RESTAURANT REVIEW : RESTAURANT KAI : The Sushi Zone : Fans of Japanese food can catch a bite at this Montecito eatery, with its fresh fish--and crowds.

Where do you go for sushi in Montecito? Usually, you go on the freeway and drive to Santa Barbara.

However, you could save yourself the trouble and go to Restaurant Kai instead, as a lot of people have started to do. It must be a testimonial to the local hunger for sushi, because Restaurant Kai struggles with a classic jinx location. It's in the corner of a Von's building, where at least three other restaurants have gone under in recent years.

With a curse like that, success cannot be simply a matter of location, location, location. The proprietor, known as Kai, just does a lot of things right. He buys good fresh fish, something of an accomplishment in Montecito. And he's a hands-on owner, always on the premises, either in the kitchen or out in the dining room.

In fact, one main problem with the place is that it is too popular for its own good. There's only one sushi chef, and the wait at the sushi bar can approach 25 minutes on a Saturday night.

It's worth it, though, because that lone sushi chef is quite good. As Kai is simply Kai, the cook is simply Mark, and Mark is efficient, fast and--who ever heard of a sushi chef who wasn't?--cordial. There may be showier sushi men around, but Mark cuts an especially large portion of fish for his sushi.

His specialty, Mark's Spider Roll, is fascinating. It revolves around a crisp, soft-shelled crab, with an elusive flavor that turns out to be dried bonito and radish. A zesty combination.

However, somehow I find it sacrilegious to serve a beef roll at a sushi bar. So I was, and remain, prejudiced against the beef yakiniku roll. I can't say it was not good, but maybe I'd have enjoyed it more at a table across the room, outside the sacred precincts of the sushi bar.

When you're safely outside the sushi zone, you may want to try the restaurant's non-fishy stuff, which Kai himself cooks. There is, for instance, a ginger-dosed fried chicken-wing appetizer. For main dishes, we forged ahead fishlessly to Kai's spicy chicken (I was pleased to find it was all dark meat) and a fine sliced rib-eye steak. Both are grilled and very attractively seasoned with ginger and sesame.

But as I've said, it can get overcrowded. Remember, this really is quite a small sushi bar--or rather, a half-sushi bar. One leg of the L-shaped bar is for sushi, the other is a cocktail bar. One night when the sushi side was filled, we got to watch the bartender, Tony, at close hand. He pours a good drink, but we also noticed that he ran out of both Tanqueray gin and Absolut vodka on the same night.

Restaurant Kai seems likely to become home for Montecito fans of Japanese food. Its fish couldn't be fresher and its people do a professional job. To judge by the early crowds, this is going to turn into a popular neighborhood spot.

It will deserve it--if Kai can find that second sushi chef. But I'll tell you this; they're not about to convince me with that beef roll business.

* THE DETAILS: Restaurant Kai, 1014 Coast Village Road, Montecito. Telephone (805) 969-7565. Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Full bar. Parking lot. All major credit cards accepted. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $22 to $40.

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