Dining: Taking Suggestions
This month, our restaurant critic let other people decide where he should eat.
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Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center // 2201 Kalakaua Ave. // 922-9722 // Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m. // Three-hour validated parking, major credit cards
I was meeting two old friends for dinner. One is now a Buddhist priest in Washington, who flew in for a visit. The other is a friend in the music business, whose enterprises often take him to Japan. (Yes, I know, I have diverse acquaintances.)
“Scott’s staying in Waikiki,” said the music impresario. “I know where we should eat: Chibo. You’ll love it. It’s like eating in Japan.”
It sounded great to me. But when I got there, my heart sank.
I’d eaten at Chibo all right, some 15 or 20 years ago. It’s an okonomiyaki restaurant, and broad-minded as I am, that particular Japanese fast food is not high on my list of things to eat again.
Okonomiyaki is a wheat flour-cabbage-yam pancake, and every bit as good as that sounds. You can top it with a variety of ingredients, from beef to natto. To choke it down, people routinely eat it slathered with a thick brown ketchup-shoyu-Worcestershire sauce, which blocks out the other flavors, perhaps mercifully. Sometimes they throw mayo on it as well. Hardly the most refined moment in Japanese cuisine.
“I am not eating any damn pancakes,” I said to my friends. They were gathered at the bar, our Buddhist friend Scott drinking only tonic and lime, my music friend drinking a Stoli martini. “Forget about pancakes,” said my musical friend. “Here’s the menu. You can choose.”
Chibo looked entirely different to me, clearly redone after two decades. We sat at a comfortable four-top near the bar, me drinking Masumi sake from an artful glass sake holder with a hidden blue compartment full of ice. I started ordering things, not without interference.
“We have to get the poke, it’s the best in town,” said my musical friend. Not a huge portion, but nice, bright ‘ahi in a better-than-usual sesame oil-based dressing. What really made it festive was the haystack of julienne vegetables—onions, beets, carrots, daikon.
There was also a burst of enthusiasm for the tataki—paper-thin slices of roast beef, thoroughly rare but not raw, tender, with a dipping sauce (Japanese kitchens will never tell you, but, my guess: shoyu, dashi, mirin, daikon, green onion, touches of citrus and goma oil).
My friends also insisted on the edamame, a suggestion that made me yawn inside, until I tasted them. Now there are slam-bang edamame recipes all over town—ginger! garlic! shoyu! oyster sauce! sesame oil! chili pepper! They are often addictive, but they tend to be far from subtle, messy and oily. This one had plenty of garlic, toasted dark, but not bitter. It also had citrus (yuzu, I think) that cut the oil and refined the taste. “Best ever,” said my musical friend.
“I have to say I enjoy these,” said our Zen friend, with equanimity.
OK, now that the more or less normal stuff was out of the way, I went to work.
Seaweed salad with jellyfish. This was a kaleidoscope of greens and seaweeds—red, green, shades of purple, fresh and crunchy. Woven through were strips of jellyfish—tan, soft, sweet and salty, with a marine tang. My Buddhist friend lost his equanimity: “No, no, you two eat that.” We did, praising so much its freshness and the contrast of textures that our friend gave in and ate some.
Our Buddhist friend, who you’d think would extend equal gustatory appreciation to all living creatures, also did not think much of the copper skillet of sautéed fresh sardines. These I’d ordered because the menu promised they came “in our own flavored butter.” Chibo’s “own flavored” butter turned out to be garlic butter—which I suppose might be more exotic in Japan than in the heart of Waikiki. Still, these were fine, plump, garlicky sardines.
I did better with the pork dishes, some thin slices wrapped around negi onions and shiso, then grilled, plus some fiery red pork slices sautéed up with an assertive kim chee.
Then, out of curiosity, I ordered potatoes and bacon—I’m always interested in how one food culture adopts and transforms another. This also arrived in a copper skillet, the potato slices a little al dente for American expectations, flecks of bacon, a healthy dose of well-roasted tomato, the whole thing somehow Western and not Western at all simultaneously.
While I was pondering this, the others were appalled. “Did you order this?” said my Buddhist friend.
“What’s this melted on top?” asked my musical friend. Mozzarella, I think. “The entire nation of Italy rises up in protest,” he said.
Fortunately, the last dish was a bigger hit, a pot of steamed mussels in a flavorful wine broth. The mussels were fine, but the broth, flecked with tomato, green onion and little golden globules of butter, was the best part. We wanted bread to sop it up with. Julia the bartender, who was doubling as our waitress, looked at us sadly. We wanted bread in a Japanese restaurant?
“Oh, don’t worry,” our Buddhist friend told her. “He’s always impossible like this. It’s not you.”
Finally, we recollected where we were and got an order of rice instead (Julia rolled her eyes when I wanted brown), filled the broth with rice and ate it that way, at which point we were all full, which was OK, because there wasn’t much on the dessert menu but ice cream.
You can do yourself serious damage if you start drinking and ordering whatever sounds good in a Japanese restaurant. But when we got the bill, it was only $160, with a generous tip for the long-suffering Julia, and that included several martinis and rounds of sake.
“Thank you,” said my Buddhist friend. “That was enjoyable—except for those potatoes you ordered.” I thought the remark lacked charity.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.