When it's date night -- and traveling with another couple and their kids affords such a rare opportunity -- one of the easiest meals to sell in our household is sushi. Particularly when on the West Coast. Particularly when there are places with the reputation of Kaito Sushi to choose from. So, from our perch on Mission Beach, we trucked up north to Encinitas to a place that bills itself as a purveyor of old-school Edomae sushi.
I knew Kaito was a small neighborhood joint, and it's certainly not a complaint, but I was surprised by just how spartan it is. Tucked into a strip mall, hidden behind a freestanding building, no overhead signage -- we passed it three times before I finally spied it. It's no sushi speakeasy. This isn't a trendy "come and find us" approach. Rather, one just gets the sense that big, bold declarations isn't their thing. The restaurant inside is very plain and highly functional, with no effort made to conceal a good deal of kitchen equipment on a long counter behind the bar. In short: perfect for scaring off those who aren't primarily concerned with the food. We'd made a reservation at the bar, and were seated in front of the elder itamae, whose name I didn't catch (Update: His name is Ryoichi, aka Joe... thanks, Yao!). Subsequent research seems to indicate that the other fellow, Morita-san, is the star of the show which -- if true -- makes the place all the more impressive. We told our itamae we'd like to do his omakase, set him free with no restrictions, ordered a few beers, and settled in for an exceptionally good meal.
If I'd started counting when we sat down, I don't think I would have made it to ten when the sunomono hit the table, a carefully shaved tangle of vinegared onion and daikon flecked with pink threads of surimi. It was light and refreshing -- sunomono and July get along just fine -- and did a fine job of setting the stage. And then he went right for my soft spot. I adore raw scallop, and this was a fine specimen, fresh and sweet with firm texture and just a touch of funky character. But we weren't done with this fellow. His less universally beloved parts were chopped, cooked with snow peas in a light and sweet soy glaze, and served hot. I cry a little every time I see a scallop dish that serves only the muscle. Which is to say I cry a little almost every time I see a scallop dish. I wish getting the coral and the other bits weren't such a rare treat.
|Hamachi, Toro, Bakagai||Dominic Armato|
What followed was an abundant but focused assortment of sashimi. Starting on the left, the hamachi was from Japan, and I didn't catch the precise subset thereof but it was a beautiful piece of fish. In the middle was something that I'm increasingly regarding as a very, very rare treat. Bluefin is something I've decided not to eliminate from my diet completely, but rather save for a special treat once or twice a year. I'd really like for these fellows to still be around a decade from now (and far beyond). In any case, this specimen came from the waters off Spain, and though it wasn't one of those impossibly creamy cuts of toro that's oozing fat all over the place, it certainly couldn't be described as lean and it had great texture and flavor. On the far right, the orange clam -- bakagai, I believe -- was from the East Coast (New York, probably), briny and umami-laden with just enough resistance to make chewing a pleasure.
Then came the nigiri! Starting on the top left and working clockwise, we were first served hirame (halibut), clean and elegant with just a touch of fiery, citrusy yuzu kosho. Beyond fish selection, these guys are on the ball. It's a tender rice, just barely warm and packed just enough to hold together, laid back in character and complementary to the fish, even though they use red rice vinegar which is a little more assertive in terms of flavor. The hirame was followed by a slice of aji (Spanish mackerel), and I'm always impressed when I get a good piece of this in the States. If it isn't handled well, it goes very off very quickly. But this was excellent, with a little bit of scallion and grated ginger to play off the subtle, natural funk. I don't think the maguro (tuna) was marinated. If it was, it was very lightly so. But maguro is the boneless, skinless chicken breast of the sushi counter, and it's so nice to encounter some that's actually compelling, like this. He followed this with more tuna -- chutoro from the same fish, I believe -- medium fatty and downright succulent. Incidentally, it was around this time that the small group sitting at the bar to our left started chatting about the healing powers of various crystals -- you know, just in case we'd forgotten that we were in SoCal. Next up was the only locally sourced seafood of the night (meaning everything else was flown in, Phoenix), uni plucked from the Southern California coast. This, along with scallop, is probably the sushi standard I look forward to the most, and I don't think I've ever had San Diego uni before. These fellows, at least, didn't have the same natural sweetness that I associate with the widely-beloved Santa Barbara uni, but they were impossibly fresh and they had a soft texture and a lovely, almost mineral-tasting complexity that made them no less, in my eyes -- just different. There's Exhibit A for the joys of eating locally. We rounded out the nigiri with my ladylove's request, some sweet and silky-textured Scottish salmon. I get the impression that it isn't a cut with much cache back in Japan, and I wonder why that is. I'm always more than happy to piggyback on her order, particularly when it's this good.
|Negitoro Hand Roll||Dominic Armato|
The official end of the meal was a narrow, almost cylindrical negitoro hand roll, fatty tuna minced with scallion, nestled in with a handful of the fabulous rice and wrapped in crisp nori. I find myself loving hand rolls more and more these days, and that crisp nori is so key, which they nailed. At this point I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel, so I requested one more item -- his choice -- and was rewarded with a special hand roll, the complete contents of which still remain a mystery. The uni and ikura made themselves perfectly evident, but I think there were two, maybe even three more items lurking below. This was pushing my tolerance for sushi complexity. You pass the two ingredient mark when it comes to roll fillings and I start getting suspicious, but these items were carefully chosen and well-balanced. It was smartly done, and mighty tasty.
|Special Hand Roll||Dominic Armato|
The problem, when going for sushi, is that I get to this point and realize that I could keep doing this all night, but we decided to leave well enough alone and tap out. This is a really, really good sushi bar. And that I enjoyed it when I still have Tsukiji fresh in my head from January probably says something. One thing that surprised me was that what we received actually wasn't entirely representative of their repertoire. The menu isn't short on bastardized maki (it hurts me to see cream cheese on the menu in a place like this), and a couple of folks around us were partaking, but whether by means of years of experience or Betazoid lineage our itamae nailed us... keep it simple, do it well. His omakase was very straightforward, very traditional, very minimal, and I loved that. Kaito isn't cheap. The total tab for the two of us plus beer (x2 of what's pictured for all of the nigiri and hand rolls) came out to about $200. But man, if it's a question of where to put your dining dollars, one omakase here over two (or three, or four) mediocre meals elsewhere is a total no-brainer. Although looking at the menu, if you were a little more selective and careful about ordering items individually, I've no doubt you could have a killer meal here for $50. This is a great place run by folks who know what they're doing. It isn't just slapping fresh fish on rice. It's artistry. It's in all of those little details -- this place feels Japanese. And it has the benefit of being significantly closer.
|130-A N. El Camino Real|
|Encinitas, CA 92024|
|Mon - Sat||5 PM - ???|