Itadakimasu, Five Times
We check out a gaggle of new Japanese restaurants—including two dueling buffets.
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Waikiki Beach Walk
226 Lewers St.
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., weekdays only; dinner nightly 5 p.m. to midnight
Major credit cards, $6 validated parking.
Kaiwa is an example of why Kochi needs to step it up a little. An outgrowth of a smaller restaurant on Makaloa Street, Kaiwa is one of the few culinary successes on the new Waikiki, Beach Walk.
It’s a little Japanese jewel box of a place. The main dining room has a tiled wall, down which runs a shimmering cascade of water. The zashiki room is a version of a tatami room, with white carpet instead of tatami mats, white tables, little white pillows with just enough back support to make sitting through a whole meal with your feet in a well comfortable. The room’s set off from the restaurant by a beaded curtain, except the beads are actually bright fiber optics. The food’s as stunning as the décor. In my view, the best strategy is to start trying small plates at random, all the unexpected little pupu.
For instance, the renkon cheese yaki. This dish is more or less a grilled cheese sandwich, with lotus root instead of bread. The crunch of lotus root against the warm, flowing, oozy protein punch of melted cheese makes this an experience perfect for drinking Dewazakura Oka, that most congenial of sakes.
Don’t miss the octopus. It’s imported from the port city of Akashi, near Kobe, famous for having the longest suspension bridge and best octopus in Japan. Akashi octopus manages the perfect texture, poised between chewy and chewable. Here, it’s grilled with tsubugai—called in English a whelk, a large shellfish that has the good taste to dine on clams, lobsters and crabs.
You encounter whelks on Italian menus as scungilli. Kaiwa gives this dish an Italian treatment with a frizzle of fervent pesto and some cherry tomatoes, topped with basil. It costs $18 for a small portion and is well worth it.
Even the kabocha pumpkin gains a faint Italian accent—glistening with olive oil, mixed with asparagus, dotted with some crispy bits of bacon and sprinkled with some kind of garlic crumb mixture.
The miso soup comes with some surprises—a few of the baby abalone now being cultivated on the Big Island, tiny and tender in their nacreous shells.
Left to my own devices, I would have eaten my way through the entire appetizer menu. But two items on the entree menu intrigued my three companions. One was a hamburger—really. A juicy mound of ground beef topped with an emphatic brown demiglace and a fair-size piece of foie gras. Not, I suppose, classic Japanese cuisine, more like a solid hunk of American eatin’, with a touch of Japanese refinement.
The second large plate—or rather bowl—was a Japanese-style loco moco. First, a bed of fried rice with garlic tomatoes and onion. Next, an egg, light, airy, cooked tamago style. On top of the egg, a ladle of beef sirloin stew.
I know comfort foods are supposed to be something you encounter in childhood. Still, this dish provided such a depth of comfort, I was sad my childhood had been deprived of it.
Having split two entrées among the four of us, we had a little room left for sushi, made with kampachi aquacultured on the Big Island.
On to dessert. These were better than symbolic desserts, though I thought sakura monaka skirted the line—an elaborate flower-shaped pastry crisp filled with dabs of bean paste, mochi balls and an ice cream flavored with cherry blossoms (it tasted a lot like vanilla to me, but my experience eating cherry blossoms is limited).
Then came some real kick-butt Western desserts—a crepe filled with bananas and drizzled with chocolate, the molten chocolate cake that’s spread to every restaurant in town from Roy’s.
But the best dessert was in fact Japanese—a granite made of yuzu, a Japanese citrus somewhere between a lemon and a mandarin orange. This was billed as a sorbet, but it was not. A sorbet, like an ice cream, has to be constantly stirred while freezing to give it an even texture. A granite is easier: You freeze it in a block, then chip it into small pieces. The small chips of yuzu ice melted on the tongue into a cool citrus haze.
We managed to spend about $60 a person here, not all that much more than the bargain places, and the food was enough to blow us away. Next time, I’m going to just go nuts on the appetizers.
Photo by Monte CostaThe Kapahulu roll is a signature dish at Shigezo. The restaurant specializes in tofu–so the sushi is wrapped in yuba, a soymilk product.
808 Kapahulu Ave.
Dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Major credit cards, free parking in the Go Bananas parking lot across the street.
Shigezo has taken over the space once held by a restaurant called 808. With its open front and rich wood interior, 808 glowed in the night as you drove down Kapahulu Avenue. Unfortunately, as a place to eat it was stultifyingly boring.
I’d prefer to see Shigezo meet a happier fate. Unfortunately, it seems to have built a reputation as a tofu restaurant. Although tofu’s trendy in Japan, it seems to me that notion might be the kiss of death in Honolulu.
Let’s point out that, no matter how you feel about tofu, Shigezo is a nice little restaurant, in an appealing space, with more on the menu than bean curds.
That said, it would seem to be a shame to eat here and not order the tofu sampler. The tofu itself is remarkably light and clean tasting, and the sampler presents it three appetite-perking ways—mixed with sesame and seasonings as tofu “poke;” slathered in a deep red, formidably spicy “Kilauea” sauce; and deep-fried in cubes half-immersed in a deeply flavored dashi.
If you are not tofu’d out by that point, I suggest the tofu cakes with crab on top, broiled with plenty of butter, the plate dotted with a sweet Thai chili sauce.
But, as you sip your sake, there’s plenty more to explore–a whole sushi bar full of things like unagi and hamachi, fresh crab and ikura. For $1 extra, the chef will top your ikura with a raw quail egg, which seems to bind the flavors and textures together. Plus it looks seriously cool, the little yellow, round yolk atop the bright orange salmon roe.
The signature Kapahulu roll was red, white and green–‘ahi, tofu and avocado. It was wrapped in creamy white yuba, the thick skin that forms when you let soymilk sit. Yuba’s just firm enough to wrap a sushi, but yields appealingly to the bite.
The most remarkable things out of the kitchen are the fusion dishes from young chef Joe Almaguera, who’s come up with some fun plates.
His deep-fried cuttlefish legs are sort of French fries of the sea, with curry spices in the coating and a curry aioli.
Finally, he’s put a new wrinkle on fish and poi. He bundles ahi poke in a nori, and deep-fries the whole bundle, lightly searing the ahi, and serves it with a drizzle made from poi, rice vinegar and sugar, a sort of sweet-sour jelly. We ate one, thought about it a minute, and asked the waitress for another—and to meet the chef.
When Almaguera showed up, reluctantly, at the table, we asked how he had come up with the dish. “I think I was drunk one night,” he said. “But I always write down everything I do, so when I went back to it, it was pretty good.”
Compared to his other work, Almaguera’s soymilk experiments fall flat—I’d stay away from the cream-style soymilk soups and the soymilk coconut creme brulee–dishes in which both flavor and texture seem to be awry. How to describe the flavor of soymilk? If it were a sound, it would go BlahNK! WahNK! on your tongue, like a massive brass instrument in the hands of someone who didn’t know how to play.
None of that kept the three of us from having a good time—it was $160 well spent. Gochisosama deshita.
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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