Izakayas in Honolulu
To me, an izakaya is the perfect restaurant concept.
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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.”
3108 Olu St., (808) 734-5573, Open daily 5 to 10:30 p.m., Limited parking, major credit cards
Two words: Frozen sake.
“People come here just for that,” said the waitress, as my friend and I perched on the last two stools at Nonbei’s sushi bar.
She brought us one of those brick-shaped aseptic packs of Tama no Hikari, a Kyoto sake. A cardboard aseptic pack? “Wouldn’t it look better to empty that into something back in the kitchen?” I asked.
“Then it wouldn’t work,” she said. “Watch this.” She opened up the pack and as the liquid poured into the glass, it froze, turning into a sake Slurpee.
This trick requires a special refrigerator to hold the sake at the precise temperature. Nonbei has the only one of its kind in Hawaii. Even in Japan, they’re rare.
Nonbei, a tiny little space, was for decades a highly traditional izakaya, but with a change of ownership two years ago, it added, in the manner of Honolulu izakaya, a sushi counter.
Watanabe cooks to Japanese, not local tastes. Still, it’s hard to tell the difference when confronted with his hamachi roll, a large inside out roll, capped with beautiful slices of hamachi and stuffed with negihamachi, which, if my tastebuds don’t deceive me, contains a hint of sriracha sauce.
Watanabe also handles the cooked dishes, and we couldn’t get enough of his eggplant sautéed with Japanese mushrooms.
The fried chicken was a delight, boneless, golden, crunchy, alive, full of fun. And the butterfish was seriously competent.
There were some interesting sides: seaweed dipped in rice flour and deep-fried. If kaki mochi were soft, and tasted fresh instead of packaged, that’s what these tasted like.
Also unusual was the head of garlic, roasted not quite soft, then run under a broiler. You squeezed out each clove and dipped it into a sweetish red miso. I’d never had this before, it seemed to require a second pack of frozen sake.
We rounded out the meal with what has become one my favorite things—grilled musubi. Seasoned with shoyu, crunchy brown and slightly burned on the outside, these are far more fun than just rice.
In Japan, people believe that sake, being rice, takes the place of rice and noodles while drinking. It took the arrival of the musubi as a signal to stop with the frozen sake already.
Want dessert? I asked my friend. “Yes,” she said. “Formaggio’s right up the street. I want bananas Foster.”
She got it, of course, but I don’t include it in my $114 tab from Nonbei, including tip.