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Honolulu’s Japanese Food Guide: Where to Find Izakaya

To me, an izakaya is the perfect restaurant concept.


(page 2 of 5)

Sushi Izakaya Gaku

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.


I was out with the boys, and consequently, we were steadily disappearing 300ml bottles of Hakusturu Junmai Gingo, a sake that seemed rice-y on its own, but happy with food.


We got happier and happier, anyway. Nevis guided us to dishes we might never have ordered. Uni wrapped in kue, a Japanese kelp bass.  Brilliant stuff: firm, almost translucent raw fish twirled around soft and remarkably sweet uni, with a layer of shiso leaf to brighten the taste. Shiso somehow works better with fish than basil.


Then, something I’d never encountered, soft tofu (the restaurant called it “loose”) with jelly. The jelly turned out to be made from one of those Japanese bonito-based dashi, turned, as it were, into a consommé. It was like a soup, a really good Japanese soup, except solid.


Against my advice (“Raw octopus is slimy”), Nevis talked the boys into ordering raw octopus sashimi. Bright white, cold-water octopus from Hokkaido, firmed up with citrus, I think, and sprinkled with yuzu zest. My companions took great delight in pointing out I’d been wrong.


“Are you two still hungry?” I asked, as we killed yet another bottle of Hakusturu. Yes.


Steak perhaps would slow them down. “You can have a regular steak any time,” said Nevis. He suggested what the menu called “cow tongue original stake.”


Thanks to my German grandfather, I like tongue. Any doubts the boys had, Nevis talked them past. This tongue, with its complement of sautéed vegetables, tasted like beef all right, but richer than steak with a deep rumbling of organic notes. Wonderful, especially with a slight touch of mustard.


Still hungry? Because we had been neglecting the sushi bar, Nevis suggested lightly torched toro nigiri.


I passed. I was so full toro would have been wasted on me. The boys found it the perfect dessert.


I’m sure toro impacted my $239 tab, but the boys are worth it.


One had brought along his serious camera and snapped all the food. When he e-mailed me the pix, he wrote: “Looking at these makes me want to go back and order the exact same things.”


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.


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