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Dining: In Search of Sake

Or, the curse of the Sake Column


(page 3 of 4)

A sashimi plate with toro, aji akule, shima-aji imported from Japan.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

Our sushi included some wonders: sweet raw shrimp, ama ebi, topped with sea urchin, uni. A thin, halfbeak needlefish called sayori. In addition to the nigiri sushi, Wong wrapped the silver fish skin around a skewer and torched it, so it was full of the salty, potent, fishy flavors that go so well with sake.

In the meantime, the ladies had ordered “lollipops”—little lamb chops, marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Whole Kauai shrimp, rolled in cornstarch and deep-fried. And hotate kushikatsu, some sweetheart little fresh bay scallops, skewered and deep-fried in panko. Wong’s serious about food; he needs his own place with a full kitchen.

Malcolm and I would pause from time to time to taste the cooked offerings. “I can’t remember which of the sakes went with the lamb,” he said. “Do you?”

No, maybe both.

The ladies proceeded to dessert, a vanilla panna cotta saved from blandness by a nicely tannic green-tea sauce. Plus two orders of candy-topped cream puffs, one with chocolate chips and another with almond crunch, made by Wong’s girlfriend for his restaurant.

Malcolm has character. Resisting dessert entirely, he ordered a spicy tuna roll. He wanted to make a point: A spicy roll went perfectly with his Kamoizumi Nigori Ginjo, a sake with a poetic name, “Summer Snow.”

It looks like snow, or maybe like a snow globe in a sake bottle. Nigori sakes are unfiltered, so they still have bits of rice suspended in them, making them thick and sweet.

 “Nigori sake is an acquired taste for most people,” says Malcolm, “but it’s dynamite with hot foods.” If you are looking for a first nigori to sample, “Summer Snow”—with its restrained sweetness and crisp acidity—would be a logical place to start.

Dinner was an unanticipated pleasure. The food was right on, perfect with the sake. I was about to go on and on about how talented and serious Wong was, how you really had to try his food.

Then the curse of this column struck again.

Wong and Natsunoya suddenly parted ways. Natsunoya’s sushi bar was closed. Natsunoya plans to renovate, then reopen the sushi bar. It may have karaoke when it reopens, but it won’t have Wong. I look forward to the day when he opens his own small place. He’s worth finding.

Malcolm and Nadine’s Sake Shop mercifully remains open, 1461 South King St., 947-7253. sakeshophawaii.com.

Genius Lounge Sake Bar & Grill
346 Lewers St.  // 922-2822   //
Daily 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Parking difficult (try the pay lot next door), major credit cards.

Sake glasses in a traditional masu, a square wooden box traditionally used to measure rice. Now it's main use is to serve sake.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

“Where’s the restaurant? This is a clothing store,” said my wife. “It’s full of paisleys and tie-dyes; the ’60s never left.”

“The store, believe it or not, has a sake bar upstairs,” I said, “I hope they don’t realize that once we eat at a place, it immediately closes.”

“Don’t tell them,” she said. “You promised me katsu and fried rice.”

To get away from the TVs over the bar, we ended up on the lānai, fitted with metal outdoor furniture, overlooking the street and the loading dock of the DFS Galleria. In the food blogs, Genius Lounge gets described as “hip.” Perhaps I’m immune, but it just seemed to me reasonably pleasant.

The diverse pūpū menu was reasonably pleasant also, not as dazzling as Wong’s food at Natsunoya, but far better than you’d expect in a cocktail lounge. The heavily breaded pork katsu was respectable enough. The fried rice was rife with fiery kim chee and enriched with a fried egg. The citrus pepper chicken wasn’t particularly citrus-y, but the chicken had been grilled, keeping the skin, losing the fat and punching up the flavor.

Two items hooked my attention. The menu described the first as pork and vegetable skewers—an understatement. A little bundle of tiny enoki mushrooms and a big green shishido pepper, both grilled, tied up in a strip of flavorful grilled pork. There were two of these on the plate, and I could have eaten three or four plates if I hadn’t filled up on the tarama.

Given that we were in a sake bar and tarama involves fish eggs, you’d expect this to be a Japanese dish. But it’s Greek—full name: taramasalata. To stretch the flavors you mix pungent cod roe in something, in this case, mashed potatoes. Sounds odd, I know, but people have been eating it for centuries.

Genius’ presentation, arrayed on a gold-colored plate, was cross-cultural: a bowl of tomato salsa and a bowl of Boursin, the commercial cheese spread.

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