Tour de Eats: Take in Honolulu While You Eat at Three (or Four) Restaurants a Night
Food crawl around Honolulu with Kalapawai Cafe, Saeng’s Thai, Formaggio Grill, Yakiniku Don-Day, Sushi ii, City Cafe, Jinroku, L’Aperitif and Ailana Shave Ice.
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AMAEBI AT SUSHI II.
PHOTO: RAE HUO
Tour No. 2: Keeaumoku Crawl
Keeaumoku and its side streets is one of the best areas for progressive dining—it’s compact and places are open late. (Sorabol and Like Like Drive Inn are famous 24-hour joints, but lesser-known gems are open until at least 2 a.m., like Pandora Café, where you can get sushi from a chef who works at Mitch’s.) I love it because it has a vibe of authenticity, particularly the Korean places, where often I feel like I’m the only non-Korean.
Seafood at Sushi ii is so fresh, some of it is literally alive. Baby abalone arrive at the table squirming. My husband, who has accompanied me on this crawl, gives me a look, and I know that this dish is my burden to bear, like the time I ordered lamb kidneys in London.
When confronted with these writhing abalone, my sense of adventure suddenly falters. It’s as if I suddenly realized that my food had a life before it was set in front of me … or in this case, continues to have a life. I eat all of them, but feel a bit like Lewis Carroll’s Walrus, shedding tears while feeding on oysters. But you want to know how they taste, not of my angst? Sweet and crunchy, extremely firm. A better dish, with less guilt and more tenderness, is the Kona baby abalone sautéed in garlic butter. Heat has rendered them more pliable. They are wonderful.
The abalone are pleasant diversions from what we really came for: the sashimi. Order a large platter, which will contain ruby red slices of ahi; buttery salmon to rival the hamachi; sweet, thick slices of scallops; amaebi, translucent and also sweet. I am swooning before I even get to the more interesting seafood on the platter, which changes based on what Sushi ii gets in. This night, it’s mirugai, or geoduck; torigai, similar to clam, but not as firm; hirame, sprinkled with salty cured cod roe; shako, or mantis shrimp, a sort of prehistoric-looking shrimp that apparently has one of the fastest strikes in the animal kingdom. If a bowl of this had arrived at my table alive, I wouldn’t have the fingers left to write this.
Truthfully, it was hard to tear ourselves away from Sushi ii. We could have kept eating; items from the kitchen, like fried moi, can rival the pristine sashimi. It’s only with the promise of equally good things to come that we manage to tear ourselves away.
Tip: Sushi ii is BYOB; bring sake for the sushi chef. You won’t regret sharing.
The tables get crowded at Yakiniku Don-Day.
photo: rae huo
You can’t do a food crawl in Koreamoku (the nickname for Korean-eatery-saturated Keeaumoku) without stopping in a Korean restaurant. Yakiniku Don-Day, taking the place of Orine Sarangchae, is one of the newer establishments on this street, and in my opinion, the best for yakiniku. It’s partly because of the outdoor seating (the only outdoor yakiniku in Honolulu that I know of), which, despite being in a parking lot, is surprisingly charming, and being outside helps lessen the smell of charred meat in your clothes. The Lite Brite lighting and huge, gorgeous tree that shelters the tables makes Yakiniku Don-Day a more down-home, local version of The Beach Bar under the banyan tree at the Moana. When servers (who invariably look like members of a K-pop boy band) clear off the tables, they dump water from the cups into the tree’s roots, which have broken through the concrete.
It’s tableside yakiniku (almost all the dishes have burn marks on them from touching the tabletop grill), but not exactly do it yourself. The servers swoop in at the last minute to turn slices of marinated pork belly, like thick bacon studded with rosemary, thin slices of beef brisket, beef tongue, tender kalbi, so that the meats have a perfect char while remaining juicy inside. They even grill kimchi, giving it a roasted, concentrated flavor.
The temperature of the grill can make or break your experience. On a previous visit, we saw a party leap out of their chairs as flames shot up from their grill. They touched their faces to make sure they still had eyebrows. This time, the flame under our grill peters out; we call someone over, she fiddles a bit with the fuel canister, the flame roars up, and we are back on our meaty way.
This progressive dinner is probably best done with at least three people. Two orders of meat or the combo is the minimum order here, which, for two people, after a large plate of sashimi, was too much.