There is a lot to love about Kai Ola, so I’ll start with the name that translates into Hawaiian for “ocean life.” Given the mantra of sourcing the freshest seafood available that owner Ryan Aston adheres to and its location in the heart of coastal Leucadia, Kai Ola is an appropriate name.
It should be noted that Ryan is also a big time fisherman who understands the product he sources for his chefs and has established relationships with both local and international purveyors and brings in only the freshest, high-quality seafood.
Their goal is to bring locals together to enjoy cuisine influenced by their Japanese and Hawaiian roots. They call it “an original West Coast Izakaya,” which translates into a type of Japanese bar that serves a variety of small, inexpensive dishes and snacks. In the case of Kai Ola, it’s a combination of sushi and Hawaiian favorites.
And speaking of his chefs, Ryan has brought on two of the best, Head Chef Lane and his Sous Chef Dave. Lane has run Kaisen in Oceanside then expanded internationally opening a sushi restaurant in Russia of all places. His vast experience also includes private chef gigs for some notable celebrities. Sous Chef Dave grew up around sushi as both his parents were chefs. He also trained for several years under the renowned Iron Chef Morimoto. Together they present a formidable team in this intimate space on Coast Highway in Leucadia.
They occupy the space next door to Solterra Winery & Kitchen and it was Chris Van Alyea, the owner of Solterra, who was heaping the praise on Kai Ola during a recent conversation as he eats there on a regular basis. It was formerly occupied by Taste & Sea Cakery and while they are missed in the neighborhood, this is a fine addition. Ryan and his team did a complete build-out of the space themselves and it fits in perfectly while adding a touch of its own style. It’s intimate and friendly with several booths, seats at the sushi bar and a table in the front for larger parties.
I’ve eaten at Kai Ola four times now and started with the Hawaiian-influenced plates that are served with hapa rice, potato salad and a green salad. The potato salad is unique in that it looks like it is shaped in an oversized thimble for plating and it has a different consistency than typical potato salad. Besides all that it’s delicious and a bit on the lighter side, a refreshing change.
I’ve had the Chicken Katsu and the Ahi Poke and they were both solid dishes. The Chicken Katsu comes in sandwich form also. Ryan informed me that his chefs use higher quality tuna in their poke salads and bowls than most places serving poke these days. The plate’s section offers up Chicken and Beef Teriyaki, Tempura and Salmon.
The salads look tasty too with a standard Green Salad, Tuna Avocado Salad and a Rainbow Sashimi Salad. Of course Poke bowls are on the menu and they include your choice of Tuna, Salmon, Hamachi or Rainbow. I had the Tuna Poke bowl and it’s as good as I’ve had locally and there a lot of poke options out there right now.
Noodles are next up to try as they have Saimin, Won Ton Min and a Hangover bowl that sounds intriguing.
All the Nigiri and Sashimi I sampled was super fresh as I expected after my conversation with Ryan. Every piece of Sashimi I tried was melt-in-my-mouth delicious. If you are a sea urchin fan he has a special supplier for that and evidently the word is out.
I sampled a bunch of rolls and while I tend to shy away from the over-the-top loaded with ingredients rolls, even those at Kai Ola were nicely balanced. The one that stands out is in the photo and is called the Moonlight Roll. It is comprised of Kani Kama, avocado, Kanpachi (Hawaiian yellowtail) lemon, jalapeño and sea salt. The sea salt is sprinkled on top so no dipping necessary and it’s fabulous.
There are a lot of solid sushi options in North County but if you are looking for one that combines the freshest sushi with Hawaiian in a killer location, with an experienced fisherman owner and talented, creative chefs, Kai Ola is worth checking out.
Find them at 918 N Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas. Call (760) 452-2493 or visit www.kai-ola.com.
Lick the Plate has interviewed over 700 chefs, restaurateurs, growers, brewers and culinary personalities over the past 10 years as a column in The Coast News and in Edible San Diego. He can be heard on KSON, FM94/9 and Sunny98.1. More at www.lick-the-plate.com