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Honolulu’s Best-Kept Secret is Out: The 808 Center

The 808 Center may be hidden behind Wal-Mart, but its reputation as a food hub is picking up.


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Sushi Murayama

The grilled misoyaki butterfish is one of the most popular dishes at this new sushi-ya.
Photos: Steve Czerniak 

In a dark-blue, long-sleeved Miller Lite tee, Ryuji Murayama looks more like a shoreline fisherman than a skilled sushi chef who drapes masterfully sliced fish over rice like a fine fabric.

 

And when he talks, it’s even more disarming.

 

“Too bad where you sitting,” he says to me, as I pull out a chair at the sushi counter of his new sushi-ya, Sushi Murayama, one day for lunch, the only time I could get a seat here. He laughs and shakes his head. “You really asking for it.”

 

​Murayama, who moved to Hawai‘i from Japan when he was 3, is nothing like the stern, intimidating sushi chefs of lore. He’s laid back, he teases his customers, he swears sometimes. I’ve even seen him sneak a piece of hakozushi, an Osaka-style pressed sushi with cured saba, crouched down behind the counter and out of the sight of patrons. (“What? It’s my restaurant,” he said, smiling, when he caught me watching him.)

 

Yet he has brought to this new restaurant a fiercely loyal following from his days at Yohei Sushi Restaurant, Tokkuri-Tei Restaurant and the now-defunct ZenShu. He knows fish suppliers by name, uses the freshest ingredients possible and never skimps or takes shortcuts.

 

When word got out in late November that he had opened his sushi bar, hidden on the third floor behind dark windows and barely any signage, this small space quickly turned into a by-reservation-only spot. Even 808 Center co-owner Olivia Ho couldn’t snag a seat. “My office is right next to the restaurant, so I went in and asked him when would be a good time to get in for lunch that day,” Ho explains. “And [Murayama] replied, ‘In two months.’”

 

This is Murayama’s first solo venture, and he relishes the freedom.

 

Hakozushi, Osaka-style pressed sushi with cured saba. Magurozuke, marinated ‘ahi.

 

“This is my dream restaurant,” Murayama told me. “I can do whatever I want.”

 

And he does. His omakase (meal with dishes selected by the chef) isn’t overly strict. The set meal usually starts at $75, though Murayama is accommodating about when you want to stop or how much you want to spend. (Sushi aficionados know how expensive omakase meals can get.) His offerings—there are dozens, and they change daily—are both classic and unique, with simple, on-point preparations for the melt-in-your-mouth fatty o-toro nigiri or the tempura butterfish. One of the most popular dishes is his magurozuke, or marinated ‘ahi, that comes as a whole, three-ounce slab of raw fish soaked in shoyu from Kyushu, topped with black sesame seeds and scallions and wrapped in seaweed from Kumamoto. It’s enough fish to make about four nigiri; he gives you the entire piece for $7.50. There’s even dessert: Both the natto ice cream—vanilla ice cream topped with corn flakes, strips of shiso and stringy natto—and the black-sesame gelato are delightful reminders that you should book your reservation now for your return visit.

 

Suite 307, 784-2100

 

Urban Bistro

Urban Bistro serves its take on popular comfort food, like the roasted garlic crème brûlée.

 

The first time I walked into Urban Bistro, I thought, “Man, this place would make great Instagram photos.”

 

And it’s true. On the back wall of the ground-floor restaurant, adjacent to an entire wall of plate-glass windows that allows natural light to stream in, is a huge mural of the historic Boston neighborhood of Beacon Hill, with its Federal-style rowhouses and brick sidewalks. You’ve probably already seen it in a background on social media, with customers sipping fruity punches or holding up small platters of grilled pizza.

 

That this was the first restaurant to open in the 808 Center in September worked out well for the complex, which has been slow to fill with the eateries it had promised. Urban Bistro became its first introduction to the public, its accidental ambassador.

 

Good thing the bistro is run by Margaret Lin, who owns a Mexican restaurant in Waikīkī. She started with a simple but interesting menu, a hip and photogenic décor, a full bar and a no-tipping policy because, as Lin says, “It’s our pleasure to serve you.”

 

“We’re leaning toward comfort food made unique, familiar food made fun, with an emphasis on freshness and creativity,” Lin says.

 

The bistro’s chicken and pudding is an example of this twist to a comfort-food staple. Grilled chicken breast is paired with a sweet-potato bread pudding and a drizzle of maple-mustard sauce, a play off the popular fried-chicken-and-waffles combo. And the Urban Pot Pie is its version of the classic chicken pot pie, with sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, snap peas, carrots and herbs, topped with puff pastry and baked to order.

 

The sliders offer variations, too, with fresh fish, slow-cooked pork or barbecue chicken. The caprese version—with roasted tomatoes, arugula, mozzarella and Parmesan crisps finished with balsamic vinegar—is a pleasant departure from the typical meat-heavy sliders. (Though applewood-smoked bacon could have added some smokiness and much-needed salt. But I digress.)

 

The standout on the dessert menu is easily the roasted garlic crème brûlée, which comes with a perfectly glassy sugar crust and fried garlic chips. The smooth, creamy custard is infused with garlic—the flavor is sweet and subtle—and the caramelized sugar makes an unlikely partner, but it works.

 

Suite 109, 396-7000 

 

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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