Matthew Oliver, dressed in a black chef’s jacket and matching pants, stands behind a coconut bar making sushi to order. His newly opened sushi bar, Makai Sushi, is inside Kukuiula Market, a family owned grocery store located in Koloa. Walking in, rows of cash registers are directly in front of you and Matthew is just to your left. An elderly Asian man places an order for two unagi rolls ($13) and leaves to run an errand.
Sitting on wood stools at the high bar, a young couple from Seattle orders the hapa roll ($13). With ninja speed, Matthew places a full sheet of nori on a sushi mat and presses rice up to the corners. Earlier, a broad wood bowl contained 35 cups of steamed rice, which Matthew mixed with fermented vinegar.
“Since we have the Aloha Aina Juice Bar in here and a Kauai CrossFit nearby, we made our mayonnaise-based sauces healthier,” he says, while methodically layering the rice with spicy ahi, blue crab, thinly sliced white onions, avocado and cucumber. He nimbly tucks the bottom over the top, swiftly using the sushi mat to produce a large, tight roll and cuts it into fat rounds with his Yanagi sushi knife.
“Most places use a half sheet of nori,” explains Matthew. “Since I use a full sheet, they’re more like sushi burritos!”
He drizzles the hapa roll with unagi sauce and a spicy sauce made with no fat Greek yogurt. There’s a final flourish of sesame seeds and furikake, then a gentle placement of tobiko (fish eggs), a nob of wasabi paste and a tangle of pickled ginger.
“We saw this place on Yelp,” explains the young Seattle woman as her partner puts a gigantic piece into his mouth and says, “This is awesome!”
“Hi sweetie!” a woman calls to Matthew as she walks into the store. “How was your Thanksgiving? Full of turkey and food comas?”
“Yes! I slept like a baby,” Matthew says, as an infectious smile lights up his handsome face.
The elderly Asian man returns for his sushi, which is now packaged in an eco-friendly take-out container.
“Saddle up guys!” Matthew calls to a middle-aged man and his pre-adolescent son. “Don’t be shy. I don’t bite!”
They order the ahi poke bowl ($14), which is more like a sushi bowl. Matthew presses warm rice into the bottom of a bowl and tops it with a small handful of ocean salad (seaweed), and fresh daikon (radish) spirals. Spicy ahi poke is put on top and the whole thing gets a drizzle of wasabi ailoi, unagi sauce and spicy yogurt sauce. Tobiko, green onions, sesame seeds and furikake are sprinkled on top. As you eat it, the flavors and textures meld with the creamy sauces, making it more interesting as you go.
“What do you need sweetie?” Matthew says to one of his regular customers.
“I’ll take the chef’s special,” says Sunday Allan, owner of Organic Functional Fitness Kauai, an elite training program located in The Shops at Kukuiula.
“I crave his sushi and I trust him,” she tells me.
Matthew brings her roll, placed in a take-out container and says, “It’s got ahi, lobster, crab, striped marlin, goat cheese, avocado and cucumber.”
He tops it with green onions, dried shrimp, and a side of wasabi paste.
“Sick! This makes me happy!” she exclaims.
Makai Sushi, 2827 Poipu Road, Koloa, can be reached at 639-7219. It’s open everyday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Marta Lane, a Kauai-based food writer since 2010, offers food tours and is the author of “Tasting Kauai: Restaurants – An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island.” For more information, visit www.TastingKauai.com.