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Sushi at Kaygetsu Menlo Park

K K Jul 5, 2006 10:38 PM

At least one person is going to call me crazy for willing to take the plunge and give this place a shot (which by the way if you are that person I speak of, we are due for another lunch hopefully next week!), and others will think that Kaygetsu specializes in kaiseki and that I'm missing the point by not going there for that.

Well today was a lunch quest on a whim, so there was no way to do the kaiseki (I couldn't have made it there for dinner these days anyway). Plus my willingness to delve deep (hurting my plastic card in the process) to uncover and study the mystery that surrounds the sushi bar at Kaygetsu (given that only a few hounds have tried but none shared their findings further.)

Bottom line is there are mixed feelings with this place. While the sushi was done to perfection, the business side of this place was not which I will get into towards the end.

I exchanged pleasantries with the great Toshi-san who was at the 6 seater bar. The first 2 seats to the right side do face him (and the counter) directly, while the other seats are more to the side. I did appreciate Toshi-san's modesty in letting me know in advance that the restaurant specializes in kaiseki, that his sushi section is very small (and much smaller in variety compared to his previous restaurant after I had mentioned I had eaten there years ago). I wasn't terribly interested in the lunch offerings on the menu, which were generally nothing where you couldn't get at Saizo, Tanto, or Gochi kind of places, so I decided to put my meal in his hands and ordered omakase.

I distinctly remember eating at Toshi's sushi-ya on El Camino within the past 4 to 5 years, and remembered it wasn't all that (given that my standard at the time was Sushi Sam's) so anything outside of that was new and devious somewhat. I asked Toshi if he had changed his fish suppliers and he said they were pretty much the same.

For some reason today's meal was a million times better than at his previous establishment, I don't know what changed, but I swear it was like two different restaurants altogether. And it took me this long with this particular visit to truly understand what Stuart F + girlfriend and yamada3 meant by "feminine" touch to sushi, that nurtures the soul.

They say Toshi san is one of the great itamae's in the Bay Area. Maybe similar or not quite the same class as Takahashi san at Anzu, and I can't compare their experiences. But I saw a true master chef at work today at Kaygetsu, which is probably what I had to pay to experience.

Nigiri prices are indeed...well, on the almost silly side compared to other places in the mid end range, depending on how you put it. The common sushi neta averages $7 a pair, but they are very fresh and tasty. The prices on the website generally reflect the cost there, but they don't tell you of a hidden SERVICE fee (more on that later) when you get the bill.

I forgot the order, but this is what I had in the omakase:

x2 shimaaji - The general feel and taste of the nigiri (not the fish quality) reminded me of Fuki Sushi in Palo Alto, though a lot more refined. Cuts are not huge or thick, but they fit in your mouth in one bite. Sushi meshi melded well with the fish. While some other places have a more stringy or fishy taste, this piece did not despite a lesser not as bright flesh tone.

x2 scallop - not just plain scallop, but it had shiso leaf underneath, and on top Toshi-san scooped up a very interesting mixture/sauce/goop that was uni and miso, then a wee bit of caviar on top. This was a beautiful piece and presentation that I will remember for a while. The uni miso mix was fantastic, and the texture was like that of a very thick sauce (not like raw uni but had fab uni flavor).

x2 engawa - Toshi san was modest indeed. Despite the 12 to 14 items on display behind the counter, a majority of what I was served came from a separate stash in storage beneath and behind the counter! He took out a gleaming snow white cut of hirame (halibut) fin, deskinned it in front of me, and carved out two pieces for nigiri. He then carved the surface sideways across, separating the cuts about 1/4 to 1/2 inch apart, then after pressing the nigiri dashed a little ponzu on top. I wish I took my camera with me, it was beautiful, though it reminded me of Japanese grilled squid for some reason (ika maruyaki rings). And to top it off, it tasted fantastic. I almost didn't want to eat it and stare at it for a while (but I was on a time crunch....)

x2 kanpachi - Not the kind from Hawaii (Kona) but from Japan. Not stringy or fishy or the least bit slimey like at some places

x2 Aji - I can't remember if he did the usual ginger on top but there was green onion. A very fresh piece, much bigger serving (at least length wise) than Ino Sushi's but not quite as much flavor.

x2 tai - Japanese sea bream, supposedly madai with a wee bit of salt on top. Instead of shiso Toshi san put a few small pieces of sprouts (?) which was the first time I had seen it.

x2 isaki - This was nearing the end of the omakase and I had to mention a few times I still had room to eat. Upon hearing that he reached into his secret stash beneath the counter and took out a fish I had never seen before (though he did ask me if I had had isaki before, to which I replied, yes at Sushi Sam's some years back). This looked very similar to sea bass or suzuki, and had a parallel texture. Much fresher than the piece I had at Sam's years ago. Either this fish is in season so the top end places should have it too, or only a select few can score this.

Negi toro kyu maki (2 good sized cut rolls) - Wasn't terribly interested in toro for lunch, but as it was omakase he took out a chunk of toro and mashed it up with the knife. It was a good solid mush that while did not have as much fat content, was still a nice smooth texture. A little bit big for a bit but if you open real wide you can take the whole thing in. Not bad, but I would have hoped for something else. I'm sure this did quite a bit of damage on the card.

Tamago yaki - I asked for one piece at the end, just to sample. While Toshi-san's rendition does not explode with dashi in one's mouth like Kitsho's version, I was very impressed nonetheless. Good egg flavor, but more importantly I was able to taste all the subtleties of the other ingredients to some extent (like the grounded up shrimp and good dashi, though generally dry with a hint of moisture and flavor). Way better than the piece I had at Kisaku Seattle which was a fine meal in itself. Much much better than Ino Sushi's version or Sushi Kuni's.

I noted that there was no saba present at the counter, or perhaps this was beneath the great master to make, considering kaiseki dinner sashimi should use only the utmost fresh ingredients (hence the narrower selection). Nonetheless this was quite an experience, not just to see the master at work, but to witness the speed at which he presses nigiri (and to not make it look ugly like some chefs do quite well when they sacrifice speed for presentation which affects taste etc) as well as seeing his knife work. We also had a very interesting exchange, and for the first time I was bold enough to ask quite a few questions in addition to the fish and his restaurant.

Anyways, the sushi bill was $68 but the horror was the SERVICE charge added to the bill before tax (around 15%??). I'm sure this was on the website somewhere but it must have escaped me. Naturally with a service charge you shouldn't have to leave tip and there was no line to (unless you're feeling ultra generous). I doubt I'll be eating here frequently, but had a chance to put things into perspective.

So is Kaygetsu a worthy trip? Maybe, it really depends on your perspective. Surely with $80 something you can eat more happy meals elsewhere or a few trips to the conveyor belt sushi boats, but I'm sure the quality of fish, sushi rice, the presentation and artform will be hard to match or beat. It is unfortunate that with the relocation of the former restaurant, that the prices have gone up due to policy, but hey that is business.

Perhaps a similar sushi experience elsewhere is worth more, it is hard to say. But I can honestly say that Toshi-san has made me think differently of him and his previous restaurant's offerings.

Random side notes from my conversation with Toshi-san:

- I did not know that Toshi-san used to work together with Hiro-san (owner of Sakae) at another restaurant many years ago. They are good friends. Same with Takao-san of Sushi Tomi.

- It is really no secret that all the big name sushi chefs in the Bay Area all know each other. I mentioned quite a few names and he knew them all. I didn't bring up Anzu though, but I'm sure he knows Takahashi-san too. I bet this is like those posts in LA about sushi chefs, like they all see each other at the same fish markets and how "trust me" buys the rest blah blah :-) Bottom line is the Japanese community amongst the chefs are small, so it is a small world after all (sushi, not disney!)

- I confirmed that Mr Sawa himself did used to work with Toshi-san when he owned Sushi-ya in Palo Alto on University many moons ago (who sold his side of the business and then moved to his own restaurant) and did apprentice under Toshi-san. I'm sure quite a few folks knew the Sushi-ya connection to Toshi but I did not.

- I was under the impression that only a small handful of Bay Area chefs actually had classical or old school sushi training in Japan. He confirmed that Sam did even before he worked at Isobune, and Takao-san did work in Japan before (though he did a fish related gig in Luxembourg or was it Brussels, and this is online by the way).

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  1. w
    wendy RE: K K Jul 5, 2006 11:02 PM

    Sorry you feel bad about being the only person who posted sushi experience at Kaygetsu. I think Kaygetsu's sushi is one of the best in the bay area (even though I'm a devotee of Takahashi-san). Freshest fish and very elegant portion size. Price is indeed high. I have eaten numerous Kaiseki meals in Japan - while Kaygetsu's Kaiseki's is decent - I'll save my kaiseki experience for trips to Japan.

    (p.s. i used to post under xiong xiong but decided to take up a new screen ID with the move to the new forum design)

    1 Reply
    1. re: wendy
      K K RE: wendy Jul 5, 2006 11:14 PM

      I definitely remember you from previous CH posts especially ones on Taiwan on the old intl board (in fact I think you helped me with a Taipei query some time back), back when I didn't post as much!

      Don't worry I don't feel bad about being the only person, it was just that I couldn't find any posts for that matter for Anzu Sushi (which I am very grateful for Porthos for taking the plunge on that one and sharing the experience recently) and Kaygetsu for my own research, which I try to do very carefully before jumping in and to maximize my own experience.

      I doubt there's anything remotely close to Kyoto style kaiseki in the Bay Area, so it is still a fresh and new concept to some extent. When there's clearly little or no competition, there's no golden standard to measure by. Pretty much the same thing for Taiwanese food in the Bay area, but I diguress.

    2. Porthos RE: K K Jul 5, 2006 11:06 PM

      I'm glad you could make it to Kaygetsu. Yes the kaiseki is good but the nigiri as you've described is also quite excellent. You had isaki and medai which I've never had there. How did his o-toro look today or did he not have any? Also, if I remember correctly, he does use fresh wasabi. Did you notice? His knifework and skill is superb and I like his refined take on nigiri (ie. smaller, more textured cuts).

      So now that you've been, how would you compare Kaygetsu to Sakae?

      As for the service charge, I don't mind it at all because I would normally tip 20% since I've always had stellar service there. But the 15% (or was it 18%) that they add on is fair in my opinion.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Porthos
        K K RE: Porthos Jul 5, 2006 11:45 PM

        Yeah me too. And what a heck of a place I picked too since I was sushi-less for a few days in a row, stomach growling today and panic settled in.

        Never been to Kaygetsu for kaiseki, and given that it is only offered during dinner time, I suppose I'd have to pick Anzu's bar before I hit up Kaygetsu for dinner (all things equal otherwise in terms of next best opportunity).

        I'm so glad you asked, but sadly I was going through an insufficent sleep day drugged with morning coffee (and afternoon tea right now) to not notice or clearly recall the wasabi at all. All my concentration was talking to Toshi-san and enjoying the omakase. My vague recollections of the sushi plate was that the wasabi did not look like the Dreyers green tea ice cream tone of paste, there was not a large amount of it either, but did not look like the "fresher" stuff from the squeeze tubes. I ate the ginger, which was delicately prepared, but why the heck did I not taste the wasabi? Aaaack. Maybe I should have licked the plate too (lol). Sorry I guess I will have to wait until the next time I allow myself to go!

        Don't think it was medai that I had today, as he mentioned it and I asked him if it was madai and he said yes. And he said it was the more common kind used in most sushi restaurants (and we did talk about kurodai, medai, and kinmedai briefly too).

        Toshi san's knife skills are awesome indeed and years ago the sushi noob in me would never have been able to appreciate that level of detail.

        Sakae vs Kaygetsu....that's quite a challenge. Sakae is a different level of appreciation, much like my recomendation for Rina comparing Kitsho to Sakae. I would say Toshi-san has the edge with better knife skills and classical nigiri preparation. What is somewhat lacking in variety to an extent is compromised by great quality, presentation, and texture. But Sakae is no slouch in terms of fish quality or bang for your buck. Owner Hiro-san does not prepare nigiri quite as well as Jun-san who is the moustached classicaly trained kaiseki chef (and knows quite a bit about seafood himself), so perhaps if you get Jun-san during your visit, it should be a better experience (but do chat with Hiro if you can, he's a great guy too). They generally have bigger nigiri pieces so despite the higher cost you are getting something in return (and even multiple bites for a nigiri is not necessarily a bad thing).

        So if you can forgive the sushi rice at Sakae (which isn't as bad as what some might say), or the bigger less textured cuts, and see for what it is (sublime indulgement), plus putting aside that feminine nurturing feeling, you should enjoy yourself there. Sakae definitely has the edge in terms of variety. Despite the $13 to $15 price tag, try the Seki Saba (I prefer it way more than Seki Aji) if they have it. Then the white board goodness. For sure their Spanish blue fin toro is better than what was at Kaygetsu today, but hopefully you get a red piece and not one that's somewhat oxidized.

        Toshi-san's toro to me was more like chu-toro. It looked a little dark pink with strings of a little whiteness, kind of like a steak with marbling (hard to really describe it). The negi toro was more meaty than soft, but not chunky.

        I personally prefer a statement on the sushi menu that a service charge will be imposed, rather than being surprised with it by the bill :-(, and prefer to pay my own tips rather than a fixed enforcement. I can understand if it is for party of 6 or more, but I'm just a sushi joe there for lunch....

        1. re: K K
          Porthos RE: K K Jul 5, 2006 11:56 PM

          As for fresh wasabi, you might have noticed that when you mixed it with the shoyu, it did not dissolve into nothing, but little chunks of grated root. It's subtle and highlights the sweetness of fish much better. You didn't notice it punch you in the nose...which is a good thing.

          I like Toshi-san's sashimi also. A little precious, but the quality is stellar. Next time, get nigiri and try the tai chazuke. It's the perfect way to end a meal.

          1. re: Porthos
            K K RE: Porthos Jul 7, 2006 03:04 AM

            Have you (or anyone else who has posted here) tried their yuzu sorbet? I saw it on the menu and wanted to try it but was pressed for time and later forgot about it! I had a great home made one in Seattle and was wondering how Kaygetsu's version compares.

            Tai chazuke sounds fantastic. It is like Cantonese/Taiwanese congee/jook but more like mushy rice with a lot of soup flavor yes?

            1. re: K K
              Porthos RE: K K Jul 7, 2006 04:43 AM

              Can't say I've had the yuzu sorbet.

              The chazuke is a little different from congee/jook. Congee/jook is cooked in the broth/water while the chazuke, I believe, is rice with the broth poured over it. It also has a few slices of tai sashimi which becomes perfectly poached in the broth. The rice itself is not soft like congee/jook but you can still taste the grains. Traditionally it's done with tea. I don't know about the other chazukes because I can't ever make it past the tai chazuke.

              1. re: K K
                RWCFoodie RE: K K Jul 28, 2006 10:03 AM

                I've had their yuzu sorbet - had never tasted it before - Either it was too subtle for me or I don't know what, but I wasn't impressed... I much prefer their sesame flavor!

            2. re: K K
              w
              Wendy_san RE: K K Jul 6, 2006 06:42 PM

              I agree that they should put the service charge info on the sushi menu. It is clear when you order kaiseki that there will be a service charge. Maybe you should shoot them a friendly email with that suggestion.

              ---Wendy

          2. t
            thejulia RE: K K Jul 5, 2006 11:15 PM

            Hi KK. I absolutely love Toshi-san's work, but I definitely can't justify the price very often. I love watching him wield his knife and the little touches that set his food apart.

            I actually prefer going there for sushi rather than kaiseki, though my main dining companion prefers the kaiseki. I am also nonplussed that they always include service charge and I wish I understood why they did that. I'm sure most people would include at least that much for tip anyway!

            Considering the amount of food that you had, it seems like you might have received a slight discount actually. Maybe Sushi Monster will be persuaded to give it a try now.

            1. K K RE: K K Jul 7, 2006 12:44 PM

              Regarding the restaurant's service charge policy:

              Turns out Toshi-san and his wife's announcement of Kaygetsu's grand openining email newsletter can be found online (don't have the link handy right now), which did state the 16% service charge at the restaurant to compensate for staff in the back, front across the board equally and that will replace tips. I remember reading this back in 2004, didn't think anything of it, but missed the 16% part until now.

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