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SAN DIEGO RESTAURANT REVIEW: Kiyo’s Japanese Restaurant

Posted on May 3, 2012 by a

As a reviewer – whether it is restaurant reviews, food truck reviews, music reviews or any other kind of review – I strive for neutrality and objectivity.

On this one I cannot rightly say I am fully neutral, though I will try to be objective. I have known Kiyo since I was a kid. He is nearly family. I am his lawyer. And, oh by the way, he makes the best Sushi I have ever eaten.

Kiyo is, quite literally, the dean of San Diego sushi chefs. He has been at his current location in the Gaslamp District since 1987 and had a restaurant for half a decade before that in Hillcrest. When that Hillcrest restaurant opened there was only one other sushi bar in the city.

What Kiyo does best is traditional Japanese sushi and cuisine. He can be amazingly creative and does not necessarily see himself as being bound by the strictures and traditions of the Edo-style.

But it is when Kiyo is creating at or, at the very least, reasonably close to those traditions – a dash of lemon juice or a slice of lemon on the salmon, some sprinkles of salt on the scallops, a dot of Srirachi on the sea bass or a tangle of green onion and a dot of a proprietary sauce (Srirachi and Kewpie mayonnaise?) on the snapper – that he really shines.

These garnishes are not just for aesthetics. They are for flavor. Each enhances the Neta (topping), bringing out its natural flavor – popping it – and coaxing it into being as much itself as it possibly could be.

Kiyo’s Japanese Restaurant is not, as it could never be, all things to all people – not even all sushi-eating people. It is not a hipster joint. It is not anything remotely close to the height of contemporary urban design. It is not a hyper-modern palace. If you want those things you’ll have to go elsewhere. Kiyo’s is exactly what it purports to be, nothing more. It does what it says on the label. It is as close to a traditional Japanese Restaurant as you’ll get in San Diego today.

But for me the crowning glory of any trip to Kiyo’s is the Uni – sea urchin gonads (yes, some call it “roe” … but its not). Uni, this fresh, is a heady combination of sweetness and the essence of sea foam, arrayed on a savory matrix. There is no better place on the rock to experience Uni.

The quality of Kiyo’s Uni is, quite literally, unparalleled in my experience (and I’ve had a lot of it). It goes back to his days as an Uni packer, before he sold the company and trained his replacement in exchange for a perpetual deal of first pick at any time on any day. It is a deal he has occasionally had to enforce by threatening to train a competitor.

I have known Kiyo for what seems like my whole life. What’s to stop you from meeting him tomorrow?