Throw caution to the wind and let the chef surprise you at this casual Encinitas sushi restaurant
aji sashimi (spanish mackerel)
Omakase. The phrase, when used in the context of a sushi restaurant, signifies putting yourself into the sushi chef, or itamae’s, hands and letting go of all dining decisions—something that we are not always eager to do. But loosely translated, omakase means to entrust, and there is a special kind of communion that happens between you and a chef when you give up a little control and just let yourself be open to what he, or she, wants to feed you. If this sounds uncomfortable to you at all, rest assured that at Kaito Sushi, you will be consulted before every course to gauge your likes and dislikes.
I recommend the omakase here (though a menu does exist and they are amenable to à la carte ordering) because uttering that phrase is akin to saying “open sesame” to Ali Baba’s cave where, instead of gold, you find edible treasures from the sea.
The casual Encinitas restaurant is owned and run by young couple, Hiromi Kimura and Ryan Bertsch, though the undeniable star of the show is Chef Kazuo Morita, a highly skilled itamae who trained under sushi grand masters in Tokyo before coming to the U.S. Morita-san commands the prime front corner of the sushi bar, presiding over a coveted set of seats that require advance reservations. If you can’t get a spot with Chef Kazuo, Chef Joe Iwata, the ponytailed itamae who covers the rest of the bar, is also very experienced. There are a few tables, too, but who really wants to be that far away from the action?
130-A N. El Camino Real, Encinitas
It’s a treat to peer over the seafood display case at Kaito to watch the chefs’ fast but measured movements: the elegant, precise way the knife slices cleanly through fish or runs, staccato-like, through a pile of garnish. Though the sushi served here is mostly traditional, prepared faithfully in the classic Edo-style, the restaurant has embraced new media too; their frequently updated Twitter page broadcasts the daily seafood deliveries that come from local waters, the East Coast, Canada, and Japan—all fresh and in-season.
A multi-course omakase meal begins with a small dish of their housemade seafood salad and then it’s quickly off to the races, with translucent slices of Japanese snapper and halibut fanned onto a plate and seasoned with shiso leaves, lemon, hand grated shavings from a block of pink salt, and my new favorite condiment, yuzu kosho, a spicy paste made from the zest of a Japanese citrus fruit, chili peppers, and salt. The halibut, or hirame, rests on a sheet of dried kelp called kombu before being served, and is a good starter sashimi for those who prefer a leaner, less strongly-flavored fish.
It should be noted that bites here come seasoned or salted just as they should be eaten, although you can give the nigiri a quick swipe through soy sauce (fish side down!) as needed.
Morita-san takes a blowtorch to the tops of deliciously fatty slices of tuna belly, transforming the fish into meaty, yet melting mouthfuls—made extra savory with a basting of garlicky soy dressing. If he’s in the mood, he’ll take the seafood and meat switcheroo a step further by marinating and broiling the tuna’s sinew—usually a throwaway bit—so that it takes on the flavor and consistency of teriyaki beef.
Ika nigiri, or squid, is usually bland and boring, but the Japanese variety is the best I’ve ever tasted. The snowy white squid sits pearly and plump on top of the delicate sushi rice. Kaito seasons theirs with a red vinegar that’s a little sweeter than plain rice vinegar.
Aoyagi, or orange clam, is all sweetness and texture—raw strips of clam, both tender and crunchy, are presented in its palm-sized shell.
Of the cooked food, the buttery miso-marinated ono is a standout, and the mixed tempura of shrimp, shishito peppers, shitake mushroom, and kabocha squash is delicately fried, though not as crisp and lacy as I prefer.
An added bonus of dining at Kaito is the opportunity to bring your own beer or wine, so I like to try sushi and beer pairings with my favorite seafood-friendly beers: a light witbier, a crisp kölsch, even a dry and spicy saison. During an omakase dinner, it’s customary to buy or share a beer with your chef, and Morita-san is happy to taste whatever you’re pouring, though his usual drink is an Asahi.
The dessert course isn’t usually sugary, but it can be sweet. If available, I always finish with a few bites of cool and creamy sea urchin or warm, flaky saltwater eel. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the eels are filleted on premises, a laborious task that’s not often done even at the best sushi bars. The fish is dabbed with a syrupy housemade tsume sauce and, if you’re lucky, served with a length of the fish’s spine, fried until crisp and cracker-like.
Expert Tip: “During an omakase dinner, it’s customary to buy or share a beer with your chef, and Morita-san is happy to taste whatever you’re pouring, though his usual drink is an Asahi.”