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Casual Dining?

Two new celebrity-chef restaurants, Cassis and Nobu Waikiki, test the limits of “casual dining.”

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As far as I can tell, it’s just standard butterfish—which is made in Hawaii from a whole range of fishes, including cod. Nobu’s marinade doesn’t seem any different either—mirin, miso, a little sugar, perhaps some sake. Through some combination of ingredients and technique, it ends up demonstrably, immediately, better. Said one of the boys, “A lot of local Japanese restaurants are going to get their chopsticks handed to them.”

Then, improbably, we were handed the only misstep of the evening, a steak. It wasn’t a bad steak, served in the large ceramic container in which it was roasted, but after the remarkable succession of seafood, this seemed like an intrusion. Too chewy, too forced, too American, too heavy.

The “new style” sashimi at Nobu is just sizzling sashimi in ponzu, but the dish is executed at a very high level.

In a side dish, however, we got mushrooms—diminutive enoki mushrooms, shiitake, masutake—cooked up in some miraculous shoyu-based sauce that was probably deglazed from the pan with sake. This was served with the world’s thinnest asparagus spears, not even a drinking straw in diameter. The mushrooms fit the meal so much better than the beef that they disappeared long before we worked our way through the steak.

We’d faltered on the steak. But when our server Abigail, came back and asked if we were ready to move on to sushi, we shook our heads. “One more dish, then?” she asked. “Lobster?”

The right question. It was a whole lobster, not a huge one, split, tossed with yet more mushrooms and a butter sauce zapped up with pepper and wasabi. The aroma alone was good enough to eat. A fitting climax to the hot dishes, and back on track with the seafood.

“Which sushi would you like?” asked Abigail. Ahi, of course, plus ama ebi and, please, some more of those scallops. “The soft shell crab roll is also a specialty,” said Abigail. OK, one of those.

When the blue lacquer bowl of sushi arrived, real lacquerware, not plastic, it was worth waiting a whole meal for. The soft shell crab was still warm in the middle, and crispy, if only because around the nori was a layer of paper-thin fresh daikon. The ahi was, naturally enough, deep red and flavorful. But then things really got interesting. The ama ebi were plump, perfectly textured, sweet. And the scallops—they will haunt your dreams.

The omakase dinner did not come with dessert, but we had come too far to falter. Desserts are perhaps Nobu’s biggest concession to “international” style.

The thoroughly unJapanese “bento box” held a melting chocolate cake, plus that cliché of local Japanese restaurants, green tea ice cream.

There were some better things in store, starting with the unexpected flavors of a mandarin orange sorbet atop a praline crunch and cinnamon panna cotta, topped with a little Kona coffee foam.

You had to applaud whatever pastry chef took a look around Hawaii and came up with an Island-style haupia, topped with mango and li hing mui jellies and squirted with a foam made from pineapple sake. (One of the boys, not content with the excess we’d demonstrated so far, ordered a carafe of a similar fruit sake to accompany dessert. I tasted it. Good as Nobu’s sake tends to be, it was an utter disappointment.)

But the best dessert was both the most Japanese and most Western. Adzuki beans were layered between millefeuille, deep-fried, sliced and served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Very refined, very adult, not too sweet, unexpected.

Boy’s Night Out wound to a close, with everyone happy. Eyebrows were raised, but nobody went into cardiac arrest, when the check topped $700 with tip. Those bamboo containers of sake at $30 a stalk added up.

Even though we’d ordered the $95 omakase, the restaurant detailed the bill. Later, I ran a spreadsheet, and not counting dessert and coffee and alcohol, we’d spent $89 apiece for food.

You might try to exert more restraint when you go. But Nobu is so relaxed and easy, you forget you’re in a deceptively casual restaurant.

John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.

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,July

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