soft, creamy and pure. It's a straightforward cut and preparation, but I prefer the Maguro at Maki Zushi, Sushi Zo, Mori and Mizutani over this one.

But after experiencing all the dishes, in hindsight, I'd have to say that Kaito Sushi's "Tamago" (finisher) is fittingly their best dish as well: Anago (Saltwater Eel) Sushi from Japan, presented 2 ways.

After experiencing the bliss that was the Anago Tempura earlier, I was really looking forward to the Sushi version. The first preparation is Kazuo-san's hand-filleted Saltwater Eel topped with the Himalayan Pink Salt and a little Yuzu Kosho. It's so focused and fresh and pure. Excellent.

But it's the 2nd preparation of Anago with their made-from-scratch Tsume Sauce (the broth that the Anago is cooked in, with Mirin, Soy Sauce, Sugar and other ingredients) that really shines: The absolutely luscious creaminess of the freshly filleted Anago gently touched by the addictive, lightly sweet and savory Tsume Sauce. This is easily the best Anago I've had in the U.S., eclipsed only by Mizutani-sensei's preparation in Tokyo. Delicious! (^_^)

But continuing with the odd pacing - and to be fair, maybe because Kazuo-san and Joe-san wanted us to try their best dishes - we're served... Buta no Kakuni (Stewed Pork Belly)! Wow. I've never had Buta no Kakuni during a Sushi Omakase dinner before, but it somehow fits Kaito's capricious style. :)

I love Buta no Kakuni in general, so I didn't mind (^_~). Kaito Sushi's version of this great Pork Belly dish is very good, with the Pork tasting fresh (made that day), savory and sweet, but probably a bit too sweet for my tastes. It's also just a touch too chewy in a couple bites, but overall the Pork has a good tenderness.

We finish with Ohagi (Sweet Rice Wrapped by Sweetened Red Bean). Their Ohagi turns out to be a decent version: Fresh with a good amount of Sweetened Rice, but a bit too sweet.

Service at Kaito Sushi is one of its weaknesses, unfortunately. There's only 1 server who also acts as the busboy, taking care of the Sushi bar customers and tables, so as a result, our drinks were never refilled, our plates started to stack up(!), and we had to get the attention of the server multiple times throughout the evening to help clear the plates and get refills. With only 1 person it's understandable, but it's not very pleasant. It's a far cry from the service at every other good Sushi restaurant I've dined in So Cal and Japan.

The total cost for Omakase turned out to be ~$150 per person (including tax and tip). With only 2 cups of Sake ordered, that price is more expensive than Shibucho (Costa Mesa), Sushi Zo, Sasabune and Nozawa.

Ultimately, Kaito Sushi delivers some surprisingly good Sushi, in an area that I wasn't sure what to expect. While there are some big disappointments (e.g., Ika, Tamago), and some strange pacing issues with the fish, there are also some great highlights, most notably the amazing Anago (Saltwater Eel) preparations, easily the best I've had in So Cal.

But beyond that, and more importantly to some, is the Itamae (Sushi Chef): Kazuo Morita-san is the Anti-Sushi Nazi. :) He's humble, friendly (he memorized every customer's name, and multiple times throughout the evening he addressed them by their name and asked if they were doing OK, if they wanted anything else), and quirky (taking multiple smoke breaks; the idiosyncratic movements of his Sushi preparation that have to be seen to be appreciated :).

Unlike the angry, pensive, infamous Sushi Nazis in L.A. (Nozawa, Sasabune, Sushi Zo), Kaito Sushi's Kazuo-san is truly the polar opposite. For perspective, the legendary Sushi Mizutani is still my favorite, followed by Urasawa and Mori Sushi. While Kaito Sushi isn't in the same league, I'm happy to have tried Kaito Sushi. Kazuo-san makes you feel like a friend that's coming over for a casual dinner on a weeknight. And that alone makes me more than happy to come back again and again if I'm in the area. :)

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

Kaito Sushi
130-A N. El Camino Real
Encinitas, CA 92024
Tel: (760) 634-2746

Hours: Mon - Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 4:00 p.m. - (10:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m., depending on how busy they are)
Closed Sundays.


weezermonkey said...

That kanpachi looks particularly beautiful!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

It was definitely one of the highlight dishes at Kaito. Let me know if you end up trying it. :)

Pinkfoodie said...

Sorry to hear about all the gristle in the fish. Sounds like the Anago might be worth the trip though. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pinkfoodie,

Yah, I would say if you were on the way down to SD or in the area, it's worth visiting for sure. Love their Anago! :) As for driving down from LA just for Kaito... it might not be worth it (depending on how much you love Anago (^_~)).

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