Islander Sake Pairs a Premium Sushi Omakase with Fresh Sake Brewed in the Next Room
It’s the ultimate sushi-and-sake experience in Hawai‘i.
A sense of whimsy surrounds the approach to Islander Sake Brewery in Kaka‘ako. The legs of a mannequin, one donning a fin, dangle from the mouth of a shark painted on a wall along Queen Street. A Tosa fighting dog named Kei, well over 100 pounds, snores in the courtyard, impervious to the humans stepping over him. The humor makes me smile as I walk into Islander’s airy tasting room, but it’s clear that here, a sense of artistry and tradition takes over. Under a Shinto god-shelf to one side is the brewing room, filled with large stainless steel tanks and a pressing machine with accordion-like trays. On the other side, behind a polished monkeypod counter, a sushi chef is making nigiri sushi. This is why I’m here: Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Islander offers an unparalleled dinner of omakase sushi paired with its own premium sakes.
Islander is the only sake brewery in Hawai‘i. It opened in March 2020 on the day Honolulu’s restaurants and bars were ordered to close. The brewery not only survived, it has thrived, and its original single offering of a junmai ginjo sake is now accompanied by eight more varieties including a junmai daiginjo, cloudy nigori sake and fruit-infused sakes. As seats at the counter and table fill with diners, brewer Chiaki Takahashi and her brewing partner, Tama Hirose, mingle and talk sake with newbies and aficionados. I’m no sake aficionado, but I’m not the least bit intimidated. The vibe is casual and cozy, like being in a home in Japan.
Dinner starts with a square of nori topped with yamaimo mountain yam and uni under a soy-sake gelée. I fold up the little parcel and pop the whole thing in my mouth. The crispness of the nori helps to balance the dice of slimy yamaimo, which is refreshing and crunchy. The uni is sublime, its livery sweetness bouncing off the gelée with a lingering umami finish. With this starter I sip on a fresh junmai daiginjo bottled just four days earlier. The aroma is like the flower of a winter fruit, juicy and soft, the feminine nature of the sake playing incredibly well with the bold and fatty flavors of the dish. I realize in an instant that I am a fresh sake fan.
Following that introduction, Tetsuzo Yao will serve up about 19 more bites. Yao’s 50-plus years of making sushi includes Restaurant Suntory in Waikīkī, where Takahashi came to admire his traditional style. He follows up with other appetizers including a tofu salad with onion sesame dressing, and then charred beef cheek and sweet botan ebi shrimp. The nigiri sushi he crafts and places piece by piece in front of me include kinmedai, lightly torched scallop, anago, otoro, ikura and more. The seafood is flown in from Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo, Yao-san making his selections according to what’s in season, so each week’s omakase will differ.
The flavors build from delicate to robust, Yao-san moving with ease behind the counter. The pace is perfect. I think we’ve hit a crescendo with a nigiri of fresh saba topped with a thin veil of kombu followed by a piece of lightly seared salmon belly, but these are followed by another moan-inducing bite—torched scallop, sweet and smoky. Paired with Islander’s junmai ginjo, it makes me want to kneel. For the finale, Yao-san places lobes of fresh Hokkaido uni atop a pat of rice. Pairings with Islander’s dry nigori sake and bright liliko‘i sake complement the full-bodied flavors of the seafood. The experience allows me to fully appreciate the range of freshly pressed sake made using Hawaiian water. These will forever change my ideas of sake.
Chatting with Takahashi reveals where the sake scientist-turned-brewer wants to go from here. She wants sake brewing in Hawai‘i—once common but dormant since Honolulu Sake Brewery closed in the 1980s—to become rooted and grow. “The water here is different,” she says, “and people here love sake.” Hilo’s abundance of fresh springwater has her looking for a site to build a sake brewery on the Big Island—at the same time she talks about opening a small restaurant in Chinatown and starting sake-making classes at the Kaka‘ako brewery because “it’s very important to teach the next generation how to make sake.” This is all in between brewing sake herself and cooking and serving elevated home-style omakase dinners at the tasting room every Friday and Saturday. There is a magic about Takahashi and Islander Sake. My anticipation for what she’ll brew up next is matched by what I feel sitting at the counter—looking forward to the next tasty bite and sip, and to an equally tasty exchange about craft, freshness and spirit.
Omakase sushi dinner $90, five sake pairings $37. Seatings are available from Tuesday to Thursday at 6 and 6:30 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made through OpenTable. 753 Queen St., Kaka‘ako, (808) 517-8188, islandersake.com, @islandersake