D.K. Kodama has opened four new restaurants in the past six months.
D.K. Kodama, usually the most ebullient of restaurateurs, today sounds a little tired.
"Yes, I am," he says. "It's been stressful opening four restaurants since August." Those four bring Kodama's total up to seven, four on O'ahu, three on Maui.
It's the boldest expansion of a local restaurateur since the heady days of the mid-'90s, when several of the Hawai'i regional chefs, notably Roy Yamaguchi, Jean-Marie Josselin and Sam Choy, were opening restaurants at a rapid clip. For all but Yamaguchi, the recession hit hard.
"I think about that all the time," says Kodama. "I hope to learn from their experience. But that's no reason not to grow, once you get started."
Kodama started in 1996 when he opened up a sushi bar in Maui's Kapalua Shops. In the beginning, the sushi bar was hot, the kitchen was not. So Kodama and a series of chefs went to work on a small-plate menu-dazzling stuff like Thai 'ahi carpaccio in light fish-red pepper-lime sauce; sizzling in hot peanut oil; rock shrimp cake, topped with crispy Chinese noodles, in a powerful ginger-lime-chili butter.
For lack of a better term, Kodama began calling his food Asian tapas. Tapas, were invented in the wine bars of Andalusia in Spain. Small plates would cover the fino glasses on the bar, probably originally to keep the fruit flies out of the sherry. Enterprising bodega owners would add to the plate a tidbit of food-a slice of Serrano ham, some fresh anchovies or Manzanilla olives.
Tapas evolved into a cuisine, into dishes like meatballs in almond sauce or a salad of cod and oranges, not much like the food pouring out of the kitchen at Sansei. But with his eclectic, Hawai'i-tuned tastebuds and his small plates, Kodama had stumbled onto a powerful concept. Sansei was a casual place where you could eat Island flavors from a whole range of cultures in the pass-the-plates-around-the-table way that Islanders like to eat.
Sansei got hot and O'ahu beckoned. By 2000, Kodama was scouting locations. "What we should have done was take the Sansei in Kapalua and drop it somewhere in Honolulu," says Kodama. Instead, he ended up taking the Black Orchid location in Restaurant Row-more than twice the size of the Kapalua Sansei.
"Kapalua was manageable, here we fumbled. The restaurant was too big, we tried too many specials, made people wait." Plus, this Sansei opened for lunch, doing, essentially, plate lunches. The lunch and dinner menus were so different, notes Kodama, "and the dinner guests hated lunch and the lunch people didn't like the dinner menu."
Still, the Sansei at Restaurant Row was far from a disaster. "We were there five years, made a penny or two," says Kodama. "In the meantime, Maui was really taking off for us." He opened another Sansei in Kïhei, this time replicating the Kapalua restaurant. "We knew the right size by then."
The opportunity to right-size the Honolulu Sansei came with a move to the Waikïkï Beach Marriott.
Of course, nothing's that simple. Instead of moving one restaurant, Kodama ended up opening four.
The first, of course, was the transplanted Sansei, now plenty big at half the size. The new location is, in restaurant terms, hallowed ground. For more than a decade, it housed Honolulu's premiere special-occasion restaurant, The Third Floor.
The problem? The Third Floor was huge, as big as the Black Orchid space. Ever ambitious, Kodama took the whole space-and then split it. His original plan was to partner with a friend who had steak houses in Connecticut. When, at the last minute, the friend got cold feet about expanding to Honolulu, Kodama decided to go ahead anyway: "Hey, I love steak."
The steak house, although it shared a bar with Sansei, was separate-dining room, kitchen, chef, dry-aging room for Kodama's favorite steaks. Its original name, Sansei Steak House, sounded like a teppan restaurant; it was renamed D.K.'s. "They talked me into naming it for myself," says Kodama. "Sort of embarrassing."
With two restaurants at the Marriott, Kodama still had six years on his Restaurant Row lease. Fortunately, he had not one, but two ideas about what to do with it.
In August 2003, he'd opened a second Kapalua restaurant called Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar. The wine program, done in consultation with master sommelier Chuck Furuya, was so extensive, it ended up lining what had previously been a golf course clubhouse with wine storage units. The list, full of Italian rarities, with 20 wines by the glass every day, won a Wine Spectator Award its first year. On Maui, Vino began to generate a lot of buzz.
So much buzz, in fact, it seemed ripe for a branch on O'ahu. At Restaurant Row, a little used lounge seemed just perfect for "Little Vino," as Kodama and Furuya began to call it.
That still left room for a serious restaurant. Kodama had something good up his sleeve.
Since 1996, Hiroshi Fukui had been chef at L'Uraku, gaining a considerable reputation, especially for his "contemporary kaiseki dinners," a dazzling succession of highly refined, artfully presented-you guessed it-small plates.
Fukui was routinely mentioned in the same breath as Roy Yamaguchi or Alan Wong-chefs with their names on the door. But at L'Uraku, Fukui was an employee. For him, Kodama's open space was an opportunity to go out alone. He partnered with Kodama and Furuya to open Hiroshi's Eurasion Tapas.
Tapas were just the traditional Kodama small plates. Eurasion was a portmanteau word for Europe, Asian and Fusion-which pretty much summed up Fukui's cuisine.
"You'd be crazy to have Hiroshi and not do his food instead of mine," says Kodama. "That kitchen is all his. In fact, that operation's Chuck and Hiroshi's baby. I'm silent in the background."
Silent, perhaps. But not inactive. "It's great to finally have them all open. Now we're just tweaking. How do you think we're doing?"
Before our conversation, I'd eaten at all four eateries. Here's a brief tour:
Hiroshi's menu is divided into three columns: "To Start," "In Between" and "To Complete." Add on the dessert menu ("To Indulge"), and it seems like you're supposed to order a four-course meal.
You could eat four courses, but that's not what the restaurant's about. This is, in the Sansei tradition, a small-plate restaurant, with everything served family-style. I'd brought my family; they immediately started ordering a variety of things all at once.
The food, which you'd expect from Fukui, is little short of brilliant. Sashimi of kampachi sprinkled with kalamata olives, tomato, microgreens, in a citrus-chili vinaigrette-which sounds complicated, but ends up perfectly balanced. Seared scallops atop bacon and chopped takana with an eel sauce-butter, a marvel carried over from L'Uraku. Perfectly diced poke, both 'ahi and kampachi, with great texture and different flavor profiles, the 'ahi touched with onion, the kampachi with cilantro. Veal cheeks, brai-sed in red wine, soy and mirin, served over succotash.
Succotash-the very name conjures up a childhood nightmare, gagging on mushy lima beans. But in Fukui's hands, that old Native American dish stands up and sings-fresh Kahuku corn, green soy beans, diced fresh carrots, all touched by the reduced jus of the veal cheeks. I hate succotash and I ate every bite.
There was plenty to eat. Four of us went through 10 dishes, big and small, and then five desserts, including the unassuming, but delicious, vanilla bean panna cotta, with its side of mango sorbet.
Let me linger a moment on the wines. Master sommelier Furuya has long experience trying to match Hawai'i regional cuisines with wine. At Hiroshi's, he's come up with flights of wine to complement the food. The white flight includes an Italian pinot bianco, an Austrian gruner veltliner (that's a grape, which results in a crisp, but somehow spicy, white) and a dry riesling from major German producer Muller Catoir. Three two-ounce servings of remarkably food-friendly wines for $8.95.
Similarly, the red flight, all pinot noir, ranges from a deep, red Californian (Edmeades), through Furuya's own label perfumey pinot, to a Sancerre rouge, a French pinot noir so light and delicate it's almost a rosé, once again $8.95 for the whole wine lesson.
Hiroshi's, with its sea-green booths and casual feel, looks like it's poised to take off. Prices are reasonable-small plates from $7 to $12, large plates from $15 to $22.
Fukui is just warming up; one can only hope for an explosion of creativity.
Vino comes on as a wine bar, but it's really turning itself-in the Sansei tradition-into a casual small-plate bistro. The food comes out of Hiroshi's kitchen, but it owes much to Vino Maui's chef, Ruth Rasmussen, who came up with the foie gras in a port wine reduction on challah, the rich Jewish egg bread. There's plenty to eat here: asparagus on grilled bruschetta, topped with quail eggs and drizzled with white truffle oil. Calamari with sliced pepperoncini in balsamic vinaigrette.
A place called Vino must have wine. Wine buffs rave about its prices: a bottle of Silver Oak cabernet or Kistler chardonnay for $65, easily $100 anywhere else. However, to drink only cab and chard here is to miss the point. You miss wines you've never tasted, especially Italian, made from grapes like nebbiolo, vermentino or insolia. You can try wines in two-ounce pours, leaving you free to explore.My favorite find: a Brachetto d'Acqui by Coppo, a red, sweet, slightly sparkling wine from Piedmont in Northern Italy, way off the usual wine drinker's map. It's perfect with foie gras.
The friend I took to the transplanted Sansei couldn't stop raving. First about the view from the länai: "Look at this, tiki torches here, there, everywhere, the beach, the traffic, the whole urban tropical thing."
Then about the food: "Taste this foie gras sushi. It's an atomic bomb of flavor."
Sansei is Sansei. But if you haven't eaten there in a year or so, the flavors surprise you. Crisp local asparagus tempura. Delicate lightly fried tofu in a mirin-dashi. Crab and mango rolls in an assertive Thai vinaigrette.
And, of course, the "A-bomb of flavor," the nigiri sushi topped with foie gras and unagi sauce, with chilled carmelized onion.
For once I was not focused on the wine list. To me, this food called for sake-Otokoyama and Dewasansan.
We were pleasantly surprised with the check. Because we were local residents, there was a 25 percent discount on the food we'd ordered before 6 p.m. Apparently, the discount is even deeper, 50 percent, Sunday and Monday nights.
"Think I'll be back," said my friend. I resolved not to let too much time linger myself.
The steakhouse side of the Waikïkï operation is outright cozy, with a retro feel, just the sort of place to huddle your family in a booth, on a cool evening when everyone's hungry.
Everyone was hungrier than I expected. My wife, who tends toward the petite, shocked everyone by ordering the biggest steak on the menu, the 22-ounce bone-in ribeye.
"You know," I said, "for an extra $1.50 you can get that with bleu cheese butter." I thought I was being ironic.
"Sure," she said. "I'll have that."
Steakhouses tend to bring that out in people. I myself consumed sushi rolls from the Sansei side, a bowl of roasted garlic-potato soup and most of the escargot ordered by one daughter who then found herself unnerved by eating snails. I could only eat half my New York Strip in a miso-sesame seed sauce.
D.K.'s worked, even for the daughter who, this week at least, was eating no red meat. She got grilled chicken sizzling in herb butter, surrounded by fresh, slender string beans, green and yellow.
Although the food was solid, the menu, I thought, lacked focus. A steak is an entrée, like it or not, so a steakhouse is difficult to do with small plates, Sansei style. The menu perhaps tried too much, unsure of whether it was selling everything a la carte, like Morton's or Ruth Chris, or selling whole dinners-when really the latter would distinguish D.K.'s more, since it's better priced than both those over-the-top steakhouses. Kodama told me they are working on the menu: Simpler might be better. The basics are already in place.
The wines by the glass had some remarkably high-quality choices: the elegant Au Bon Climat chardonnay, for instance, or the remarkable Drew Syrah from California's hottest new maker.
Although we got full, the rest of the table ordered big, rich desserts, crème brûlée and chocolate cakes, which I could not bring myself to taste. However, let me recommend the strawberry martini-not a drink, of course, but berries, crème anglaise and a touch of fresh basil, all in a martini glass. It's the most you can manage after a meal like this.