The restaurant was dim, lit by neon lights and a painfully bright plasma TV. Stands of lacquered bamboo thrust up from the tiled floor in a garish mockery of once-vibrant life. A wall of glass stood between us and the dining area as water streamed down its surface. Tendrils of manufactured mist swirled around our feet from a pool at the base. I'd only seen the foyer, but I knew we were in trouble.
(Dragonblink sipping soup.)
Recommended for its bentos by foodie friends Elven Princess and Linglei, Kaya Sushi is the latest addition to the sushi-glutted area around LAX. The opening of the El Segundo branch was breathlessly anticipated by area foodies, who were buzzing about it weeks in advance due to the reputation of the original Marina Del Ray location.
Like many of its highly profitable, fish-slinging brethren, Kaya seems to specialize in style rather than substance. Every one if its dishes are a work of art, painstakingly sculpted and flawless in presentation. However, showmanship aside, the rest of the restaurant reminds me of a Faberge egg; Gorgeous, yet hollow.
The Kaya Sashimi Special is the perfect example of the restaurant’s overwhelming focus on appearance. The dish is a sampler of four different types of fish sliced into paper-thin wafers and arranged in jeweled folds. While the plating is attractive, the flavors fall short.
Each selection wallows in a pool of ponzu sauce, which thoroughly saturates the meat and overwhelms more subtle characteristics. As a result, everything tastes like ponzu. Every bit of additional seasoning or garnish. Everything.
Adding insult to injury, the portion sizes are miniscule. Normally, sashimi is cut thicker than fish used for nigiri (fingers of rice topped with raw fish). With the Kaya Sashimi Special, the fish is sliced wafer thin, almost like a carpaccio. Five pieces of fish in the Kaya Sashimi Special have roughly the volume of two to three regular pieces of sashimi. Add a flavor eradicating ponzu marinade and a $38 price tag, and you've got all the ingredients for a major disappointment.
The a la carte sushi items are a somewhat better value. Visually stunning, the flavor and freshness, are about average. However, as is the case with many of the trendier sushi bars in LA, the prices can still be shocking. Style comes with a hefty premium at Kaya.
The rolls are similarly expensive, although they tend to taste more intense than the sashimi or nigiri. Each roll tends to average about 4-6 pieces, so expect to need at least two rolls per person. Given the choice, I'd go with rolls over any of the other sushi selections at Kaya.
The cost-conscious diner is better off ordering the Hew Dup Bop, the Korean version of a chirashi bowl. Kaya takes a modest patty of sushi rice, covers it with a generous mound of salad and Korean pickles, adds hefty chunks of raw fish, and tops the dish with cod roe and gold leaf. The mild seasoning can be kicked up using the large dollop of gochujang (Korean fermented chili paste) provided on the side.
The lunch boxes are also a better value than the sushi. While a bit pricey, they're filling and offer a reasonable variety of dishes. Each set comes with miso soup, salad, rice, tempura, pickles, and a few pieces of sushi and California roll. The diner gets to pick her choice of grilled meat. As far as lunch options at Kaya go, their bentos are the best value.
Kaya Sushi - The food is pretty and the restaurant is stylish. However, appearance isn't enough to compensate for lackluster service and egregiously high prices. The quality of the food, while decent, doesn't justify the cost.
Kaya Sashimi Special - 38.00
Tobiko (black) - 6
Smelt Egg w/Quail Egg - 6
Sea Urchin - 9
Salmon Roe - 8
Tobiko (Red) - 6
Spider Roll - 14.00
Hew Dup Bop - 18.00
Lunch Box - 13.00
2251 E. Maple Ave.
El Segundo, CA 90245
13400 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90292