EDIBLE PERFORMANCE ART!!
That's what Kazuo Morita is fashioning at his modest establishment buried deep in an Encinitas, California, shopping center. And as unassuming as his restaurant is, so is Morita-san himself. As a sushi novice, I am certainly not the best-informed judge of his skill, but I can attest to the two amazing experiences my husband and I had with him last month while visiting La Jolla on family business. We announced our minimal sushi experience up front and asked him to guide us, which he, along with the far more experienced patrons around us, was happy to do. Our first visit was early on a Saturday evening and our only request was a sequence of sashimi and nigiri followed by whatever else he might devise. To start, he produced an ethereal presentation of halibut sashimi with lemon pepper. I don't take photos of restaurant food, but the delicate beauty and flavor of this first dish was divinely portrait-worthy.
As the evening progressed and the beer flowed, Kaz, as his patrons call him, warmed up like an elite athlete, amazing my husband with the 'body English' he employed to make his perfect cuts. And for the very first time, I experienced sushi-envy. The eye-catching concoctions - particularly, a soft-shelled crab roll - he produced for a fellow diner provoked me to anxiously wonder: Why can't I have that? Maybe Morita-san likes him better.
That evening, the halibut sashimi and a shrimp roll adorned with tuna were most memorable. But, only after the toro nigiri he offered us all, wordlessly signaling us with a mischeivous smile, lowered head and index fingers pointing forward from his temples to emulate the horns of a bull: "Toro in the house!" Oddly, the sudden attentiveness this provoked around the counter reminded me of the '60's and '70's reaction when a party guest announced a willingness to share a particularly sought-after substance.
After our duly allotted time at his counter, Kaz gently dismissed us with: "Okay folks, lots of customers coming in tonight." But, one more astonishment awaited us - the bill! After Sushi Yasuda we could only whisper between ourselves in wonder at the total - basically, half the NYC fare. This had to be a mistake! Kaz finally said good-bye, wishing us "Merry Christmas & Happy New Year", knowing we wouldn't be back from the East Coast anytime soon.
Basically, shouzen nailed Kaito in his succinct description above. Quality equal to NYC sushi temple Yasuda, but in a much more casual, relaxed and, dare I say, less pretentious atmosphere. What I experienced was more artistic and creative, yet proudly traditional in that Kaz quickly objected when I referred to his "California sushi". When I amended this to his "sushi in California" he seemed a great deal happier.
All in all, the combination of Kazuo Morita's warm and humorous interaction with his patrons, the communal experience of Kaito diners interacting with each other, combined with very reasonable prices for top notch ingredients carries the day for Kaito in our book.