Izakayas in Honolulu

To me, an izakaya is the perfect restaurant concept.


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As stylish as they come: the new Izakaya Shinn on King Street doesn’t look like Tokyo.  It’s New York City Cool.

Once in Tokyo, I found a tiny izakaya, a sit-down sake shop.  Can’t tell you the name, because I couldn’t read the sign.

Unlike every izakaya I’ve been in since, it was cheap. Everything, including sake, was 300 Yen (less than $3 at the time). It had a display of plastic food, so I could point to what I wanted.

One night I sat down next to a Japanese businessman with a little English, Haruhiro Utsumi (“Call me Harry”). Harry worked 12-hour days, six days a week, and when he was done, he said, he liked to DRINK SAKE!

That we proceeded to do. With food, of course. Harry may be the only person in the world who could talk me into eating deep-fried tofu on a stick, if that’s what it was.

We spent three to four hours talking about everything from baseball to world peace. When Harry left to catch the last train home, I realized he’d picked up the tab for the sake.

That evening may be why, of all the restaurant concepts in the world, my personal favorite is the izakaya. It’s a place to relax and drink with friends (or in this case, make one).

It’s not just about drinking. An izakaya isn’t an izakaya without food. Only the young and foolhardy drink without eating. More than that, eating is social. You don’t want individual plates. An izakaya puts food in the center of the table for all to share. It’s a simple formula: decent drink + good food + the warmth of friendship.

The same formula applies to great wine bars (say, Vino) and pubs (say, Murphy’s). However, in Honolulu, we’re fortunate that we’ve imported izakaya straight from Japan. Hawaii izakaya invariably call themselves sushi bars, but a true izakaya needs a kitchen, pumping out plates that perk up both the appetite and the spirits.

This month, hitting izakaya around town, I stumbled across some real finds, just like that night in Tokyo. No Harry this time, but a lot of fun.

 

Sushi Izakaya Gaku

1329 S. King St, (808) 589-1329, Monday - Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., (Reservations from 5 to 7 p.m.), Limited parking, major credit cards

 


As luxurious as nigiri sushi comes: the lightly torched toro at Gaku.

Tough to get a reservation at Gaku. Tough to find it. Tough to park.

Worth the trouble, though.

The deliberate rustic interior of Gaku just feels right, welcoming. One keynote of the décor is fish hung to dry on bamboo racks.

Then a double take: In a place so old-school Japanese, the waiter is a sizeable haole who looks like a lifeguard.

Daniel Nevis was, in fact, an Oahu lifeguard. He told his surfing buddy, sushi chef Manabu Kikuchi, that if he got his own place, he’d come to work for him.

“It was kind of a joke,” says Nevis. “But a couple of years ago, he opened this and here I am.”

Nevis, bilingual, has transformed himself into a respectful, but friendly izakaya server. You need a guide for Gaku’s multipage menu, written in that peculiar Japlish amalgam of Japanese and English favored by Honolulu izakaya. “Try numbers 11, 20, 30,” he said.

We followed his instructions to the number, beginning with No. 11: Negihamachi, a bowl of it propped on a larger bowl of crystalline ice.

Negi are simply Japanese green onions. The finely chopped hamachi was topped with onion and a raw quail egg. You mixed it, scooped out some onto a piece of nori, rolled it up and popped it into your mouth. There was the crunch of nori, then the wondrous soft, almost buttery texture created by the egg and the oil in the hamachi.

It was hard to know what No. 20, “tako marinate basil fumi,” might be. Octopus, of course, slices of it, each topped with a basil leaf, in a bright citrus and garlic sauce. Good, startling, though the basil tended to overwhelm the taste of the octopus.

The only disappointment was No. 30: Baked King Crab, plenty of real crab, but dull after the pyrotechnics of the previous dishes.

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