Eating sushi is like going to war. It’s an all out, tactical assault on the senses. It will have you guessing with every bite.While you’re trying to decide what exactly you’re actually eating. Sushi builds a stronghold around your taste buds, driving out blandness, leaving you teetering on the brink of total flavor annihilation. Sushi is not weak. You’re weak! You not say sushi weak!
Sadly, I’d venture to say that 90% of the sushi I’ve had would not be considered good to the rest of the world. It’s a danger you face with any cuisine, if it falls into the wrong hands, it becomes a joke. That’s why we search out these places. So you don’t have to eat cold garbage fish. This latest joint required no effort on my part, as my food loving friend Todd Sturtz from Tasting Tampa basically provides a constant stream of food porn, flooding every social media outlet. So it was my turn to sink into the den of Kaisen.
Sometimes you just have a feeling about a place, you know it’s going to impress. When a reputation of such quality and tastiness precedes it, you can help but have the highest of expectations. My counterpart Todd, who based on his photo album of Kaisen shots has been at least 20 times, swore on a stack of foie gras terrine that he had yet to even open the menu. The omakase, or chef’s tasting meal, is simply too good and too random to pass up. Especially for people who will literally eat anything. Natto nachos anyone? They ask you how much you want to spend and then tailor the menu accordingly. Todd informed me that you’ll be fattened up long before they break your bank. Twenty-five to thirty dollars per person is a fair price. You’d spend $60-$75 elsewhere and leave questioning your own infatuation with fish.
Here’s the rundown of my first jaunt.
Fried grouper cheeks. Awesome is the word that comes to mind for a batter that finished slightly biscuity, like you just drank a weiss beer. Succulent fish, wonderfully crispy, swimming in a pool of bright, lime tinged ponzu. Sunomono. chiffonade red snapper, yellowtail, octopus. The fish was mild and reminiscent of ceviche from the pungent acidic pool. A heavy, yet almost floral vinaigrette settled on the bottom of the bowl. The octopus preparation was most impressive, as the chef manipulated the tentacles to keep them from a inheriting the texture of a kickball.
Enoki and salmon roe. I’m not normally a roe guy, but my dining companion was going on and on about some of his favorite roe based adventures. I was on the verge of suing him in the landmark case of Roe vs Wade: Return Of Equity. In which Dwanye Wade staves off a marauding band of fully ripened salmon eggs. It made me get happy about one of my least favorite foods. Maybe it’s because they paired the gigantic orange globes with meaty roasted mushrooms that caused my tune of lukewarm reverence to adjust, ever so slightly toward roe. From the sheer length of this piece I knew it was a two biter. On my first attempt, I didn’t get any ikura. Maybe it was a psychological battle waged by my subconscious to reject what it perceived to be offensive. This approach gave me a great opportunity to get my first taste of Kaisen’s rice. I could decipher every single grain of rice because it was cooked and then cooled in the most amazing way. I noted that touch of rice wine vinegar, which is always warranted. Then the next bite came and my mouth was engulfed in a combo platter of meatiness and sea breeze. A thinkers version of surf and turf. The salmon roe burst and a wave of calm came across me as I was surprised how well it all went together.
Next, albacore tuna that practically melted from the warmth of my fingertips and completely disintegrated in my mouth. Flounder, but not the normal sliced filets. The little squiggly side part that it swims with. Sweet like candied rain. Salt cured egg salmon, marinated ahi, and unadulterated uni came into our field of vision as the plates cleared out a spot at the bar. I found the egg salmon along with its day old salt cure my most treasured dish at this lunch date. You take one really amazing piece of fish encased in salt. Let it sit for a day. That’s it. It’s simple but perfect. You think you know, but you have no idea. This is the Diary of Egg Salmon.
Dessert?..Tonymaki chopped smoked mackerel, scallion, toasted sesame.
When Todd asked if he would make him a Tonymaki, I had no idea what that was all about, since this Tony fellow replied “you want a Tony maki?” Obviously wasn’t even sure myself since I didn’t even get to open a menu. So Tony gets a twinkle in his eye and looks at the ceiling for a split second. Then snaps out of it and says he has an idea. Grabs two small filets of unspecified fish, then walks to the kitchen. I’ve seen that look. I’ve had that look. It’s the look someone gets when they are about to make something out of nothing. When the plan is, there is no plan but to create. Last time I had that look, I made the best pie I’ve ever created, it was an amazing feeling. I can’t imagine how much joy it must bring the chefs at Kaisen to have two gaijin give them free rein. Sadly, you still see mango tango mumbo jumbo rolls flying out of sushi bars. I don’t think we will ever see the demise of some of these ridiculous maki, until we can come to terms with an appreciation of fish in its most natural and best tasting form, with as little manipulation as possible. It would take a culture-wide lobotomy to accomplish.
Kaisen puts all sushi in Tampa to shame, stacking up to some of the best I’ve had in large market cities. I’d venture to say it easily cracked my top 5, and that’s just after one visit. In the meantime my buddies are snapping away, posting pics from Kaisen as I type. Don’t eat it all, I’m on my way!