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Itadakimasu, Five Times

We check out a gaggle of new Japanese restaurants—including two dueling buffets.

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Kaiwa

Photo by Monte Costa

A marvel from the teppan grill at Kaiwa: Japanese octopus and whelk given an Italian touch with pesto and tomatoes.

Itadakimasu is a Japanese phrase that defies English translation. Even though it’s said before every meal in Japan, even school lunches, it means more than “Let’s eat.” Apparently, it was originally an act of obeisance, putting the dish over one’s head and thanking your feudal master for the chance to eat. Now, it’s sort of a generalized thank you—to farmers, fishermen, even nature itself for providing abundance.

I have said itadakimasu a lot lately. Honolulu has been blessed with an abundance of new Japanese restaurants. Even though I have hustled around and eaten at five of them this month, I probably haven’t caught up, there are so many.

We should be grateful Japanese food is mainstream in Hawaii. In Japan, it still has its mysteries of ritual, presentation and seasonality. In Hawaii, it’s just food. It’s impossible to think of going out with friends for drinks and pupu and not ending up with at least one Japanese dish on the table—edamame, katsu, noodles, karaage chicken, butterfish, tempura or some kind of sushi.

Japanese food is too everyday to be a mystery here. But it did strike me as a tad mysterious that there should be two Japanese buffets slugging it out side-by-side in Ala Moana Center.

Kyoto Ohsho opened at the end of last year, Tsukiji opened next door in May. They seem to be almost the same restaurant–dueling Japanese buffets at a shopping center near you.
I felt compelled to start there.

 

Tsukiji Fish Market & Restaurant

Hookipa Terrace
Ala Moana Shopping Center
1450 Ala Moana Blvd.
237-5444
Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards.

For two years, people were buzzing about the coming of Tsukiji Fish Market. “Could be Honolulu’s most exciting restaurant,” wrote the Honolulu Weekly in 2005.

The original Tsukiji outside Tokyo is a tourist attraction—the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, moving some 3,000 tons a day of everything from caviar to sardines. Along the outside are noodle stands and sushi bars, some of them famous.

Now that the Honolulu version has arrived, the excitement has ebbed considerably. The restaurant apparently has rights to the name, but few other clear ties to the original Tsukiji.

The restaurant does have a fish market–well, a fish counter fronting the mall. It was totally empty. When I asked, I was told that, yes, they had a market, but no, it wasn’t currently operational.

Outside of the market, a large bar and larger sushi bar, the vast 17,000-square-foot space looks pretty much like a dining hall with dark wooden tables and chairs—an empty dining hall; since the space is so large, it looks deserted even if there are, say, 100 patrons.

Instead of the anticipated flood of high-end seafood, Tsukiji is a buffet, of which Honolulu already has an abundant supply.

Buffets create the illusion of a bargain: one price and you can eat as much as you could possibly want. But, really, how much food can a reasonable person manage in a single meal?

Unless you’ve recently experienced starvation, you’re unlikely to eat yourself sick simply because the opportunity presents itself. Still, to give the Tsukiji buffet my best shot, I skipped lunch and took along a friend who was looking lean and hungry.

For $32.95, Tsukiji offers what looks like a massive quantity of food—until you taste it.

Under a Plexiglas sneeze guard, on a long, black, stone, double-tiered counter are arrayed tray after glass tray of sushi. Nigiri ahi, salmon and shrimp. Inside-out California and spicy ahi rolls. A white shellfish I couldn’t find a chef to identify, spattered with drips and messes of sauce. Aimed at a Hawaii audience, the offerings included bowls of ‘ahi and tako poke and plenty of inarizushi wrapped in brown auberage.

All of this was, of course, premade and, alas, little better than bento quality. The only exception was a remarkably tender squid nigiri wrapped with a fresh shiso leaf.

There was a salad bar for those foolish enough to fill up on greens and pasta, and some unhappy-looking steam-table entrees: dried-out barbecued ribs, some bony butterfish, salty mahimahi, tired shumai, remarkably tough kalbi.

The key to selling a buffet is to offer a few “luxury” foods. A chef would grill to order a small sirloin steak, cutting it and serving it with bean sprouts. “This looks good,” said my friend, “but it’s curiously tasteless.”

On platters atop ti leaves sat large mounds of shrimp–shell on to slow you down–and an even higher mound of king crab legs, the perfect high-end buffet food. The legs were so long we had to balance them on our plates. But, of course, what we were getting was chitinous exoskeleton, from which we had to extricate the meat, which in this case was disappointingly dry.

Even the short sake menu was a disappointment. We ordered something mid-range, a sake called G Genshu, which the waitress plunked down in a plastic pitcher full of ice that said “Budweiser” in big red letters on the side. The menu didn’t warn us that this was American sake, with a wickedly nasty aftertaste. “I don’t suppose it’s much of a consolation it comes in such a big bottle,” said my friend, wincing.

With sake, two buffet dinners and tip, the check was nearly $120. Usually at the conclusion of a Japanese dinner, you are to say, Gochisosama deshita–roughly, “Thanks for the meal,” but literally the phrase means, “I have feasted.” That’s not how we felt.

 
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,November

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