Honolulu’s Japanese Food Guide: Where to Find Izakaya
To me, an izakaya is the perfect restaurant concept.
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Tokkuri-Tei has terrific Big Island baby abalone (here topped with uni), but it’s a lot easier to eat if you ask them to slice it.
This was the third Tokkuri-Tei location I’ve been to. The first was on Sheridan Street, behind a vast empty lot that became Walmart.
The Sheridan place was even more hole-in-the-wall than your average hole-in-the wall, an oddly shaped room, filled with weird angles and even stranger décor, testaments to the oddball humor of owners Kazu Mitake and Hideaka “Call me Santa, like Santa Claus” Miyoshi.
After Sheridan Street came a strip mall space on Kapahulu, flourescent lit, average-looking despite the antic decor, no room between the tables, boxes stacked in the hallways, every chair filled, the service less than stellar.
I hated the space, but eventually adjusted. Why? Because I loved the onomimono (drinks) and oshinagaki (tasty tidbits) on the 12-page menu tacked to the wall in plastic page protectors. I had some good times there.
Then the news: Tokkuri-Tei had moved to the old Sam Choy’s/Sergio’s/Ranch House location above Hee Hing.
It was a pleasure to see a small, highly personal restaurant go big time. But an upscale Tokkuri-Tei?
Sort of. Like the old location on Sheridan Street, the Sam Choy space has always been weirdly angled, an odd layout for a dining room.
The sushi bar, once Sam Choy’s display kitchen counter, looks great with its rainbow array of banners. And there’s actual space between the tables.
But otherwise the partners have done their best to downscale the place—hundreds of paper cochin lanterns, scores of shikishi (signed bits of art board) all over the walls, plus the usual antic décor items.
The total effect? Odd. But that’s always been the Tokkuri-Tei design ethos.
A bigger shock: Tokkuri-Tei always had oceans of sake, poured out in generous portions. The new space opened without a liquor license. Tokkuri-Tei without sake?!
Fortunately, someone tipped me off. I was taking a friend who’s not a serious sake fan. She’s easy to make happy, though. Just bring along an expensive bottle of champagne.
The service was much better, a new crew of young waitresses, a little inexperienced, but attentive.
That left the food, which seemed to have lost some of its sparkle. The famous spider roll was a tad fishy. The potatoes and octopus was heavy on potatoes and light on octopus. The negi and chicken kushiyuki was overgrilled, the negi small, the whole thing charred black.
This being Tokkuri-Tei, there were some good things. Deep-fried nori chips topped with spicy chopped ahi. The ever reliable and beautifully presented eggplant yaki.
Some excellent asparagus and pork. “What is that great flavor?” asked my friend. “Seasoned with shoyu, cooked in butter,” I said. “Called bah-tah.”
Don’t miss the Big Island smoked pork skewers, seasoned, smoky, sweet, powerful. If we hadn’t been near the end of the meal, I’d have ordered another couple of skewers.
Instead, we decided to cruise to a stop with some sushi. The sushi was strange. The hamachi came in big untrimmed chunks. We just had to pick them up in our fingers and dip the fish in the shoyu, ignoring the little squished finger of rice underneath.
That was doable. Not the abalone. The waitress told us she was under an injunction to sell the specials and that we should try the Big Island abalone sashimi. OK, but what we got were two whole abalone on the shell, baby abalone, but still too big to pick up and try to crunch through.
I finally sent them back to the sushi bar to get sliced. “Ah,” said my friend, “whole they’re hell, sliced they’re heaven.”
For dessert, some wonderful yuzu sorbet, just the sort of thing to eat when you’re full anyway.
The bill was one of the most reasonable I’ve ever signed at Tokkuri-Tei, $120 counting the generous tip to the waitress who was working her way through nursing school to support her 3-year-old son.
Then I remembered: no liquor tab, just $5 a head for corkage on the champagne.
449 Kapahulu Ave., (808) 732-6480, open weekdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.