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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Starring Rolls: Chef Boyne Park presents the Pink Lady roll at Kawa.

Tender Loving Kawa

Sushi palace at lively Bay/Mission location makes Westsiders a wasabi-laced offer they can't refuse.

By Christina Waters

If there's a more inventive way to get omega oils and lean protein into the human body, I haven't yet found it. I refer to one of Japan's greatest creations: sushi. In a perfect world there would be a sushi bar located every 100 feet, and in Santa Cruz that wish is almost a reality. Happy it is that Kawa Sushi & Roll is up and running and making local sushiholics as happy as a hamaguri, especially since the prices here are realistic enough to appeal to the resident student population.

"I could eat saba for breakfast," Jack has announced to me on more than one occasion. So he was happy to see his favorite mackerel among the lineup of sashimi possibilities on Kawa's long list. The vermilion grillwork still cordons off the main dining room from the sushi bar. Little red lights twinkle over the glass counters filled with fat loaves of maguro and electric orange tobiko.

Keeping the best of the interior décor from previous incarnations, Kawa offers big booths--occupied last night by lovers feeding each other gooey sushi--and those attractive blown glass pin-spots illuminating the vermilion upholstery and cool slate-green wall treatment.

Our hot sake arrived almost before we ordered it. Toasting the end of winter, we checked out several pages of hot items--udons, sukiyakis, teriyakis, donburis--and then turned back to the reason for our visit. Sushi. A few rolls, a few classic nigiris and we sat back to anticipate a platter of pretty protein to dip into a sauce of soy and wasabi and, not to mince words, inhale.

An opening salvo of gyoza--crunchy, succulent, fried half-moon dumplings--grabbed our attention ($5.50). These were utterly fantastic. Arriving hot and crisp, the gyoza were filled with a happy blend of shrimp and pork, and perfectly executed. Tender and moist inside, crystalline outside. We dipped them into the sake-based sauce provided (which we enhanced with a splash of soy) and devoured them. So fine were these gyoza that it is worth insisting: do not fail to order them!

Our helpful, swift and well-trained server soon produced the main attraction: a square plate laden with rows of beautifully crafted sushi. A lineup of the Kawa roll and another of the Wonderful roll ($4.95 each--who names these things?) supported a central column of hamachi nigiri ($5.25) and saba nigiri (3.95).

Off to one side, providing aesthetic counterpoint, was a sextet of plump spicy tuna maki rolls, called Dynamite ($3.50) A fistful of highly aromatic pickled ginger sat next to a ball of chartreuse wasabi paste. But not for long. It took me under three seconds to plunder the artfully arranged platter, placing one of the Kawa rolls into a shallow pool of wasabi and soy. Clearing the sinuses was never this delicious.

The generously produced nigiris were topped with long slices of fresh, sweet, tender fish. Four-bite nigiris. I found the Wonderful roll a bit tame, and thought the interior scallop a bit bland, even with a bit of shiso and tobiko. Only the cucumber gave it personality--that and of course a deep soaking in the fiery soy sauce.

But the Kawa roll was a winner. The plump coils of rice-encrusted nori were packed tight with hamachi, tiny bay shrimp, avocado and a touch of tobiko. Terrific subtle flavors and that glorious hamachi mouthfeel, all of which was only slightly distracted by overly-chewy (not quite but almost tough) nori.

The Dynamite roll was quite spicy--right on the edge. We loved it. All of the rolls were attractive, large enough to really fill us up, offering flavor clarity and very good value for the prices. As we left last night, Jack was calculating that Kawa was a convenient 10 minutes from our front door. We'll be back.

Kawa Sushi & Roll

Address: 1520 Mission St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.466.9723

Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm, dinner 5-9:30pm Tue-Fri; 3-9:30pm Sat-Sun; closed Monday

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