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May 4, 2009 05:51 PM

Sushi-Kaito vs Sakura vs Shirahama?

Anyone? Husband and I have been to Sakura, love it. We are now sipping afternoon coffee and tossing around a dinner at either Kaito or Shirahama.

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  1. Kaito

    Can not compare, as I have not been to the other two. But Kaito is amazing. I no longer live in the area and the sushi at Kaito is something I will miss.

    1. To me Sakura, unfortunately, does not even rate. (I love them for the izakaya it is, but not as a sushi bar...)

      But I like your list! I, too, would put Kaito and Shirahama at the top two of my sushi bar list. So here are my views, distilled from an e-mail I sent to a fellow CH'er:

      So between Kaito and Shirahama... The reason for my extensive CH posts on Kaito and not Shirahama is that I believe Kaito to be superior. My view of the S.D. sushi scene, and it's a rather dim one, is that Kaito is at the very top, Shirahama a removed 2nd, and then there's all of the others that normally will rate well with most people and try to do traditional sushi, but is just not there in quality in my opinion, not even close.

      Of course left behind are all of the others who has only the most superficial and characatured notion of traditional sushi, and those who don't even try! What a sorry lot they all make! But I should probably feel sorrier still for their customers who actually believe they are experiencing something representing the best of a traditional and exotic cuisine, and not realizing just how bastardized it has become!

      So back to your question. To put it simply, Shirahama can be incredibly good, and in fact has been nearly Kaito's equal in terms of my dining experience on most visits. But this is why I place him 2nd...

      * Kotani-san (Shirahama) may be a bit too partisan, believing that anything from Tsukiji is best, whereas Morita-san has a much more balanced view on ingredient sourcing and will go wherever necessary to obtain quality tane. (Though of course Tsukiji reigns supreme with him too, but it's more a matter of confusing ingredient taste with national pride. Kotani-san, I felt, is a bit too susceptible to that line of reasoning...)

      * In all my visits with Kotani-san, when I would ask him about today's susume (specials) he would always say "everything". It may be true, but it's hard to believe that given I'm generally not hungry enough to eat everything, some items would not be better than others... Morita-san, when I ask him about ingredients, is always honest and never has a problem saying that something is not good enough for me, though I always do omakase with him. (I just get curious and ask him about the tane...) There are times where Morita-san would apologize ahead of time for not having many ingredients! Love that honesty, which is all I ask on top of all the many incredible meals I've had with him.

      * [a bigger difference] Where Morita-san really excells over Kotani-san is his choices in sequencing of the meal. And Morita-san takes a very hollistic approach to meal sequencing, including what I'm drinking, what I had on the last visit, if I look tired or hungry (really!), etc. There's been so many time that he's literally read my mind on a special request that only the most attentive chef would recognize (Shibutani-san of Shibucho too has such a genius...)

      * [a bigger difference] Another area where Morita-san excells over Kotani-san is his choice of seasonings. He really is a master at seasoning in the very subtle and understated way that is at the very heart of Japanese cuisine. Just brilliant! And his brilliance really shows when it's on a day with few ingredients and I'm still hungry. He'll invariably conconct combinations that are just amazing, again with typical Japanese restraint and seasonings in mind. So often I've had things which I never would have put together!

      * [I don't know how Kotani-san is on this, as he has not demonstrated to me he can yet...] Morita-san is absolutely a do anything from scratch, traditionally-trained itamae. He know how to make all of the traditional sauces, seasonings, special uses for various parts of the fish, and is an absolute genius in terms of knowing each species detailed habits, migrations, quality of feeding grounds, etc. It's absolutely remarkable what he knows. And because of this knowledge he uses every part of the fish, more so than any other itamae I've ever dined in front of...

      * [again, I don't know where Kotani-san is on this, but I do see these same skills in Shibucho's Shibutani-san...] Morita-san is one who exercises the utmost subtlety in serving sushi. He changes his seasoning throughout the year to accomodate changes in our palates. (Though I bring in my own, he mixes his own shoyu, or at least he used to...) He uses red vinegar and the most expensive grade of nori. He matches the way he forms the nigiri to the tane - for instance with his Anago he uses a much lighter touch that needs to be eaten by hand (which I always do anyway...).

      * On so many occasions Morita-san has demonstrated the most subtle aspects of sushi's almost mystical side in various taste tests - I enjoyed them all! [Insert your Star Wars reference here... You know... The one about "use the force"...] (And yes, again Morita-san reminds me of Shibutani-san in this same regard...)

      So here are some examples: Once he formed the nigiri in two different ways, just the rice ball, once in his fashion and once in a manner of a beginner, and had me taste them with the same identical tane taken from adjoining slices. Night and day difference! He also had me try the difference between a kampyo-maki cut in 6 pieces as tradition dictates vs. the 8 pieces of most hosomaki. Again, a night and day difference, though no differences in ingredients or technique other than cutting.

      I could go on and on, but in general the short story is that there have been very few times, perhaps not even one, where I had something necessarily inferior in Kotani-san's sushi, but it's more a matter of the subtleties much beyond just merely having good tane. Morita-san practices that subtlety, very much like Shibutani-san!

      And one more consideration: I've heard on several occasions that Shirahama has an issue with DWG, or shall we say, "Dining While Gaijin"... I've never had any problems for obvious reasons, and never saw it myself, (and in fact I've personally seen several counter-examples), but I've heard from many sources stories of potential customers being sent away for this very reason... Perhaps it's a case of YMMV?

      6 Replies
      1. re: cgfan

        I've eaten at Shirahama as a DWG and had a perfectly fine experience, though there's no question that Kaito was a much friendlier experience. Interesting to see all this detail. I definitely didn't come away from Shirahama with the same burning desire to go back as I did at Kaito.

        1. re: cgfan

          cgfan, ah--so that's what was in the little bottle that you brought to Kaito the other night!

          to the OP--I haven't done Shirahama, but I've done Kaito several times, all omakase and all of them were great! Morita-san knows how to pace a sushi meal and not blast your tastebuds w/ heavier flavors so you have trouble tasting the subsequent dishes. Kind of like a well-done tasting menu, except that he has to spontaneously come up w/ the next dish on the spot b/c you call the shots when you're full.

          1. re: daantaat

            daantaat - Yes, it was the Yuasa Ki-Ippon that was in the bottle you saw.

            But you should see the looks I get when I occasionally take out the Yuki Shio (snow salt) I keep in sealed aluminum capsules on my keychain ... To describe its looks, it's a very finely ground, opaque white powder!

            Fantastic on shiromi, and very similar in profile to the Himalayan Pink Salt that Morita-san uses behind the bar, but less salty with a broader alkaline taste.

            1. re: cgfan

              aah, so that's what the powdered salt is called! We've had it at Okan w/ the tempura and I just love the salty pungency it gives! I can only imagine the looks you get when you whip out the aluminum capsule!

              Can I get it at Nijiya?

              On a related note, what is the name for the wasabi green powdered salt that Okan has?

              1. re: daantaat

                Well it'll be hard to tell just by looks, as sea salts vary quite a bit. The one I carry with me is a Yuki Shio, and can be occasionally found at Nijiya. But it's probably not what you had at Okan, given the description. The Yuki Shio is actually not very salty at all, which is why it works so well on the Shiromi...

                Best advice I can give is that if you liked the salt that Morita-san uses behind the bar at Kaito, then the Yuki Shio is very similar, though only available in a powdered form. What Morita-san uses is a bit saltier than Yuki-Shio, but still is a rather :"unsalty" salt! Nijiya used to carry it in block form, but now only has it in a gravel-like form in its own grinder, which I wouldn't recommend. However Sur La Table carries it in rock form, and at a lower price.

                A bit of trivia: the Yuki Shio is listed in the Guinness' book of world records as the salt with the most mineral compounds.

                As to a salt with a wasabi-green color, more than likely that's matcha shio. That's traditionally used with tempura in lieu of a dipping sauce, though personally my favorite for tempura when used on a mild ingredient is just sea salt alone. I think you can find it at Nijiya, but honestly I'd recommend simply mixing your own. Just combine matcha and a favorite sea salt and grind it in a mortar and pestle to a powder.

                1. re: cgfan

                  ah, thank you so much for broadening my world again!

        2. Enorah- Thank you so much for the detailed response. We chose Shirahama this evening, but we are going to try Kaito on our next outing in two weeks.

          I can see where some folks might run into a bit of trouble at Shirahama, as it is extremely small and quiet. We are experienced diners, and went out of our way to enter the restaurant with a calm respectful demeanor.

          Hands down, it was the best sushi we have ever had. Not only were the ingredients top notch, but the sushi was prepared with attention to the delicate intensity of the flavors. Example- I had the sea urchin (one of my favorites). The texture and consistency of the rice was balanced by this sweet, smooth, buttery, sea urchin, all of which was subtly highlighted by the perfect amount of sea salt sprinkled in between the sea urchin and the rice.

          Of course anyone can throw together rice and fish and salt. But this was a cut above, the spot on preparation of the rice, the perfect amount of salt, the freshness of the urchin, all combined to create a tiny work of culinary art, which was only made more beautiful by the calm, pared down, surroundings.

          So, stand by for Kaito.

          5 Replies
          1. re: Dagney

            Great report, Dagney! I loved the part where you say: "enter the restaurant with a calm respectful demeanor"... Very wise, indeed...

            So I look forward to hearing from you when you visit Kaito. In some ways the atmospherics are similar to Shirahama, and in other ways completely different. Like Shirahama, Kaito's a very unassuming place. Clearly Morita-san has carte-blanche over the entire sushi program, but the aethetics of the restaurant is clearly done on a budget. Not a problem with me and to most CH'ers, but it may deter some...

            And like Shirahama, there's practically no signage. In the case of Kaito, there are only two window decals, so be sure to keep a keen eye out when looking for them!

            Now here's where they differ. What I find amazing about Kaito is that their demographic is probably more than 90% Caucasain. I never would have thought that it would be possible, but with this demographic almost all of their (regular) customers order omakase! And there are so many regulars here in a way that I've never seen in any sushi bar. Not sure if I'm their most frequent customer, but there are others who come in regularly at least once a week, and we all know each other by name. You'll be sure to have a good time there if it happens that on the day that you dine several of their regulars are also there.

            Regardless this is a very social environment. I suspect this is due to their repeat customers being of like mind - they are typically looking for the best in traditional sushi, they are not easily fooled by the "pretend" traditional sushi bars, and they know they have found the real thing in Kaito. In a sense their repeat customers are members of the same tribe!

            As Morita-san always says, "sushi chefs can lie, restaurants can lie, but the fish can never lie!". So true, so true.

            And it is a small operation. Just Morita-san and Iwata-san (Joe-san) at the bar, with the owner/couple Hiromi (kitchen chef) and Ryan (front of the house).

            I look forward to hearing your report from Kaito. We can always accommodate more members to our steadily growing tribe!

            1. re: cgfan

              Kaito was definitely a more fun atmosphere than Shirahama. I've never felt relaxed or at-ease at Shirahama. I also liked that Kaito let us bring our own beer. It was nice being able to have a good craft beer with sushi, instead of the standard Sapporo/Kirin/Orion options.

            2. re: Dagney

              Dagney, I think it is cgfan you meant to thank. My response was in no way detailed. lol

              1. re: Enorah

                Yes, you are correct, my attention to detail floundered slightly in my Sake induced haze..;>

              2. re: Dagney

                Dagney: just to give you a tantalizing preview, I finally accepted a long-standing invitation to watch Kaito Sushi during their prep. I posted both videos and photographs of what I saw, as introduced in this CH post:


              3. Well, kids, we have eaten at Kaito. It was most excellent. Extremely friendly. Nearly impossible to find; consistent with the tradition of a decent sushi restaurant.


                We liked Shirahama better. The food was simply better. The atmosphere was quiter. Simply. Better. (I am now ducking to avoid the dishes being hurled at me).

                11 Replies
                1. re: Dagney

                  Ha! No need to duck, everyone has an opinion!

                  1. re: Dagney

                    Yeah no problem from here either! (All of us Kaito fans are a pretty content bunch.)

                    It's nice and refreshing that finally there's some serious discussion happening on SD Sushi bars that's practicing at a level beyond the pre-ordained "SD best".

                    The "best of" spot deserves to be held by only those operations that see perfection in their craft as a goal that can never be reached but still tries their hardest to get there. The path they take is very much like Zeno's imagined walk.

                    1. re: Dagney

                      Hmm. I contrast my first visit to both places. I found Kaito to be immediately friendly with exceptional quality and selection. I found Shirahama a bit unfriendly and the atmosphere uncomfortable--but the fish was very good. I don't know that I want to put the time in to get the old guy to be friendly and I can't imagine he'd ever cook the heart of a fish for me. Sushi isn't cheap, so I'd rather be spending the big bucks at Kaito.

                      1. re: Dagney

                        Anyone who compares Shirahama and Kaito together has my respect as they both fill my top two spots by a wide margin. As to which one takes top toque, well for me it's Kaito which would be old news to many on these boards.

                        What I wanted to suggest is that if you can it would be worth it to make several repeated visits to both and then decide. Not sure if your vote was based on one visit or many, but certainly one visit *to any type of restaurant* leaves one vulnerable to having gone on a bad day, but especially with Sushi it would require repeated visits when we're talking about the best of them.

                        I say this because ideally one would want to observe your Itamae throughout the year and see how he follows the seasons (or not), as well as to measure just how small a season your Itamae is willing to follow? After all some seasonal ingredients are available in as short a season as just 1 to 2 weeks.

                        You'll also find out how versatile your Itamae is. Your Itamae will not show all of his tricks in any one visit, as each should be employed under very particular circumstances such as forming a Nigiri as opposed to a Gunkanmaki of Uni, which is employed only when the Uni is in a particular condition and seems to happen less than 1 times out of 20.

                        Also were your visits to each Sushi bar on a day when they received their Tsukiji shipment? Again when we're talking about Sushi bars at this calibre tasting one on a Tsukiji day vs. the other on a non-Tsukiji day would certainly not be an even comparison.

                        Just some thoughts, and regardless of what transpires I'm still glad that we're finally talking about the best of the best in S.D. Sushi!

                        1. re: cgfan

                          I suppose you make a good point. I should go back to Shirahama. I'll give it some thought as Shirahama is way closer to where I live.

                          BTW, thanks for sharing the knowledge. There was a guy called SushiMonster up North that did a big list of sushi with rankings, you should give it a shot. It would be great if there was a definitive list of sushi in San Diego.

                          1. re: thirtyeyes

                            Actually my comments were in response to Dagney, but certainly any Sushi bar can have an off night and a fair comparison should entail as many visits as is practical.

                            I for one have gone to Shirahama on many repeat visits and find it to be very, very good. For me it's not so much for being able to point at any deficiencies that keeps Shirahama in second place (though I do have a couple of nits), but more for the abundance of stellar traits that I continue to notice in Kaito that keeps my personal rankings the way they are.

                            1. re: cgfan

                              So cgfan, when I head over for dinner in two weeks, what should I order? Or should I just be at the mercy of the sushi chef?

                              1. re: Raboi

                                Best suggestion would be to leave it up to Morita-san and ask for Omakase.

                                If he's never seen you before chances are he''ll probably ask you a couple of questions, such as:

                                "everything alright?" (any restrictions?)
                                "where you from?" (where did you come from)
                                "how did you hear?"(did you hear about us from a Kaito regular, Chowhound/Yelp/Internet, or just stumbled upon us?)
                                "there's many Sushi bars" (why did you come here when there's so many other Sushi bars out there?)

                                and finally:
                                "we're no good" (you are about to have the very best Sushi in your life!)

                                1. re: cgfan

                                  Yes! The night we dined there he asked us all of the above.

                                2. re: Raboi

                                  be at the mercy of Morita-san. :-D

                        2. I am so happy no one flipped out when I wrote we enjoyed Shirahama more than Kaito.

                          We enjoyed the quiet surroundings, the amazing quality, and the hint of a completely different dining culture at Shirahama. I can see how the experience would be off-putting and unfriendly, but I know this is not the intention. One of my good friends, who is Cambodian told me business-like "indifference" (in some Asian establishments) is not meant to be rude, but rather to serve the customer in the most efficient, non-intrusive manner. In fact the what we might perceive as rudeness is actually a compliment.

                          Kaito was certainly more friendly, and the quality was excellent, but we felt the flavors were just ever so slightly less intense than Shirahama. That said, if we had were dining with friends and wanted to shock them with outstanding food, we would certainly return to Kaito.

                          Understand we are REALLY splitting hairs when comparing these two places. Both chefs are to be commended for putting some of the best, most unsung food in San Diego.

                          4 Replies
                            1. re: pulled pork

                              On Convoy, south of Balboa, west side of the street. 4212 Convoy Street, 858-650-3578.

                              1. re: pulled pork

                                same complex as The Boxing Club and Phoung Trang. Shirahama is on the right side of the mini mall.

                                1. re: daantaat

                                  Two doors or so from the dance studio.