Market Restaurant and Bar - Restaurant Week Fall 2011

>> Thursday, September 22, 2011

Date of Dining: 9/22/2011
Price: Restaurant week, $40 for 3 course menu, $22 for wine pairing
Location: 3702 Via de la Valle, Del Mar, CA 92014

The Quick Bit:
+ Consistently High Quality Food
+ Great Service by Front of House, they had steady hands!
+ The Wine Pairings were spot on!
+ Vegetarian Options Available
Δ The desserts could have been more consistent in caliber to the rest of the food
Δ Some ingredients could be perceived as overused

Just as I'm posting my second (and probably last) Fall 2011 San Diego Restaurant Week post, word has come down that (surprise surprise) Restaurant Week has been expanded a second week to cover Sept 25-30 as well. Hurry up and get those reservations (tip: call the restaurant instead of using opentable)!
Market Restaurant and Bar is owned by Executive Chef Carl Schroeder. Chef Schroeder graduated from CIA Hyde Park and worked at Michael Mina's Aqua and Bradley Ogden's Lark Creed Inn before moving to San Diego. When he arrived in San Diego, Chef Schroeder led Arterra Restaurant to much acclaim such as "Top 8 Chefs in Southern California" and "California Chef of the Year 2004". This year, Chef Schroeder was nominated as a James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef in the Pacific Region. Unfortunately, Chef Schroeder did not advance to the finals.
The knock on Market Restaurant and Bar coming into this review was that Chef Schroeder played it too safe with his cuisine. He used largely the same proteins and did very little variation on the menu season to season (and year to year).
I attended this dinner with a large group of friends as sort of the annual Restaurant Week visit. Since we did have a large group, I did have to call the restaurant to work out the reservation details. It is unknown to me whether I became "known" to the restaurant during this process, but as far as I know I remained just another customer (although a demanding one). I really appreciate the level of service and the professionalism shown by the front of house during this process as I had to call the restaurant several times and they courteously handled every request efficiently.

Menu (click for larger)
The restaurant week menu was different from the one advertised on the website; I actually prefer this menu as I'm a huge fan of black cod. I shared the menu with with one other person, so you will get to read about my take on six of the dishes. However, we only had one wine pairing, so those courses were paired to my order.

Goat Cheese - apples, toasted hazelnut, micro-arugla, apple cider
The amuse was the first indication to me that Chef Schroeder might be playing his cuisine a little less safe. While cheese serves as a great palette cleanser and the acid from the apple cider should serve to refresh the palette, this was a conceptual idea that wasn't fully refined in execution. The entire bite seemed to remind me of a watery apple crumble, which I associate more with dessert. While the dish failed to please in taste, it was pleasing texturally. The goat cheese had a luxurious velvet mouth feel and the toasted hazelnut provided a nice crunchy textural contrast. I was impressed that Chef Schroeder would serve this as an amuse since it is pretty close to dessert - perhaps a sign of things to come?

First Course A:
Moroccan Spiced Sweet Potato Soup & Duck Confit - roasted apples, Pepita Brown Butter, Toasted Coriander
Paired with
2009 Paco & Lola Albarina Rias Baxias
The first thing that surprised me with the soup was that they entire soup was brought out in the bowl. Furthermore, the waiter that carried the soup had very steady hands (the splash on the edge was actually my fault as I was rotating the soup to get the correct angle). Most fine dining establishments these days bring a bowl with carefully stacked/placed ingredients and then bring a small pitcher of soup to pour into the bowl. It was a refreshing change of pace to have the fully plated soup placed in front of me.
The soup had an excellent combination of spice and natural sweetness. This was complemented by the saltiness and richness of the duck confit. The skin of the duck confit was fried perfectly so it had a great crunch. The toasted coriander seeds were also a nice textural contrast. The soup had a very smooth finish a luxurious velvety mouth feel as it was being savored in the mouth (probably from the brown butter). Unfortunately there was a tiny flaw in the soup - it was too thermally hot when it was first brought out. I nearly burned my palette in the first spoonful, but luckily noticed the temperature before it was too late.
The wine had a nice sweet entrance that was a great counterpoint to the spice of the soup. The finish was more on the buttery side and not dry, which complemented the rich mouth feel of the brown butter in the soup.

First Course B:
Foie Gras Pate & Spiced Duck Sausage - shaved apple salad, pickled mustard, cabbage-apple relish, pistachio toast
I felt dish epitomized what Chef Schroeder perhaps has been labelled as - playing it safe. Before I launch into my personal nitpicks on the dish, I was to say that it was excellently prepared and very enjoyable. Five people ordered it at the table and all were extremely satisfied by the dish. I personally thought the shaved apple salad was amazing. It had just the right balance of sweetness, tartness, and acid to transition from the foie pate to the sausage. I also really enjoyed the whole pickled mustard seeds. They were an excellent way of seasoning the sausage. The biggest complaint from the table was that there wasn't enough pistachio toast to fully enjoy the foie pate.
For myself, I felt the duck sausage erred on the safe side. The flavor of the duck was muddled as it lost the slight gaminess in the flavor, and I also felt the sausage lacked some spice. While it was already a spiced sausage, it perhaps just needed a bit more heat and salt to really carry the flavors through. The foie pate was nice and carried the flavor of foie, but it wasn't an adequate substitute for me for an actual piece of seared foie or a nice foie terrine.

First Course C:
Hawaiian Yellowfin Tuna Tartare - tobiko caviar, citrus-soy broth, avocado, marinated cabbage, nort crackers
This was also ordered at the table but I didn't get to sample it. I did find the plating to be very well done and artistic.

Second Course A:
Miso Glazed Black Cod & Housemade Ramen Noodles - Crispy Chicken Skin, Shiitake Mushroom Bok Choy Saute, Hot & Sour Broth
paired with
2007 Mt Rosa Pinot Noir Central Otago New Zealand
I thought this was the best dish of the night. The hot a sour broth was slightly salty for me when enjoyed alone, but it necessary for flavoring the noodles. The housemade noodles seemed to be of the alkaline variety, and were cooked perfectly to have the correct chewy texture for contrasting the soft buttery cod. The crispy chicken skin added a large element of savoriness to balance the umami of the fish, and also provided the crispy textural contrast. The other element that worked great in this dish was the smell; it gave off a very pleasant aroma when it arrived to let its presence be known. Combined with the crunch from the crispy chicken skin, it could be said that this dish was a feast for all five senses. The fish itself was cooked perfectly with the skin and retained a lot of the fat and oils that makes black cod so enjoyable.
The Pinot was more of an old world pinot, which helped in this dish as it did not need all the fruit forwardness. The more tart and subtly sweet flavors of black fruit worked in harmony with the broth. The finish was more of a smooth finish, which worked well with the oils of the fish in the broth.

Second Course B:
Cabernet Braised Prime Beef Shortrib & Ribeye Cap Duo - Sweet Onion Potato Puree, Braised Collard Greens, Roasted Baby Beats
The beef dish is another dish that could be considered safe for Chef Shroeder, but it was just impeccably executed. The short rib had the telling glaze that signaled its goodness, and the rib eye cap (my favorite part anyway) was cooked to a perfect medium rare as requested. The beats, collard greens and onions all enhanced the flavors of the beef, and apparently I don't hate potato purees. This particular puree was very airy and creamy.

Dessert A:
Chocolate-Espresso Ice Cream Sandwich - malted milk chocolate ice cream, banana caramel
paired with
Ramos Pinto Quinta do Ervamoira 10 year Tawny Port
The chocolate-espresso cookies were made to almost resemble macaroons in the texture of the cookie. I thought this was a big win as I'm actually a fan of a well made macaroon. Unfortunately, I thought the malted milk chocolate ice cream didn't really offer enough contrast to the cookie in flavor. The entire ice cream sandwich seemed a little boring flavor wise. The banana caramel was very well executed, but I didn't get the pairing of banana and espresso.
Fortunately I didn't order dessert for the actual dessert as much as the port pairing. I was extremely happy with the port and it was a perfect way to cap off the meal.

Dessert B:
Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta - Green Apple Sorbet, Pomegranate Molasses
By the time this course rolled around, I was getting very weary of apples. They seemed to occur several time throughout the menu and it seemed to be lacking creativity to have apple appear so many times. Although we didn't have an entree with apples, the Jidori chicken entree did include some apples, which just seems to be wrong in being able to order all three courses and the amuse to contain apples.
I enjoyed the panna cotta, but found the apple sorbet to be too tart for my taste. The females at the table absolutely adored the tartness of the apple sorbet though, so perhaps this was just my taste. I did enjoy the pomegranate molasses and jello.

Dessert C:
Spiced Toffee-Date Cake - Carmelized Pears, Marscapone Mousse, Spiced Candied Cashews
This was the best dessert of the night. While I felt the other two desserts were weak, this one did contain all the elements of sweet, spice and texture that I tend to enjoy. Unfortunately, I only got one bite of this dessert so that's about all I can contribute.

Overall, I was extremely impressed by the restaurant week experience I had at Market. Even though Market is one of those restaurants that totally changes the menu for Restaurant week from their normal menu, I was extremely impressed by caliber and refinement of the dishes I was served. I hope that Chef Schroeder continues to step outside the box and develop more interesting dishes.

My experience at Market is enough to award it the megabyte award. While I did taste six seven dishes, I did not get to sample enough savory courses to elevate market to a higher award. I feel like it is definitely worth a re-visit to try Chef Schroeder's tasting menu at a later date to see if Market can ascend the award ranks. Additionally, since my wine pairings were done so well, I've decided to award Market the oeno-byte award.  Again, three wines is perhaps not enough to give this judgement, but consider it a probationary award until I sample the wine pairing with the tasting menu.


Whisknladle - Restaurant Week Fall 2011

>> Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Date of Dining: 9/18/2011
Price: Restaurant Week - $40 for 3 course menu
Location: 1044 Wall St., La Jolla, CA 92037

The Quick Bit:
+ Meat Temperatures were spot on
+ Some dishes were truly inspired
+ The London's Burning cocktail is a must get
+ Desserts were well balanced and enjoyable
Δ Pasta dishes could have been more balanced
Δ Some entrees could be more refined.

San Diego Restaurant Week is a bi-annual affair where many restaurants in San Diego offer discounted three course menus for $20, $30, or $40. Being the analytic cynic that I am, I generally consider Restaurant Week the the two four weeks of the year to NOT eat out (it's four weeks because they always end up extending it into a second week). However this year (probably cause I have the blog now), I have two restaurant visits lined up on the docket. Whisknladle is the first restaurant and was chosen because it is one of the two restaurants that offers its entire menu (unchanged) for restaurant week. 
Whisknladle is a farm-to-table concept that focuses on comfort food. It contains a mix of Southern American and Italian flavors using local produce. Whisknladle's kitchen is headed by Chef Ryan Johnston. Chef Johnston is a graduate of CIA Hyde Park and has worked in Cafe Chardonnay, Darrel & Oliver's Cafe Maxx, and Bouchon in Yountville, CA. At Bouchon, Johnston worked under the tutelage of Thomas Keller. Prior to arriving at Whisknladle Chef Johnston showed his prowess for restaurant menus by consulting for and providing menus for Bizou, Tonno Rosso, Blackhorse Grille, and Fresh[er] Restaurant. When Chef Keller recently visited San Diego, he had dinner at Whisknlade and thoroughly enjoyed the meal.
To take full advantage of Whisknladle's restaurant week selection, I dined with several others including Bobby at Gourmand's Review. We took the strategy of ordering different things and sharing all the dishes with each other, so we were able to taste most of the menu.

Flatbread - porchetta, currant, gruyere and rosemary
The flatbread was a perfect way to start off the meal. The porchetta was enjoyable with the little bits of fatty pork goodness, and the currants provided an element of restrained and sophisticated sweetness that elevated the dish.
Steak Tartare - Cornichon, Farm Egg Yolk, Capers, Shallot & Dijon with Brioche
The tartare was a nicely balanced dish flavor wise, but it lacked a few qualities for me that would have made it a true winner. The part that would have taken the dish over the top for me was the texture; I thought the cut of the steak was a little too fine and it seemed to resemble ground beef to some extent. While I respect that some diners may not find large chewy pieces of raw beef palatable, this was simply my take on an otherwise nice dish.
Local Venus Clams - Tomato-Clam Jus, Merguez Sausage. Charred Rapini, Preserved Orange & Grilled Bread
I thought this clam dish was great! The first thing that I noticed was that the Tomato-Clam Jus had an amazing flavor; I just wish there had been more of it. The next surprise came while slurping down a clam; the preserved oranges had been cut into small cubes and mixed in with the clams. This added a nice element of acid and really brought out the flavor of the clams. The final surprise was the Merguez sausage. This Merguez appeared to be mostly lamb and the gamey flavor of the lamb really provided a nice meaty contrast to the clams. This was surf and turf at its finest.
Chorizo Date Fritters - Local Medjool Dates & Moroccan Tomato Sauce
I didn't think I was going to like this dish, but I was pleasantly surprised. The chorizo and date paired extremely well as the dates brought a tiny bit of sweetness to the chorizo. The deep fried batter was well done and provided both the textural contrast and serving vessel to pair with the spiced tomato dipping sauce.

Tagliatelle - Spicy Pork Sausage Sugo, Pepperonata, Housemade Ricotta & Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
There was nothing wrong with this dish, but there was also nothing spectacular. While I did enjoy the pepperonata, this dish was mainly "familiar" Italian flavors that did not excel past similar dishes in other Italian restaurants. I also felt that this dish was hurt the combination of a really thick pasta and very tiny cuts of sausage.
Potato Gnocchi - Brown butter ale creme, gratinee of brie de Meaux & Chives
Our server explained that gnocchi tends to be boots or pillows - these were far on the boot side. The restaurant offered to replace the dish (+service!), but we thought the next batch was likely to have the same problem so we passed.
Squid Ink Linguine - Fried Basilica Chiles, Garlic Confit, Lemon & Shaved Bottarga
This was the best of the pasta dishes, but it was not without its flaws. This dish really lacked acid - a small squeeze of lemon into the pasta really unlocked the flavor of the pasta and made it a wonderful dish. The Bottarga was also initially heavy and added too much salt to the dish (the lemon balanced this as well). I'm a sucker for fried chiles in general and these were no less enjoyable than usual.

Maine Diver Scallops - Chilled Green Curry, Roasted Squash, Tinkerbell Peppers, Spunach & Capelin Roe
This was one of those "Wow" dishes that you remember for a very long time. The scallops were cooked perfectly and had a great succulent sweetness to them. Instead of playing it safe, Chef Johnston added the capelin roe to the top of the seared portion. The roe provided an extra element of the sea as well as the textural element of the popping in the mouth while eating the scallop. If that wasn't enough, the aroma of this dish upon arriving was completely mouth watering. I had to do everything I could to restrain myself and actually take photos before eating. The curry sauce had a strong element of seafood infusion which made it extremely successful as well.
Local Line Caught Albacore - Sweet & Sour Beets, Mustard Creme, Braised Cucumber & Celery
The albacore was truly fresh and wonderful, but it lacked some season. I think the conception of the dish is to dip the albacore into the mustard as the seasoning, but I would have liked the light sear on the outside of the albacore to contain some more aggressively seasoned crust. The beets were well cooked and enjoyable as well, but I didn't really understand the conceptualization of the braised cucumber and celery.
Tribal Caught Keta Salmon - Flageoulet Puree, Braised Gem Lettuce, Buerre Monte & Radicchio Marmalade
If you remove the flageoulet puree, this dish would have been a winner. The beans were surprisingly strong and flavor and completely overwhelmed the flavor of the salmon. There was also a little too much bean puree on the plate. The salmon was wonderfully cooked and the marmalade added an interesting sweet and sour effect to complement the fish.

Note: We were served a burger, but it has been redacted from this review for the burger shootout
Fulton Farms Chicken - Sweet Pickled Lacinato Kale, Piquillo Peppers, Lemon Chicken Jus & wild rice
 The dark meat portion of this dish was cooked wonderfully, but unfortunately that meant the white meat was a little dry. The kale and piquillo peppers were a nice complement offering some bitterness (from the kale) and sweet spice (from the peppers), but the surprise was the wild rice. The rice was cooked "al dente" and had a real nice textural contrast that paired well with the meat.
Prime Meyer Ranch Striploin - pommes Sarladaise, Haricot Verts & Chanterelles
The beef was cooked perfectly as were the chanterelles and the haricot vert. However, my arch nemesis (the potato) reared its ugly head as these potatoes were really hard and heavy. Ignoring those, this dish was an excellent and satisfying steak dish.
Grilled House Made spicy sausage, Salty Rib, and Pork Belly - Grilled Treviso, Black Eyed Peas & Pickled Okra
This dish was the huge surprise of the night; it would have been the best dish if not for the scallops. The pork belly (the bacon thing between the rib and sausage) was cooked extremely well to convey all the flavors of the Berkshire pork. The sausage contained an excellent and complex spice mix that made it extremely enjoyable as well. Finally, the black eyed peas cooked with a sweet barbecue sauce rounded out the flavors nicely. As I'm usually a hater of beans (ask the flageoulet puree) I was completely surprised to love the black eyed peas in this dish. Oh yeah, the rib was good too, but was outclassed by the sausage and pork belly.

Apple Upside Down Cake - Rum Raisin Ice Cream, Walnut Streusel
This was my favorite dessert of the set. The cake was soft, warm, and contained a nice balance of flavor to sweetness. The Rum Raisin ice cream was perhaps on the sweet side as I commented it tasted more like a maple syrup ice cream. The walnut streusel added a good textural and savory contrast to round out the dish.
Dark Chocolate Pots De Creme - Salted Caramel, Roasted Banana Cake
This was perhaps our least favorite dessert. The salted caramel on top of the banana cake was good, but the pots de creme didn't really work for me.
Tiramisu Semifreddo - Mocha Sauce, Chocolate covered Espresso Beans
The tiramisu was refined and had a nice coffee flavor. What really struck me about this plate was the plating as I liked the black on white plating of the tiramisu against the mocha sauce. What really worked in this dish was the mocha sauce as it added that strong coffee flavor that some restaurants seem to shy away from in tiramisu these days.
Ice Cream and Sorbet duo - Chocolate, Cheesecake, ? ice cream, Coconut, Raspberry, Tamarind Sorbet
These ice creams and sorbets were a nice way to finish off the meal. The chocolate ice cream was very rich and decadent. The sorbets were the stars as the tamarind was actually a little spicy and was a nice surprise. My personal favorite was the raspberry.
Overall, we had a great meal at Whisknladle. If all restaurants can set the bar this high, then perhaps it is smart to go out to eat during restaurant week. In the meantime, Whisknlade will provide one alternative for eating in during those four weeks of the year.
On merit of the scallop dish alone, Whisknlade gets the megabyte award. While I would have loved to award it the gigabyte, there were a few dishes that were just not refined enough to carry it to the next level. It will definitely warrant a revisit to see if it can get to the next level though.



>> Saturday, September 17, 2011

I'm going to digress off the normal format of a review for this restaurant because the experience at Burlap was abnormal. I visited Burlap because with it being walking distance from my place, I figured I would be asked about it and have to have an opinion about it.  Furthermore, with Chef Malarkey showcasing his burger on the Today Show, I figured it would be an easy way to kill two birds with one stone and add a stop to the burger shootout series.

Since I'm writing about Burlap's burger now, clearly it will not be a part of that burger shootout. Since I only ordered the burger though, I'll go ahead and give a review of what would have been included, as the eating of the food went normally.
Note: I'll state it now and again when I get to the restaurant burgers but all of these burgers are really good. If you're going to go wrong at these places, I'll let you know. With that said, it is my job to be the nitpicker and split hairs to determine which of these restaurant burgers is the best, so I've really increased the level of criticism for these burgers.
Burlap calls their burger the beefburger and it contains gruyere cheese, butter lettuce, tomato, red onion, grilled onions, and "baconnaise". According to the Today Show, the baconnaise is mayonnaise that is made in house out of bacon fat. For an extra $3, I was able to add a side of sweet potato fries.
sweet potato fries with ginger aioli
The sweet potato fries seemed to be the standard throw away frozen sweet potato fries you see everywhere, but I was actually pretty impressed when these initially came out. They weren't overcooked, were crunchy, and I really enjoyed the ginger dipping sauce. There was also some fried parsley flakes thrown on top to enhance the fries a bit.
I ordered the burger medium rare, but what I got was on the far side of medium. Fortunately, this mistake did not detract too much from the enjoyment of the dish as the burger was still juicy. What was different about this burger was that the burger had a nice sear on the outside the resembled more of the cast iron skillet cooking method rather than the grill. The outer meat formed a nice carmelized crust, which trapped the juices of the burger in the patty. Where I did have an issue was that the beef was allegedly grass fed but turned out to be Brandt chuck. As soon as I took a bite, I knew it wasn't grass fed so I asked the server to confirm the sourcing with the kitchen (and it was confirmed).
 I've never been a fan of raw onions on burgers, and I was very skeptical of this burger when I saw it included both raw and grilled onions. However, I didn't end up minding the raw onions as they added some textural contrast to the burger that was otherwise sorely missing it. This brings up the point of the baconnaise. The baconaisse did deliver in that it tasted like bacon and acted as mayo to the burger. However by not actually including bacon, the burger was missing what otherwise would have been a nice crunch for textural contrast.
The bun did not appear to be house made and it wasn't "pretty" in terms of how fluffy it looked, but it was the correct density in terms of not drowning out the flavor of the burger. It was also toasted, which always increases the enjoyability of the bread. It was a standard white bread bun.

Taste: 70.625

  • Overall: 80
  • Patty: 50
  • Bun: 50
  • Other: 80
  • Temperature: 65
Value: 55
$12 for a Brandt Beef burger and salad, $3 for the fries. If Burger Lounge can give a grass fed burger for $8, fine dining restaurants should be able to find a way to offer a grass fed burger for charging $12.

Creativitiy: 35
The baconnaise was creative, but I wasn't a big fan of it. The only other aspect of creativity was the inclusion of both grilled and raw onions, which isn't that creative.

Miscellaneous: 76.67
  • Sides: 60 - I did enjoy the fries, but the soy-ponzu dressing for the salad was overpowering. Asian flavors are clean and refined not raw and overbearing
  • Plating: 90 
  • Service: 80 - The server was helpful and willing to go ask questions about the food he was unaware of. Food arrived in a timely manner
Overall: 63.1

The Abnormal Bit:
As I was finishing up the food, Chef Malarkey walked into the restaurant (he doesn't actually cook there). He noticed that I was taking photos and I guess he wanted to know why I was there taking the photos. Along with (what I assume) was his head chef and the general manager, he struck up a conversation with me that went the following way (paraphrased to the best of my memory).
Malarkey: Who are you shooting for?
Me: Myself - I'm a blogger.
Malarkey: Oh really? That's nice
Me: Yes, I'm doing a series on gourmet fine dining burgers.
Malarkey: What did you think of the food, are you going to write about it?
Me (deciding if I should tell the truth - why not?): I enjoyed that you got a nice sear on the patty as nobody else did that, but I ordered medium rare and got medium
Malarkey (interrupting): Uh-oh, you're one of those tough ones
Me (continuing):  And your patty isn't really grass fed as it's Brandt. At a fine establishment such as this, I'd much rather pay the extra $2 for the real grass fed. You can really taste that last year of the cattle being corn fed.
Malarkey: Well The Counter is right across the parking lot, why don't you go walk over there?
Me: Actually The Counter uses commodity beef...
Malarkey (walking away): Yeesh! Well the world needs more bloggers...
Needless to say, I won't be returning to Burlap anytime soon. It's one thing to be disappointed by the food or the service (which I wasn't in this case), it's an entirely different thing to pay money to the restaurant and leave insulted. I probably should have asked for a refund since the General Manager listened to the entire conversation...
Following the conversation, it was pointed out to be that sourcing of ingredients is a sore point for Malarkey.  It looks like Malarkey doesn't believe there are actually chefs that forage for food, shop themselves, and use local and sustainable product. Instead he has someone on his team order product from a farm and then calls his food farm to table. I guess if I had known I would have asked to speak to Tim Mavrakos...


Kaito Sushi - Summer 2011

>> Sunday, September 11, 2011

Date of Dining: 9/3/2011 
Price: Varies, $60-80 per person for omakase
Location: 130 N. El Camino Real Suite A, Encinitas, CA 92024

The Quick Bit:
+ Fresh high quality sushi
+ Sushi is imported from Tsukiji Fish Market
+ (Relatively) cheap for the quality
+ Family Friendly
+ Chefs have fun personality
Δ Omakase could offer some "filler" dishes to get full
Δ Can run out of specialty items

While San Diego has many sushi restaurants, I have avoided writing about one up to this point; mainly it's just so you all won't discover how much of a sushi snob I am. On the other hand, this blog has been running for over six months now and I've probably given relatively few awards to places that have been reviewed.
Kaito is well known in the local San Diego food scene has having the best sushi in San Diego. Yet, the restaurant itself tries to maintain the facade of being a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood joint; it doesn't even have an electric sign above the restaurant. The only way you would know the restaurant is there is if you knew where to look (between Santa Fe Cafe and Five Guys Burgers and behind Vitamin World).

Chef Kaz
Kaito's sushi bar has 2 sushi chefs; Kazuo Morita and Joe (sorry don't know his last name). Chef Morita trained in Tokyo from an early age under two sushi masters. He does everything in his power to make sure you enjoy your meal and will often ask after serving you what you thought of the course. Instead of just saying "it's good" if you are able to describe what part you enjoyed, it will help him tailor the experience for you. Furthermore if you didn't like a part, saying what you didn't like will help him adjust as well. One common thing Chef Morita asks if you're sitting down for omakase the first time is what you don't like. Then, if things are going well and he has earned your trust, he will actually serve what you don't like. Oftentimes, the people who are served these dishes are surprised to find that they actually did enjoy Chef Morita's preparation.
Chef Joe
The other chef at Kaito is Chef Joe. Joe seems to be more of the joker of the two and he is often found cracking jokes with the customers. He also makes a famous stewed pork belly dish that I have yet to try. While I'm not familiar with Chef Joe's culinary pedigree, be assured that even if he is serving you, you are in for a treat as he asks the same questions as Chef Morita and makes the same adjustments. For example, Chef Joe found that it's better for him to apply both the wasabi and the soy sauce to my sushi before it's served while Chef Morita still serves the sushi with just the wasabi.

Aji Sashimi and Sushi
A typical meal at Kaito for me starts with a few places of the specials (usually as sashimi). Being the late summer, the seasonal sushi is pretty much at the worst time of the year, so the selection was thin. I was served some Aji (Spanish Mackerel). This is usually a good way to start the meal since the ponzu dipping sauce that comes with the fish serves as a pseudo amuse. This aji was very fresh and had a good texture when chewed. It also contained the fishy flavors of mackerel that are desired without being too overpowering.
Deep Fried Aji Bones
Later, the Aji bones were deep fried to the point where it was basically a chip. While I'd like to say this was super special, it is merely something that can be done with pretty much any fish carcass so the bones are not wasted. I still really enjoyed the bones all the same.

While I'm not aware of the intricacies, there is usually some progression to the sushi the way the courses are served. I'll merely present them in the same order.
First up was the Maguro. Kaito only serves bluefin maguro and tuna can come from several different types. Furthermore while tuna is a year round fish, Chef Morita mentioned that we are just transitioning to where larger tuna can be caught. Apparently the larger tuna are older and have had more time for the oils to develop in the fish, which translates to better flavor. This maguro was no let down and a great way to start off the sushi courses.
The Mirugai (giant clam) was very enjoyable as well. Generally shellfish have both a chewier texture and some additional natural sweetness that is not present in fish. The mirugai fulfilled both of those; further, I thought this particular mirugai was better than normal as it was sweeter than I expected.
The amberjack was probably the best sushi of the night. It had a great depth of flavor and just the correct amount of oil to have the nice mouth feel. I savored every last morsel of this fish.
The Kohada (gizzard shad) is a small sardine type fish that is imported from Tsukiji. It is available all year round and can typically be found at Kaito as well. When they are prepared, the fish filets have to be de-boned and you can see the chefs pick out the small bones. These are one of my favorite staples at Kaito has they have a tremendous depth of mackerel flavor, which gives a real character to the sushi. Furthermore, Chef Morita was explaining that there are actually five different types of kohada based on the size, and they have to order only this specific one because they believe it tastes the best.
Note: It seems kohada is not offered to most first-timers unless you ask for it, so please remember to ask if you are interested.
(Kama) Toro
While I had known toro has different grades for the meat around the belly (chutoro, toro, otoro), I was not aware that there is actually toro around the collar (or kama). Chef Mortia explained that he doesn't like the toro from the belly as the fat dilutes the flavor of the finish too much, so he only serves kama toro which is even rarer than otoro. The toro was really good, but perhaps I've been jaded from my past Kaito experiences and didn't enjoy it as much as I should have. As far as toros go, it is definitely among the better toros I've had as there was a good balance of oil and concentrated tuna flavor. The oil made for a very nice and luxurious mouth feel as I was chewing.
The other in season special was Ikura (salmon roe). Usually, the ikura is harvested only one time during the year and then it is salted and frozen to be served for the remainder of the year. However, some small portion of the harvest is not salted and not frozen, but is served immediately after harvesting. This ikura was among the unsalted one. While I've never thought of ikura as salty, it was definitely apparent when eating this that there was some salt missing. It was not as "fishy" flavored as the regular ikura since it lacked some of the salt, so it might be attractive to first-time eaters. However, as I'm used to the salted ikura and fishy flavor, I can't really say I prefer the unsalted version.
Uni-Aoyagi Roll
As I was dining with Yao from Insert-Food, he let me in on a little secret. Usually at this time I would just get some uni (sea urchin) and be done with it in two bites. Instead, when Aoyagi (round clam) is in season, Chef Morita can make an uni and aoyagi roll. Since the Aoyagi is mostly flavorless except for the texture, and the uni has great flavor but lacks texture, this marriage works surprisingly well. The chewiness of the aoyagi carries the flavor of the uni for longer, which makes the entire experience much more enjoyable.

While I didn't have the next dish during this particular visit, I thought to include it as it is a Kaito signature.
Anago Sushi
Anago Spine
The Anago (saltwater eel) is the only eel found at Kaito. When I asked why this was the case, Chef Morita explained that places that serve unagi only do it because the chefs are lazy. I keyed off his comment immediately and asked if it's because he had to nail the eel into the cutting board and filet it himself. He was very surprised that I knew of the procedure and showed me both the nail and the hole in his cutting board that is used for the process. When I later asked Chef Joe the same question, he mentioned that unagi is great for eating in donburi but only anago can be served as sushi.
The anago preparation I get usually includes 1 as teriyaki flavored and the other as salt flavored. I prefer the salt flavored as it allows one to taste the flavor of the eel more. Compared to unagi, the anago is very delicate when cooked. It must be eaten with extreme care, but the texture difference is noticeable and much more enjoyable to me. Finally, because they filet the eels themselves, the eel spines are available to be ordered deep fried. This is a very fun experience for those that enjoy eating deep fried bones.

Overall, I consider Kaito to give the best sushi experience in San Diego. The fish is super fresh and there is a wide variety of high quality product imported from around the world. I will caution that it is best to go on Tuesdays or Fridays because the Tsukiji shipments come on those days, but Wednesday and Saturdays are okay as well. I would not recommend going on Thursdays or Sunday as part of the experience would probably be missing.
While I would only give this particular meal at Kaito a gigabyte award, I've had several experiences at Kaito to be comfortable to award them the highest honor - the terrabyte. To illustrate this, I think it's Amaebi season soon...


About This Blog

gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
None of the reviews are meant to dissuade you from trying anything by yourself, but simply to provide information for you to make a more informed choice.
If any special treatment is provided to the blogger, full disclosure is presented at the beginning of the post.

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