At Mō‘ili‘ili’s Tane Vegan Izakaya, a Fiery Tale of Suspense
The surprise of the evening is hidden deep inside a deceptively beautiful sushi roll.
A famous storyteller once described suspense as a ticking time bomb under a dinner table. The audience knows it’s there, but the diners don’t. With every bite, tension builds. Will the diners discover the bomb? Will they make it out without wasabi and soy sauce splattered across a dismal scene?
At Tane Vegan Izakaya, the $16 Barbers sushi roll lists as its ingredients fresh beets, kale, avocado, asparagus, shredded tofu, yuba, rice crackers, seaweed pearls, spicy aioli—and suspense. “I wonder why they list suspense,” I ask my wife. I scan the other dishes on the menu; none lists anything remotely abstract. And because we are ordering online, there are no servers who can offer enlightenment.
We are ordering takeout for a small backyard birthday dinner. The food arrives and we open each box, admiring the impeccably intricate vegan jewels. We leave the items in their open takeout containers, not wanting to inadvertently tussle any of them, and take turns picking through the vibrant assortment.
The Barbers roll is a pretty dish. Deep reddish-purple discs of beet sit atop rolled beds of yuba tofu skins and rice. A dollop of spicy aioli, “seaweed pearls” that look like caviar and tiny beads of kakimochi that give a nice pop of contrast.
Of the other dishes, the avocado nigiri ($7 for two pieces) with its fluorescent pink beet aioli is a smooth-as-silk bite. The Shizen shiitake ($12), tempura-fried and glazed with sweetened soy, stuffed with tofu and served with a side of matcha salt, is a crispy cloud of savory earthiness. The Pacifica roll ($16)—tempura eggplant, bell pepper, zucchini, carrot, yellow onion with garlic aioli and sweet soy sauce—is harmonious. The smoked tofu in the Philadelphia roll ($10) is like a cut of ham with avocado and vegan cream cheese. And if you think the only reason they came up with a tomato nigiri ($7 for a pair ) was because of its uncanny resemblance to ‘ahi nigiri, the flavors of tomato, shiso and rice meld surprisingly well.
“Has anyone tried the Barbers roll?” I ask. Everyone else has finished all their sushi without comment. I have one more piece. The Barbers roll is the piece I’ve been saving for last. The prettiest piece.
I pick it up and bite in.
Now, the same storyteller I mentioned earlier also described the art of surprise. Whereas suspense is a time bomb that everyone but the audience is oblivious to, surprise is when no one knows what’s coming. When that bomb explodes, everyone is surprised.
Which is what happens when I bite into the last piece of the Barbers roll. Without warning, fire races across my tongue, climbs up my inner cheeks and hits the roof of my mouth. Heat sears my gums, burns up the inside of my face and radiates from under my eyes. If I were wearing glasses, the frames would shatter about now. Smoke from the fire billows up my throat, into my sinus cavities and out of my nose and ears. A thin stream of sweat forms across my forehead and dribbles down my face.
I choke down the last of my Barbers roll. “Did anyone else think that this roll was kind of spicy?” From the looks I’m getting, the answer is no. In fact, up until this moment spice has not even entered the conversation. “Something aggressively hot? No one got that?”
“It was all good,” says Rachel.
Now my dining companions are regarding me as a lower life form. It’s obvious my threshold for heat is comparable to a snail’s tolerance for salt.
Suspense? This is definitely more of a surprise. As it turns out, one slice of the Barbers roll always contains a hidden piece of habanero pepper. When you order this at the restaurant, the rounds are arranged like the six chambers in a pistol, one of them loaded with the habanero. It’s a game of Russian roulette. The dish also comes with a single shot of unfiltered sake for the unwitting victim. Unfortunately, that life-saving shot of sake does not come with the takeout version. That’s a warning: Have a shot ready, all you suspense lovers.