Maui’s Best Under-the-Radar Sushi Chef… Revealed
By Vanessa Wolf
As with any great adventure worth pursuing, for this endeavor one must be prepared to break laws and confront danger.
If you’re willing, begin on Highway 340 and turn left shortly after the schoolhouse. Continue until you see mile marker 5, then pull over into the nearest patch of weeds. Immediately exit your vehicle and commence scrambling willy-nilly across the adjacent property.
Ignore any signs that say “No Trespassing” or the sound of your mother’s cautious voice in your ears.
That’s how you get to the swinging bridges.
Still, there is danger involved in revealing the following information: we could very possibly create an even larger demand for the delicacies created by the already in-demand sushi chef at this already impossibly busy restaurant.
Here’s what you need to know:
- He only works Tuesday to Saturday evenings.
- You can’t make a reservation at the sushi bar, per se, except for the one time we could.
- The bar is very small and the restaurant – more commonly associated with puff pastry-topped onion soup or braised short ribs – consistently packed.
Have no idea what we’re talking about?
Perhaps Café O’Lei Kihei’s sushi chef Masa-san wants it that way.
Still, when we started to hear some exceedingly positive rumblings about the Osaka-born itamae late last summer, we decided to brave the wait to suss it out.
Where better to start than with Hamachi (Yellow Tail Tuna) Sashimi ($12.95)?
Generously priced for ten slices, the fish is ultra fresh and well-prepared. If they ever legalize human/Hamachi marriages, we’ll be one of the first in line at the courthourse.
Or maybe that’s human/Toro marriages?
At nearly $15, the two pieces of fatty tuna belly break down to some expensive mouthfuls, but what can we say about the Toro nigiri ($14.95)?
Toro! Toro! Toro!
The price is worth it: heavenly, luscious, raw fish perfection. It kind of makes you want to take over some small country and declare yourself president-for-life in order to force your loyal subjects to find and feed it to you day and night.
Just one of those things, but on all three visits, Masa was all out of the Uni (Sea Urchin) Nigiri ($8.95) and Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) Nigiri ($8.95) by mid-evening, which leads us to believe they must be outstanding and/or in short supply. We’ll try to beat you to them next time.
Meanwhile, the Sushi Combination Platter ($17) comes with maguro (x2), shiromi, salmon and hamachi nigiri with a tuna roll on the side.
The fish was all fresh, flavorful and well-presented.
The man knows what he’s doing and to that we can only say domo arigato, Mr. Masa-san.
The pedestrian tuna roll is what it is, nothing special: just belly filler.
On a similar note, our dining companion ordered the Sake (Salmon) Roll ($4.95) and what arrived looked a bit hackneyed.
Looks aside, the price is fair and the flavors well-balanced; the sushi rice prepared with the perfect amount of vinegar necessary to offset the rich, succulent fish. You can’t go too wrong with that.
Unfortunately, service can get in the way of the overall experience.
When seated at the sushi bar, you are assigned a wait person who is simultaneously working the greater dining room area. They tend to promptly disappear.
Although Masa himself is available for additional sushi requests, anything else – water refills, alternative beverages, non-sushi items – will be hard to come by. We resorted to gesticulating wildly at anyone dressed in all black.
Admittedly an American invention more than anything traditionally Japanese, who can resist the occasional complex sushi roll?
We tried the Red Dragon Roll ($14.95) as recommended by the chef.
Spectacularly red and stunning, a spicy tuna roll is topped with avocado, more maguro and plentiful red tobiko.
The Rockin Roll or 69 Roll ($12.95) tops the classic American California roll with unagi (eel), orange tobiko and eel sauce.
It’s what you’d expect, and the touch of real crab makes the well-prepared and flavorful rendition even more pleasing.
Lastly, we went for the most exotic-sounding roll on the menu: the White Dragon ($12.95).
A spicy Hamachi roll is topped with fresh avocado and Hamachi slices, sesame seeds and – the man is clearly into tobiko – a boat load of green tobiko. It was bursting with fish flavor: definitely a combination that works.
A fan of fishy fish, our final visit required an order of the Saba (Mackeral) Nigiri ($5.95).
A darker-fleshed, oily fish, mackerel has a pronounced flavor all its own. What arrived was fresh and bright and the presentation showcased Masa’s knife skills.
Girls only wanted boyfriends with great skills… and this man has them.
He also possesses a stellar memory. Should you coincidentally end up camping next to him at Wainapanapa, he WILL remember you the next time you meet. The same seemed to be true for dinner regulars.
All told, the Kihei Café O’Lei sushi bar is an unexpected gem tucked into the back of the busy, popular restaurant. The ambiance is boisterous if not downright loud at times, but the food is solid.
In short: go. And bring us with you.
Cafe O’Lei is located at 2439 S. Kihei Rd #201A (upstairs) in Kihei. Although the restaurant is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., sushi is available from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday nights only.