Sushi chef David Loo and his wife Karen Ming, owners of Kaiyo Restaurant in Leawood, met in Malaysia and then moved eight times to follow either his restaurant career or hers before finally deciding to make Kansas City their home. Sushi lovers in Kansas City are forever grateful for the twist of fate that brought them here to stay.
While working for Sushi House Restaurant in Chicago, Loo was asked to relocate to Kansas City and open the first Sushi House outside of the Chicago area. Loo and Ming considered this big opportunity and made the decision to come to Kansas City and open the new place. Once the Sushi House in Town Center opened to rave reviews, the couple decided to make their move a permanent one.
“We really liked the school system we found here and decided to build a house in Olathe,” said Loo.
Loo and Ming continued to work for Sushi House in Town Center for several years. Then the couple unexpectedly decided to leave the restaurant for personal reasons and took their recipe for the very popular “The Hot Temptation Roll” with them.
“When I was with them, I really wanted to do a sushi roll that had mangos in it (as a nod to his Malaysian heritage), so Karen and I started talking about what should be in it,” Loo says. “So I created the roll with shrimp tempura, mango, and tobiko or flying fish roe, but Karen created the special fruity sauce that really is the secret to this roll.”
Sushi House could not replicate Karen’s special sauce, and without it, there was no Hot Temptation Roll, so they had to drop it from their menu. They eventually replaced it with their own version of the roll. . .complete with mangos.
The couple had no job, but they did have restaurant experience, the secret recipe, and each other. They also found they had a loyal following of well-heeled investors who loved Loo’s way with fresh fish. These angels called the couple to inquire about their plans for the future. They offered support and encouragement as the couple applied for an SBA loan.
Loo and Ming eventually decided to open a new sushi restaurant called Kaiyo allowing them to sit firmly in the driver’s seat of day-to-day operations. Loo says it’s the control that is his favorite aspect of ownership.
Located on the far south side of the strip center anchored by the Hen House at 119th and Roe, Kaiyo’s front door faces Crate and Barrel. Many refer to Kaiyo as a “hidden gem” because its tucked away location is easy to overlook. “We looked at some other areas, but our customer base is here, so we stayed,” says Loo.
A pretty little place with about fifty seats, Kaiyo is modern and stylishly decorated in light woods and black tables. Ming waits tables and runs the front of the house like a tight ship. Some days, you can even see their two children Cheyenne, 8 and Melvin, 7, sitting behind the hostess stand doing their homework.
Loo works behind the sushi bar with his lovely hand-forged Japanese Masamoto knife in his hand. Let’s face it, when it comes to really good sushi, it is a simple equation - fresh fish plus great knife skills equals excellent sushi. Loo has the math down.
Carefully unwrapping a whole tuna loin he prepped earlier in the day, Loo takes his knife using it as an extension of his arm and carefully trims the loin using long calculated cuts to form a perfect rectangular piece of ruby red tuna. From there, he runs his steel in slow sweeping motions from the base of the knife to the tip, wiping his blade between cuts, to shape the fish into domino-like tiles ready to eat. He lines the tiles of fish up like ceremonial soldiers using the tip of his knife to move them next to one another as he checks with his critical eye to see if his pieces are uniformly the same. He makes it look deceivingly simple, but in fact he is employing ancient traditional Japanese techniques.
The menu at Kaiyo is surprisingly diverse with traditional Japanese dumplings, noodles and entrees along with a creative selection of specialty rolls. Rolls to try are the Daikon Maki featuring fresh tuna, salmon, yellowtail, crab, cucumber, scallion and massago or smelt roe rolled in paper-thin slices of pickled daikon radish giving it a crisp crunch. Try the Cherry Blossom, which lives up to its name and comes out looking like a Spring on a plate, featuring fresh tuna and salmon with avocado. The Four Seasons roll is a visual stunner where Loo uses different colors of tobiko or flying fish roe to dress up a spicy tuna roll in celebration of each of the four seasons. Finally Uni, or sea urchin, is a specialty at Kaiyo. Loo sources his uni from the West Coast where most of their sea urchin is shipped off to Japan and fetches top dollar.
Loo says many people still come in and order The Hot Temptation Roll, but it’s sashimi that he prefers to prepare. Sashimi, as any good sushi chef knows, is the opportunity to flaunt your technical skills. For a chef who never cooks, or rarely touches a pot or pan to make his culinary statement, sushi chefs prize their knife skills above all others to show off their training and expertise. Sashimi is supposed to have a silky texture. In Japanese cooking the ingredients are simple, so they have to be presented in the very best way possible in order for their beauty and flavor to shine. It doesn’t get much simpler than slices of raw fish gently arching over each other stacked in ribbon-like rows intended to be eaten one type of fish at a time.
This fish tale does have a happy ending. Not only for David and Karen, but also for all of us who love to eat sushi and continue to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
4308 W 119th Street
Leawood, KS 66209