"It's one of the things my customers love the most," says the broad-shouldered, Malaysian-born owner of Kaiyo. "It's a signature item."
Hell, if I had a Hot Temptation Roll, I'd brag about it, too. After all, Loo's roll is something to behold: a straight line of maki sushi slices, each filled with crispy tempura shrimp surrounded by rice, sheathed in a fleshy strip of thinly sliced fresh mango and bedecked with tiny red tobiko eggs and splashed with I'm taking this directly from Loo's menu "Kaiyo's own fruity sauce."
A friend of mine once joked that you have to be comfortable with your masculinity to order this roll, and somewhat careful about eating it. "I don't want my obituary to read that I choked to death on a Hot Temptation Roll," he noted.
"Well, I wouldn't mind that," snapped my friend Everett, who joined me for dinner one night at Kaiyo and ordered the thing almost as soon as we sat down. When Loo brought it over to our table, I asked whether his previous employer still served a version of his roll. "I took the recipe with me," Loo said, "but they have something like it with a different name."
I can't remember that other name, but it was distinctly less pornographic as is the name of Loo's other signature roll, the Greenwich Roll, which I think he named for the city in Connecticut. I'm fuzzy on those details because while Loo was explaining, I was silently debating whether to drop my chopsticks under my chair or fling them across the room. At Kaiyo, the tables are set with artfully folded gold napkins with paper-wrapped chopsticks tucked into the center. No forks in sight.
Because people like Everett (and most of the other customers in Kaiyo's pretty little dining room) use chopsticks with such ease, I'd been under the long-held delusion that if I practiced enough, the knack would come to me. But as I stared down at a lovely piece of Greenwich Roll that I'd accidentally dropped on the floor, I had an epiphany. Because I never learned to type, play the piano or whistle with my fingers, it's highly unlikely that the art of eating with chopsticks will ever be in my skill set.
Luckily, sushi is the perfect finger food, so I didn't have to waste any more of that Greenwich Roll another shrimp tempura number, combined this time with crunchy cucumber toothpicks, cream cheese and punchy wasabi mayonnaise. Everett, naturally, made a big production of rubbing his chopsticks together ("It removes splinters," he said) and effortlessly picking up things, even a tissue-thin bit of ginger. Did I mention that Everett is a little pretentious?
"This place reminds me of this trendy little sushi place I used to go to in Studio City," he said, just loud enough so that people at the next table could hear us. "I saw Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston there once, when they were still together."
Kaiyo is trendy, too. Maybe not hip enough for movie stars, but I did see an A-list local chef eating there one night as well as several Hallbrook honeys whose Botoxed brows were as shiny and smooth as the round plastic lid on the bowl of miso soup that I'd ordered. Loo's may be the best miso soup in the city; unlike the salty, watery brews served in some of the area's better-established sushi restaurants, this fermented soybean broth is impressively robust.
Sushi and soup would have made a terrific meal by itself (and maybe a few of Kaiyo's excellent soft steamed dumplings, bite-sized delicacies that practically melt in your mouth). But I wanted to taste one of the entrées. Kaiyo offers all of the usual teriyaki dishes steak, salmon, chicken but the visual presentation is so startling that even the inexpensive chicken teriyaki looks elegant. Chicken breast slices were discreetly bathed in a sauce that wasn't too sweet, sided by a pretty array of carrots, broccoli and pearl onions.
Not to be outdone, Everett demanded one of the three "dinner tray sets," Kaiyo's version of a Bento box. There were no compartments on this tray, just a generous assortment of tempura vegetables and shrimp, six pieces of California roll, a tiny salad dripping with tart ginger dressing, and a dainty piece of grilled salmon. It was like a Tokyo-style TV dinner fit for a queen (in other words, perfect for Everett).
I returned a couple of nights later with Judy and Carrie, two passionate sushi lovers. After sampling a Spicy Tango Roll (made with chopped octopus and chiles and topped with fresh tuna) and an avocado-clad Caterpillar Roll whimsically designed to look like a real bug but filled with octopus and cucumber they gave Loo's cuisine a rave review.
Carrie loved the dark, syrupy eel sauce that Loo serves with that Caterpillar Roll; it's an addictive, bold-tasting reduction of eel stock, soy and sugar. We weren't thrilled with the fried soft-shell crab (the crab was fair, and the breading was powdery and dry instead of crispy), but the intoxicating Magic Mushrooms made up for that disappointment. This strip of portabella mushroom wrapped around yellowtail tuna, crab and seaweed, baked in mayonnaise and topped with more of that silken eel sauce, was a gastronomic pleasure trip.
Even more magical was Kaiyo's agedashi tofu cubes of firm but creamy tofu fried in a feather-thin batter and piled in a bowl with a sultry seafood broth, plenty of seawood, bits of daikon and shaved fish. We also shared a bowl of hearty buckwheat soba noodles in a luscious, comforting broth and nibbled on some extraordinarily light tempura. I was stuffed by this point, so I watched as Carrie and Judy almost inhaled a variety of beautifully presented nigiri (which isn't cheap), including a succulent swath of pink salmon, a bit of yellowtail tucked into a foil candy wrapper, and a slice of delicate white tuna floating over Loo's citrusy homemade ponzu sauce.
"It was one of the best meals we've had in a long time," Judy gushed to me when we ran into each other the next day. "Carrie and I practically floated home."
I had eaten way too much to float home, but I agreed that Kaiyo was an excellent place to give in to a little hot temptation.