In Honolulu, fast-food sushi is as ubiquitous as drive-thru hamburgers. Robots stamp out sushi for conveyor belts and dollar handrolls abound. But spend some time in these sushi bars, and learn the art and joy of meticulously crafted sushi. (Omakase prices are approximate. They all depend on how much you eat and what’s available that day.)
Chirashi sushi at Kinchan.
Nigri sushi at Kinchan.
At this sushi bar hidden in Restaurant Row, there are only 12 seats, and most of the time, they’re taken by regulars. They come for omakase and a sushi menu that may not be Honolulu’s most extensive, but everything on it is quality, from tender abalone to thick coins of scallop to otoro so marbled it’s almost white. Horse mackerel is dressed with a bit of green onion and ginger to balance out its rich oiliness. No one chooses a sushi bar for its dessert, but the ending bite at Kinchan is lovely, such as jellylike mochi filled with custard and wrapped in leaves that impart a fresh, green fragrance.
$50 and up for 10 course omakase | Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd. | 534-0088
Garrett Wong, who has worked at institutions such as Yohei, knows how to deliver traditional sushi, such as those with briny, buttery uni; geoduck, sweet and lightly crunchy; and grilled anago, freshwater eel. But while most sushi bars lack full kitchens, the kitchen at Sushi ii (pronounced “ee,” meaning “good” in Japanese) also delivers memorable whole, cooked fish such as crispy fried branzino and grilled kampachi. Lately, Wong has been serving an amuse bouche of sorts: live baby abalone that arrive still squirming. If it’s not your thing, you can ask for them sautéed with garlic, rendering them more tender and less intimidating.
$60 and up for 10 course omakase | 655 Keeaumoku St. | 942-5350
Sushi purists come here to experience Seiji Kumagawa’s exacting technique. Sit at the sushi counter to watch his methodical movements—right hand rice, left hand fish, right index finger wasabi—and taste the results: loosely packed, slightly warm rice beneath precisely cut fish. It’s omakase only at the sushi counter, but there are two styles: “Japanese” and regular. The regular is the default if you’re not a Japanese national, so request the Japanese if you desire slightly more exotic fish, which might include snapper dabbed with fermented squid, clam slapped to “waken” the muscle for a firmer texture, or squid, delicately cross-hatched and torched so that it perks up like a porcupine. The Western is no slouch either, though. It offers slices of bluefin and albacore tuna in ponzu and salmon topped with a film of kelp and roasted sesame seeds. The full omakase runs around 13 courses, though you can stop at any time. If you sit at a table, you’re free to order a la carte.
$100 | 1417 S. King St. | 947-3800
Why is some of Honolulu’s finest fish located in a warehouse by the airport? Because Craig Mitchell owns a seafood import business and sets aside some of the shipments for his adjacent, no-frills sushi bar. It is simultaneously one of Honolulu’s most expensive sushi bars as well as the most casual, a place where slippers and T-shirts are not uncommon, in addition to a cooler of beer. Here, you’ll get New Zealand salmon, as luxurious as toro, and Mitch’s famous lobster sashimi, live only moments before. Fish cuts here are generous and unadulterated; light sauces or seasoning you might see adorn sushi at other regarded sushi bars are completely absent here.
$75 for Chef’s Special, a set menu with lobster sashimi | 524 Ohohia St. | 837-7774
One of the first sushi restaurants in Honolulu, Yohei retains its old-school feel—as well as its many regulars who have come since it opened some 20 years ago (sometimes we forget that there was a time when sushi wasn’t so ubiquitous). The omakase at the sushi bar is an eye opener: It might include sayori, a small, silvery needlefish, with its striking, pointy head served alongside the sushi; two varieties of toro, or fatty tuna, which practically melt like chocolate; and oysters topped with uni, tobiko and quail egg.
If you’re not up for the omakase experience, the Sushi Zen teishoku, or meal set, offers a more familiar spread that includes an excellent plate of sushi, broiled salmon, miso soup and noodles, as well as an array of beautifully arranged bites such as fried, soft tofu and curried konnyaku, like a savory, firm jello.
$50 and up for 10 course sushi omakase | 1111 Dillingham Blvd. #101 | 841-3773
A solemn, serious Sushi Nazi behind the sushi bar? Not at Morio’s Sushi Bistro, where Morio (first name only) is as boisterous as Kumagawa at Sasabune is severe. Sticklers for fish/rice ratios need not enter. What you get: an eclectic omakase menu that runs the gamut of sushi with fish sliced so thick you wonder where the rice is, to unagi topped with shredded mountain yam, to fried chicken and battered soft shell crab bites. Like we said, purists, stay away. The omakase must be requested at least 24 hours in advance. Morio’s is also BYOB.
Average $40 to $50 for omakase | 1160 S. King St. | 596-2288