Where to Find Japanese Izakayas in Honolulu
To me, an izakaya is the perfect restaurant concept.
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The food at Izakaya Nonbei is both expected, lke the miso butterfish...
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.
... and unexpected, like grilled garlic with miso paste.
And a new chef, Toshiyuki Watanabe, a veteran of the late lamented Kyo-Ya, the mainstay of Japanese cuisine in Honolulu for nearly half a century.
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.
OUR NEW FAVORITE COMFORT FOOD: GRILLED MUSUBI, HERE FROM IZAKAYA NONBEI.
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.
3108 Olu St., (808) 734-5573, open daily 5 to 10:30 p.m., limited parking, major credit cards