It all began simply enough, with a small salad of thinly shaved onions, tiny bits of octopus, fish and seaweed, lightly seasoned with rice wine vinegar.
I was poured an overflowing glass of ice cold sake, the overflow falling over the glass into a lacquered box. I gasped and the woman pouring smiled. It was sweet and smooth. I’ve never been a sake fan. I am now. Allen and I told the chef, Kazuo, that we only had 45 minutes, but would eat anything. “Have you ever had LIVE scallops?” he asked. No, we had not! He picked up two huge shells, pulled the scallops out of them, sliced them and placed them on a bed of shredded white radish and shiso leaf. He instructed us to try it plain first, and then dab it a bit with soy sauce. They were nice, though best with the soy sauce. Then he served us the remaining bits of the scallop that you wouldn’t usually use, cooked lightly in its own juices and served in the shell. Some of the pieces were chewy like overcooked octopus – but a few tasted like like pilllowy bits of sea fat.
This is when it started to get interesting: super thinly sliced halibut, laid out in the shape of a leaf, with tiny bits of shiso leaf speckling it. Before he handed us the seashell-shaped plate, Kazuo grated a rock of pinkish salt over the top, creating a fine layer of pink dust. Alongside was a dark green dab of what the chef called “citrus pepper” – an extremely hot and peppery wasabi-like substance that we added in the smallest amounts to the fish.
Next, Aoyagi clam sashimi with a tad of wasabi. I looked over at Allen. I knew that he had not been into the sushi idea and he had been making that slight grimace for the last few hours that said: I will go with you, but I’m sure there’s someplace more glamorous we could be eating. After the clam, he smiled and said, “From now on, I’m traveling with you.”
Kazuo then took two small pieces of shad, served with the skin on, glistening, silver. He made two zoro-like slits in the surface of the skin, so that they would collect some of the sauce from the layer of sweet soy that he brushed over them.
The sea urchin, Kazuo explained, is processed in a very particular way to get the water out. He said only 20 out of 100 urchin actually make it through the processing. He served it with a hint of wasabi and nestled on rice, secured with nori. It was the yellowish orange color of chanterelles and looked a bit like tongue, with small pores on it. Now close your eyes and imagine it, dissolving on your tongue like a passing wave, salty, sea-like, foamy – and then gone.
Then he placed two sets of fish in front of us. One he instructed us to eat first, he said that the first one was like margarine and the second was like butter. Allen and I looked at each other. This was an analogy we understood. The first was a fish called amberjack. It was white and melted on the tongue. I couldn’t wait for the “butter” – a piece of meat from the back of the neck of a Mediterranean blue-fin tuna. I love tuna. But I have never had tuna that good.
“You still hungry?” asked Kazuo. Are you kidding? I could’ve stayed there for hours. Or made a bed on the back out of straw… Suddenly, I was starting to imagine a life in Encintas… Next, he said he would serve us something a bit fusion. A piece of Uno, on rice, with a little dab of Japanese “salsa” on top – spicy and tomatoey, with fresh cilantro. He said it had vegetables in it, clarifying by saying it had ponzu and sprouts. It was hard to tell, since there was really only the tiniest bit, not to overwhelm the fish. It was like a firecracker, ker-pow and then it softly dissolved leaving a shimmering sensation on the tongue.
Suddenly we realized we were about to be late for our play. We had to go – but wait, dessert! said Kazuo. It was boiled saltwater eel. I was thinking: really, eel? Boiled eel? This is how we’re going to go out? …Forget what you know. Try eating an eel spine, deep-fried, crunchy and fishy. Thinking: well, that was interesting. And then the eel, seasoned with a sweet soy sauce, falling apart so fast, you can’t actually take one bite and set it down – you have to put it all in your mouth, and it’s a bit too fishy but then not, because of the soy, and it’s salty and lush and … unbelievably good. And that’s when I started to cry. “You okay?” asked Kazuo. “She’s okay,” said Allen. “She’s just happy.” And I was. But I was also sad – it was terrible to think of something so beautiful having finally to come to an end.
Where? Kaito, a hard-to-find (no big sign) sushi bar in a strip mall in Encinitas, CA – about 30 minutes north of San Diego.
How did I find it? I searched the San Diego Chowhound for sushi. I don’t count on Yelp for foodie contributors, but a quick Yelp search yielded 5 stars. Urbanspoon, too.
Tips on replicating the experience?
1. We got there early, at 5 PM. And it was a Wednesday. This meant that we were the only ones in the restaurant for most of our visit – ie., personal service. 2. Make sure you have lots of time. 3. Don’t ask; just eat.
Total cost: $95 (for two)
I stupidly left my camera at home. But the food here is well-documented.
An interesting account of a similar meal had by another blogger at Kaito.