First Look: Sushi Murayama

Fans of sushi chef Ryuji Murayama pack in his new restaurant, Sushi Murayama, at the 808 Center.
Sushi Murayama’s lunch menu offers a maguro natto don for $16.50. This sushi-ya opened in November at the 808 Center.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox


Nearly anyone who loves sushi in Honolulu—and I mean really good, really fresh sushi—knows Ryuji Murayama.


The laid-back sushi guru has garnered a fiercely loyal following as a sushi chef at Yohei Sushi Restaurant, Tokkuri-Tei Restaurant and the now-defunct ZenShu. He knows fish suppliers personally, uses the freshest ingredients and never skimps or takes shortcuts.


So when word got out that he had opened up his own sushi bar, Sushi Murayama, in late November, this small restaurant, hidden on the third floor of the 808 Center with no signage, quickly turned into a by-reservation-only spot.


The counter is the best seat in the restaurant. Chef/owner Ryuji Murayama is as skilled as he is entertaining.


We lucked out, though, walking in on Friday for lunch and finding two seats at the counter, right where Murayama, in a dark-blue, long-sleeve Miller Lite tee, was waiting.


“Too bad where you sitting,” he said to us, smiling.


Turns out we were here on the best day of the week. The three next to us at the counter—the group included award-winning chef Chris Kajioka—remarked that Fridays are when new fish comes in, so we were going to get the freshest seafood possible.


“This is my dream restaurant,” Murayama told us. “I can do whatever I want.”


And he does. His omakase (meal with dishes selected by the chef) isn’t overly strict. The set meal usually starts at $75, though Murayama is accommodating about when you want to stop or how much you want to spend. (Sushi aficionados know how expensive omakase meals can get.) It’s a great way to experience a sushi-ya (restaurant that specializes in sushi) for the first time, as the chef tends to showcase the best ingredients available that day.


And, unlike at other sushi bars, you can tell Murayama what you like and don’t like, even for the omakase, and he’s more than happy to adjust the lineup.


But we were short on time—hey, it was a lunch break!—and wound up just ordering whatever we wanted.


“You got o-toro?”

“Of course.”


“Fresh saba with salt and ginger and sea kelp, OK?”

“What about dessert?”

“Black sesame gelato or natto ice cream? Which one you want?”


And that’s how our lunch went. We ordered dishes we were craving, he made them. It was awesome.


The fresh and fatty o-toro nigiri at Sushi Murayama.


Some use the o-toro nigiri as the benchmark for any new sushi-ya, and this one set a high standard. The generous portion of fatty fish melted in our mouths.


We ordered the maguro natto don off the lunch menu. It came with fresh cubes of ‘ahi mixed with stringy natto, ginger and takuan (pickled daikon) in a bowl for $16.50. It was a lot of food for one person, especially when you’re also ordering plates of nigiri.


The tempura teishoku ($18.50) features a variety of shrimp and veggies in a light and crispy batter.


We tried the mixed tempura with shrimp, bell peppers, carrots, eggplant and green beans. The batter was appropriately light and crispy and not overly oily. And, like at ZenShu, we had the option to eat this with just a squeeze of lemon and some flaked salt. There’s no need to dip the tempura in shoyu with grated daikon.

I especially loved the saba, served as Osaka-style pressed sushi, called hakozushi. The ingredients for this style of sushi are cooked or, in this case, cured. Then the ingredients are molded in a wooden, square box, called hako, instead of by hand, and placed on a block of rice. It’s like making Spam musubi—except for the Spam part.


For this hakozushi, Murayama combined fresh saba cured with salt with bits of ginger sesame seed and sea kelp. The oily fish isn’t for everyone, but eating it this way completely changed its texture and taste. It still had that fishy taste but without the bite. It was perfection.


Murayama followers from Tokkuri-Tei will remember this signature dessert: vanilla ice cream topped with corn flakes, strips of shiso and natto—yes, natto—topped with a Jack Daniel’s caramel sauce. Don’t knock it before you try it.


The natto ice cream is definitely better tasting than it sounds.


There were still so many dishes to try. Konbu-marinated hirame sushi, butterfish misoyaki, beef tongue, A-5 Miyazaki beef nigiri sushi. We just didn’t have a long enough lunch break.


But we’ll be back. And we’re sitting at the bar again. It’s like dinner and a show.


Sushi Murayama, 808 Center, 1320 Rycroft St., Suite 307, 784-2100.