Kaito Sushi130-A North El Camino RealEncinitas760-634-2746www.sushikaito.com
As I tearfully watched my dear friend B drive away from her Pacific Beach apartment, headed to a new life in San Francisco, I figured, sadly, that our friendship was bound to change. Thank goodness I was wrong. We've grown closer in the years since and she's become my best eating, drinking and talking-late-into-the-night confidante, with a matching appetite for food exploration, whether it's shucking oysters straight out of a bay in Marin County or eating pie with our cab driver in Santa Barbara. B comes to visit during our mutual birthday month, when, instead of exchanging gifts, we treat ourselves to a great dinner. On her last trip, she requested sushi, so I thought it'd be the perfect chance to check out a place up north that was getting a lot of buzz.
B, her old roommate and I met up at Kaito Sushi, tucked on the side of an Encinitas shopping center. I've learned to not judge a restaurant by its strip mall and, save for our three reserved seats, the sushi bar was full, a promising sign on a Tuesday night. Kazuo Morita, the owner and lead chef, has worked in local sushi restaurants since the 1980s, logging years at Nobu and Tomiko, both North County favorites, before opening Kaito in 2005. Along the way, Morita-san, or “Kaz,” picked up a serious following among locals, inspiring almost reverential devotion to his traditional, precise Edo-style sushi.
But just because the food is classical doesn't mean their operation is old-fashioned. Regulars, who drop by multiple times in a week, check the restaurant's blog to see what's fresh nightly and where it comes from. The fish comes mainly from Japan, though Kaz will source from wherever he finds the best quality.
We forgo ordering from the menu, preferring to let our itamae lead the way, though we did get a couple skewers of grilled beef tongue, or gyutan, to start with. Kaz gifts us with katsuo sashi, ruby-red slices of barely seared tuna, topped with a flurry of minced ginger and scallions and anago, or conger eel, in a delicate tempura with fried shiso leaves, mushrooms and shishito peppers. Mild, fluffy-textured halibut gets a simple seasoning of salt and the juice and zest from fresh yuzu. The three of us, all experienced sushi eaters, agree that we're in the midst of something special. Mouthfuls of sushi delights keep coming with mirugai—crunchy and sweet long-neck clam—and mackerel, rich and slightly oily, with a beautiful iridescent skin. I use a piece of pickled ginger to swab soy on the nigiri that's too delicate to dip fish-side down in the sauce.
Gizzard shad is a new taste, their tiny filets marinated in vinegar and salt until firm. And anago makes another appearance, this time mopped with homemade eel sauce called kabayaki and served with its snake-like bone, fried until crisp. We strike up conversations with the friendly group of regulars seated around us, a couple of guys with a wealth of sushi info to share, and a husband and wife who generously treat us to their favorite negitoro roll filled with a mix of choice fat from a tuna belly and green onion.
I've told Kaz that I'm a sea-urchin fanatic, so he gives us lobes of the creamy, ocean custard on perfectly seasoned sushi rice. There's still more beer, sake and banter to be had, so he asks us if we have room for just one more piece and, of course, we say, “Yes, please.” Our last bite is a rosy, satisfying slice of chutoro, from a portion of the tuna belly that has just the right amount of melt-in-your-mouth lusciousness. I may not be able to wait until B's next visit to eat at Kaito again but I'm glad we went on the first journey together.