Japanese Kaiseki in Honolulu
Kaiseki: Now and Zen: The evolution of an austere diet of Zen monks into contemporary dining experiences at Nanzan Giro Giro, Hakkei and Wada.
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The typical kaiseki progression—sashimi, a grilled dish (chicken, scallop and watercress), stewed dish (lotus dumplings)—closes out with a large nabe bowl, appearing giant after the Lilliputian servings before it. In went ankou, or monkfish, one of the ugliest fish out there, flat and wide, with two bulging eyes on its topside, wide fish lips framing so many menacing teeth it makes a piranha look docile. For this meal, it was chopped into harmless, white chunks, giving no hint of the Facebook photo Masahara had posted earlier, of the ankou splayed out like a victim in Silence of the Lambs. The Japanese, I think, are best at rendering horrific ingredients into civilized bites.
While Morimoto tries to ingratiate Japanese flavors to the American palate (Tuna pizza! Foie gras!), Hakkei does not make concessions. It is, like Nanzan, subdued. Also, like Nanzan, there’s a care in sourcing seasonally. Kaiseki chefs know that there isn’t much seasonality to Hawaii ingredients, so they import seasonal ingredient cues. In dining at Hakkei the same month as Nanzan, I found shirako (the last of the winter season) and butter burr (signifying early spring) in both dinners, much the way wild leeks flood menus in New York come springtime.
611 Kapahulu Ave., 737-0125, restaurantwada.com.
Kaiseki: six courses for $60.
Ála carte price range: $6 (vegetables in a black sesame dressing) to $62 (Washugyu tongue and harami for two.)
Wada isn’t initially part of my kaiseki research. It’s only when I order the set menu here that I recognize a kaiseki-like course progression: six courses that start with zensai and show off a range of temperatures and techniques, from simmered to fried to ishiyaki, all exquisitely prepared and arranged. When I ask the chef, Takanori Wada, if he considers what he does kaiseki, he doesn’t really say no. He throws a couple of phrases around to describe his food, like “new Japanese,” “a combination of yakiniku and kaiseki,” and “family-style kaiseki.” Perhaps you know something has entered the mainstream when it’s been bastardized, like “tapas,” now the catch-all term for small portions on small plates, not just for Spanish bar snacks.
He is adamant that Wada is not an izakaya, however. It’s a bit more serious, more formal than that. To show me how serious this place is, he tells me to look around. Wada is where the old Tokkuri Tei used to be. I hardly recognize it. The whole place has been elegantly finished in cherry wood, from the cabinets in the kitchen to the whole slabs serving as tabletops. What used to be full windows facing the parking lot has now been walled off, with just a long sliver of glass through which you can glimpse the outside world, if only to reassure you that it’s much more pleasant to be inside. “This is Japanese,” Wada emphasizes. “Clean. Everything is clean, the bathroom, plate, servers.”
It’s beautiful, and the food even more so. The seven-course menu, which changes about every two months, recently included a fried, mashed lotus root dumpling, sticky like mochi, in a yin and yang of sauces, sweet kabocha squash, and thickened ginger shoyu.
The ishiyaki course—a hot stone grill and thin slices of tongue presented on black slate—is simple enough, but it illustrates Wada’s dedication. An entire page of the menu is devoted to describing this course: the provenance of the beef (washugyu, a Black Angus and wagyu cross raised in Oregon); the dipping sauce, a mix of shoyu from Japan and fresh squeezed lemon juice; and the tongue, hand-sliced.
The server instructs us to sear each slice for seven seconds on one side, three seconds on the other, which we do religiously for fear of ruining these perfect slices. (I do find it ironic, though, given the precision of everything else, that we are left to shoulder the burden of cooking the main course, in the process of which we may make or break this dish. Fortunately, however, we successfully cook the meat and savor the heat of tongue right off the grill, its slight caramelization, its tender snap.)
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