I had great things to say about Kai Ola when they opened in Leucadia and they have since found their way on my list of restaurants that I return to on a regular basis. With the recent addition of beer, wine and sake to their offerings, and given my relative unfamiliarity with sake, I thought it would be fun to take that angle with this column and bring in some experts to help.
I ran the idea of a radio show and column that focused on sake and sushi by owner Ryan Aston and he loved the idea. He also had the perfect guy to join me on the show and contribute to the story. That was sake expert extraordinaire Liloa Papa and I sat down last week to record a show with him and Kai Ola Sushi Chef Lane Manriki.
Between the sake flowing and the sushi, sashimi and rolls coming out, it was one of the more memorable Lick the Plate sessions. Between Ryan’s dedication to sourcing only the freshest and highest quality fish and ingredients, Lane’s masterful touch behind the counter, and Liloa’s expertise with sake, it all just works together beautifully.
Liloa has such a great story; I wanted to share a portion of our conversation here as he really has a way of explaining and romancing sake.
Lick the Plate:
Tell me about where you grew up. What was coming out of your parents’ kitchen that you remember?
I grew up on the Island of O’ahu. Both in Pearl City and Nanakuli. I pretty much grew up on the beach in Nanakuli on West-side of O’ahu. Learned how to fish, swim, dive and surf there and in high school I played football and paddled Outrigger canoe. I attended a private school where you had to be Native Hawaiian to get in, called The Kamehameha Schools. In my family the men always cooked and it’s where I developed my passion for it.
Growing up we always had a pantry full of Spam, canned-corned beef and coral tuna. My parents were Depression Era so always wanted to be sure we had food just in case. We also always had a bowl of poi on the table that was left to “sour” until it was finished. I actually love “sour-poi.” If there wasn’t poi there was a pot of rice. We also ate a lot of fish, especially Aku bone. Other times it was Hamburger Helper or what ever could make the financial cut. My dada really rocked some cool meals that are craved by many friends who were fortunate enough to enjoy at one of the many luaus that we had. We had legit luaus with at least 300 people.
Tell me what you love about Kai Ola and how do you know Lane and Ryan?
I met Lane about eight years ago when I walked into one of restaurants and I asked for dried ‘Aku because I heard he was from Hawai’i. He cracked up and knew I was legit. A lot of people like to say they’re Hawaiian or from Hawaii but, in reality, they probably only passed through. So we are always testing people in a way.
I met Ryan here at Kai Ola through Lane. As far as Kai Ola goes, the fish is amazingly fresh and seriously sourced. Plus, there’s a cool Hawaiian island vibe courtesy of Chef Lane. Also, you know that saying about how everything rolls downhill? Well, in this case, it’s the good-fun vibes that Ryan imparts to his restaurant. He’s really a cool, fun guy and Kai Ola exudes that.
Tell me about your road to where you are at right now. How did you become a sake expert?
I always had an affinity for the Japanese culture second to my Hawaiian culture. After graduating from SDSU I returned home vowing never to leave Hawaii again. After 10 years working for Southern Wine & Spirits I was recruited by a sake supplier. While at Southern, I knew my wines and spirits pretty well, but wanted to specialize in something. Although it was not cool at all, I decided to pursue sake because it was something that totally intrigued me and not many people were into it.
I went to Japan and attended a course taught by John Gauntner, an ex-patriot who became one of the first non-Japanese sake masters in Japan. The other is the owner of World Sake Imports, Chris Pearce. He’s gathered some pretty phenomenal sake together and was the first to design very American friendly back-labels for all of us to understand the product. I was in John’s class in Tokyo.
Our class of 20 went to an annual sake convention where about 400 attendees all had an equal chance to try the blind-tasting contest. Only one person walked away with a perfect score that night … me! I’ve always admired World Sake Imports and their line of sake. They were always touted as the best sake offered in the U.S. It’s basically taken me 12 years of working with sake to finally be a part of their family.
What are some sake and sushi pairings at Kai Ola you would suggest?
Miyasaka Yawaraka Sake Matinee and Hoyo Sawayaka Junmai Summer Breeze are both great for pairing with sashimi like the albacore and salmon that Lane provided for us. They are both light enough where they don’t outshine the fish. They are perfect back-up singers. The Tedorigawa Yamahai Junmai, which is was featured on Netflix’s feature, “The Birth of Sake,” had some nice woody notes and was off-dry that was paired nicely with the Stone Steps Roll. Always drink the premium craft sake with sushi.
Experience some of the best Saki and Sushi in North County along with Hawaiian plate lunch favorites and noodles at Kai Ola.