Itadakimasu, Five Times

We check out a gaggle of new Japanese restaurants—including two dueling buffets.

Photo by Monte Costa

A marvel from the teppan grill at Kaiwa: Japanese octopus and whelk given an Italian touch with pesto and tomatoes.

Itadakimasu is a Japanese phrase that defies English translation. Even though it’s said before every meal in Japan, even school lunches, it means more than “Let’s eat.” Apparently, it was originally an act of obeisance, putting the dish over one’s head and thanking your feudal master for the chance to eat. Now, it’s sort of a generalized thank you—to farmers, fishermen, even nature itself for providing abundance.

I have said itadakimasu a lot lately. Honolulu has been blessed with an abundance of new Japanese restaurants. Even though I have hustled around and eaten at five of them this month, I probably haven’t caught up, there are so many.

We should be grateful Japanese food is mainstream in Hawaii. In Japan, it still has its mysteries of ritual, presentation and seasonality. In Hawaii, it’s just food. It’s impossible to think of going out with friends for drinks and pupu and not ending up with at least one Japanese dish on the table—edamame, katsu, noodles, karaage chicken, butterfish, tempura or some kind of sushi.

Japanese food is too everyday to be a mystery here. But it did strike me as a tad mysterious that there should be two Japanese buffets slugging it out side-by-side in Ala Moana Center.

Kyoto Ohsho opened at the end of last year, Tsukiji opened next door in May. They seem to be almost the same restaurant–dueling Japanese buffets at a shopping center near you.
I felt compelled to start there.


Tsukiji Fish Market & Restaurant

Hookipa Terrace
Ala Moana Shopping Center
1450 Ala Moana Blvd.
Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards.

For two years, people were buzzing about the coming of Tsukiji Fish Market. “Could be Honolulu’s most exciting restaurant,” wrote the Honolulu Weekly in 2005.

The original Tsukiji outside Tokyo is a tourist attraction—the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, moving some 3,000 tons a day of everything from caviar to sardines. Along the outside are noodle stands and sushi bars, some of them famous.

Now that the Honolulu version has arrived, the excitement has ebbed considerably. The restaurant apparently has rights to the name, but few other clear ties to the original Tsukiji.

The restaurant does have a fish market–well, a fish counter fronting the mall. It was totally empty. When I asked, I was told that, yes, they had a market, but no, it wasn’t currently operational.

Outside of the market, a large bar and larger sushi bar, the vast 17,000-square-foot space looks pretty much like a dining hall with dark wooden tables and chairs—an empty dining hall; since the space is so large, it looks deserted even if there are, say, 100 patrons.

Instead of the anticipated flood of high-end seafood, Tsukiji is a buffet, of which Honolulu already has an abundant supply.

Buffets create the illusion of a bargain: one price and you can eat as much as you could possibly want. But, really, how much food can a reasonable person manage in a single meal?

Unless you’ve recently experienced starvation, you’re unlikely to eat yourself sick simply because the opportunity presents itself. Still, to give the Tsukiji buffet my best shot, I skipped lunch and took along a friend who was looking lean and hungry.

For $32.95, Tsukiji offers what looks like a massive quantity of food—until you taste it.

Under a Plexiglas sneeze guard, on a long, black, stone, double-tiered counter are arrayed tray after glass tray of sushi. Nigiri ahi, salmon and shrimp. Inside-out California and spicy ahi rolls. A white shellfish I couldn’t find a chef to identify, spattered with drips and messes of sauce. Aimed at a Hawaii audience, the offerings included bowls of ‘ahi and tako poke and plenty of inarizushi wrapped in brown auberage.

All of this was, of course, premade and, alas, little better than bento quality. The only exception was a remarkably tender squid nigiri wrapped with a fresh shiso leaf.

There was a salad bar for those foolish enough to fill up on greens and pasta, and some unhappy-looking steam-table entrees: dried-out barbecued ribs, some bony butterfish, salty mahimahi, tired shumai, remarkably tough kalbi.

The key to selling a buffet is to offer a few “luxury” foods. A chef would grill to order a small sirloin steak, cutting it and serving it with bean sprouts. “This looks good,” said my friend, “but it’s curiously tasteless.”

On platters atop ti leaves sat large mounds of shrimp–shell on to slow you down–and an even higher mound of king crab legs, the perfect high-end buffet food. The legs were so long we had to balance them on our plates. But, of course, what we were getting was chitinous exoskeleton, from which we had to extricate the meat, which in this case was disappointingly dry.

Even the short sake menu was a disappointment. We ordered something mid-range, a sake called G Genshu, which the waitress plunked down in a plastic pitcher full of ice that said “Budweiser” in big red letters on the side. The menu didn’t warn us that this was American sake, with a wickedly nasty aftertaste. “I don’t suppose it’s much of a consolation it comes in such a big bottle,” said my friend, wincing.

With sake, two buffet dinners and tip, the check was nearly $120. Usually at the conclusion of a Japanese dinner, you are to say, Gochisosama deshita–roughly, “Thanks for the meal,” but literally the phrase means, “I have feasted.” That’s not how we felt.


Kyoto Ohsho

Hookipa Terrace
Ala Moana Shopping Center
Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. dinner nightly 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards.

Apparently in response to Tsukiji opening next door, Kyoto Ohsho dropped the price of its buffet to $27.80. It didn’t need to. As buffets go, it’s better.

The restaurant is smaller than Tsukiji (then again, almost every restaurant in town is smaller than Tsukiji). It doesn’t attempt to be as grand. But it succeeds better with a black and red color scheme, large paper lanterns, and gauzy curtains.

Ohsho handles its food differently than Tsukiji. The long line of largely Japanese dishes–gyoza, tori karaage, chawan mushi, butterfish, chicken tatsuta, beef tataki, kinpira gobo, hajiki, wonderful simmered kabocha—are all in individual portions on an appropriate little tray or in a bowl, so they look like Japanese food.

There are some practical advantages to this, for the restaurant–portion control and dishes that take up room on the tray so you can’t load up as heavily as you otherwise might. It also makes the eating experience more pleasant.

Included are items you must have on a Hawaii buffet line–little bowls of ahi and tako poke, and, although wholly unJapanese, an entire roast beef.

When it opened, Kyoto Ohsho limited people to an hour and a half at its buffet. Standing near the shrimp tempura (the tempura batter is as hard as iron), I ran into my friends Joanne and Daniel, who have a toddler. They’d avoided Ohsho because of the 90-minute limit. “With the baby, we didn’t think we could finish that fast, but we called and they don’t have the 90-minute thing any longer.”

Ohsho still seems a little paranoid about how much people in Hawaii can eat. There’s a sign posted, which in polite Japanese-style circumlocutions, says that some people are eating only the fish off the top of the nigiri sushi, and that’s not kosher, so if they find the sushi rice still sitting on your plate, they’ll charge you more.

For the record, we ate the rice as well as the fish—just the usual maguro, salmon, shrimp, tomago, but at least some unagi. “Oh, this is fresher and better than Tsukiji,” said my friend, who accompanied me to both buffets.

This time, he’d brought along his girlfriend, who approached the buffet in an entirely different manner than we did. We went right for the protein. She went for the noodles–well-made udon noodles in soup. After noodling around, she went straight for the desserts, which included both a soft-serve ice cream dispenser and a chocolate fountain. She was obviously enjoying both, especially the miniature éclairs, which could be dipped in the chocolate.

Often, the desserts in Japanese restaurants are either symbolic (little cakes that look good but are very light, entirely insubstantial) or made with adzuki beans.

To me, it’s better to fill up on snacks and sake. The sake here was better than at Tsukiji as well—the waitress suggested the Hakkaisan Honjyozo. The bill, for three this time, not two, was only $20 more than at Tsukiji.


Kochi Restaurant & Lounge


Photo by Monte Costa

Kochi is designed as a relaxed place to hang out with friends, with drinks and family-style pupu.

1936 S. King St.
Dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards.

The pride of Kalihi, Gulick Deli, has come to town, to the old King’s Bakery spot on King Street.

The location’s been split in half. Half is the daytime deli, a more Japanese, less Filipino version of the Kalihi okazu-ya. The other half is a cocktail lounge called Kochi, the bar filled with gleaming wood and living-room-style seating, the larger room crammed with high, black, vinyl booths and long tables with black vinyl stacking chairs.

Kochi is designed to be a casual place where you can bring a group of friends and share, as the menu puts it, “Local Japanese Food Family Style.”

There’s little in life better than drinks, friends and pupu—but Kochi has missed out on one important development. Over the past decade, with the improvement in local-style cuisine and the influx of accomplished Japanese restaurants from Japan, the food in the drinks-plus-food equation has become more competitive.

Kochi doesn’t measure up. A pair of friends and I started off well, ordering sake and beer and dishes upon dishes. But we weren’t happy with what emerged from the kitchen.

The soft-shell crab tempura tasted fishy in the way that makes you nervous with shellfish. We left most of it; the waiter didn’t even ask why.

We ordered the $16 sashimi salad. It did contain some ‘ahi, tako and salmon, but the greens were a bit tired and heavy on the chopped lettuce. The dressing contained masago, smelt roe, but it reminded us of an old-fashioned, local-style sweet orange dressing.

A similar dressing sat on the chunky, tough ahi katsu. Almost every restaurant in Hawaii now does an ahi katsu. This one was overdone on the outside, stone cold in the middle and we couldn’t finish it, either.

The yaki soba, normally one of my favorite things, was both too sweet and had a weird sour tinge.

However, let us praise the pork chops. They do not perhaps rise to the heights of the legendary Sidestreet Inn pork chops, being more heavily battered and deep-fried. But it’s hard to dislike tender chops, cut up in pupu portions, with catsup heavily laced with chili pepper water.

Dessert was a disappointment. Strawberries Romanoff is supposed to be strawberries macerated in sugar and orange liqueur served with sweetened whipped cream. Kochi’s version was essentially a strawberry ice cream sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top, presented in an old-fashioned milkshake glass.

The trifle we ordered turned out to be, well, another ice cream sundae in an old-fashioned milkshake glass, looking exactly like the strawberries Romanoff. A trifle is a British dessert–day-old cake sprinkled with sherry, topped with layers of custard, jam and fruit. In this version, cubes of pound cake rested at the bottom of the sundae, but by the time you dug down to them they had been reduced to sludge by melting ice cream.

Kochi is not inexpensive. Many of the menu items are market price, i.e. you have to ask what they cost. The meal for three cost $140, with tip and a restrained number of sakes, since one of us was drinking Diet Pepsi.


Kaiwa Waikiki

Waikiki Beach Walk
226 Lewers St.
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., weekdays only; dinner nightly 5 p.m. to midnight
Major credit cards, $6 validated parking.

Kaiwa is an example of why Kochi needs to step it up a little. An outgrowth of a smaller restaurant on Makaloa Street, Kaiwa is one of the few culinary successes on the new Waikiki, Beach Walk.

It’s a little Japanese jewel box of a place. The main dining room has a tiled wall, down which runs a shimmering cascade of water. The zashiki room is a version of a tatami room, with white carpet instead of tatami mats, white tables, little white pillows with just enough back support to make sitting through a whole meal with your feet in a well comfortable. The room’s set off from the restaurant by a beaded curtain, except the beads are actually bright fiber optics. The food’s as stunning as the décor. In my view, the best strategy is to start trying small plates at random, all the unexpected little pupu.

For instance, the renkon cheese yaki. This dish is more or less a grilled cheese sandwich, with lotus root instead of bread. The crunch of lotus root against the warm, flowing, oozy protein punch of melted cheese makes this an experience perfect for drinking Dewazakura Oka, that most congenial of sakes.

Don’t miss the octopus. It’s imported from the port city of Akashi, near Kobe, famous for having the longest suspension bridge and best octopus in Japan. Akashi octopus manages the perfect texture, poised between chewy and chewable. Here, it’s grilled with tsubugai—called in English a whelk, a large shellfish that has the good taste to dine on clams, lobsters and crabs.

You encounter whelks on Italian menus as scungilli. Kaiwa gives this dish an Italian treatment with a frizzle of fervent pesto and some cherry tomatoes, topped with basil. It costs $18 for a small portion and is well worth it.

Even the kabocha pumpkin gains a faint Italian accent—glistening with olive oil, mixed with asparagus, dotted with some crispy bits of bacon and sprinkled with some kind of garlic crumb mixture.

The miso soup comes with some surprises—a few of the baby abalone now being cultivated on the Big Island, tiny and tender in their nacreous shells.

Left to my own devices, I would have eaten my way through the entire appetizer menu. But two items on the entree menu intrigued my three companions. One was a hamburger—really. A juicy mound of ground beef topped with an emphatic brown demiglace and a fair-size piece of foie gras. Not, I suppose, classic Japanese cuisine, more like a solid hunk of American eatin’, with a touch of Japanese refinement.

The second large plate—or rather bowl—was a Japanese-style loco moco. First, a bed of fried rice with garlic tomatoes and onion. Next, an egg, light, airy, cooked tamago style. On top of the egg, a ladle of beef sirloin stew.

I know comfort foods are supposed to be something you encounter in childhood. Still, this dish provided such a depth of comfort, I was sad my childhood had been deprived of it.

Having split two entrées among the four of us, we had a little room left for sushi, made with kampachi aquacultured on the Big Island.

On to dessert. These were better than symbolic desserts, though I thought sakura monaka skirted the line—an elaborate flower-shaped pastry crisp filled with dabs of bean paste, mochi balls and an ice cream flavored with cherry blossoms (it tasted a lot like vanilla to me, but my experience eating cherry blossoms is limited).

Then came some real kick-butt Western desserts—a crepe filled with bananas and drizzled with chocolate, the molten chocolate cake that’s spread to every restaurant in town from Roy’s.

But the best dessert was in fact Japanese—a granite made of yuzu, a Japanese citrus somewhere between a lemon and a mandarin orange. This was billed as a sorbet, but it was not. A sorbet, like an ice cream, has to be constantly stirred while freezing to give it an even texture. A granite is easier: You freeze it in a block, then chip it into small pieces. The small chips of yuzu ice melted on the tongue into a cool citrus haze.

We managed to spend about $60 a person here, not all that much more than the bargain places, and the food was enough to blow us away. Next time, I’m going to just go nuts on the appetizers.




Photo by Monte Costa

The Kapahulu roll is a signature dish at Shigezo. The restaurant specializes in tofu–so the sushi is wrapped in yuba, a soymilk product.

Recently Reviewed

Nobu Waikiki
Waikiki Parc Hotel, 223 Helumoa Road, 237-6999.

“So many of [chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s] dishes have become standards, you may have eaten one or two before, just not executed with Nobu power and precision.” Go oma-kase to experience a “symphony” of a meal; the seafood soars. Don’t miss the scallops, sashimi salad or signature soft-shell crab roll. Reviewed in the July 2007 issue.

Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar
Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd. 524-VINO (524-8486).

“Vino looks expensive, with its tablecloths and a gleaming array of crystal. But the tapas are $7 to $10, and there isn’t a glass of wine on its fascinating list that’s more than $12.50.” Master sommelier Chuck Furuya can help you pick the perfect pairings for the “off-the-charts” food. Try the caprese, ravioli or braised pork. Reviewed in the February 2007 issue.

Julie’Z Restaurant
The Marketplace at Kapolei, 91-590 Farrington Highway, Kapolei 693-8778.

“If you want good Filipino food, you have to go to the West Side.” Sample familiar dishes such as the adobo fried rice and go out on a limb for dinuguan, shrimp sarciado and squid guisado. Reviewed in the October 2006 issue.


808 Kapahulu Ave.
Dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Major credit cards, free parking in the Go Bananas parking lot across the street.

Shigezo has taken over the space once held by a restaurant called 808. With its open front and rich wood interior, 808 glowed in the night as you drove down Kapahulu Avenue. Unfortunately, as a place to eat it was stultifyingly boring.

I’d prefer to see Shigezo meet a happier fate. Unfortunately, it seems to have built a reputation as a tofu restaurant. Although tofu’s trendy in Japan, it seems to me that notion might be the kiss of death in Honolulu.

Let’s point out that, no matter how you feel about tofu, Shigezo is a nice little restaurant, in an appealing space, with more on the menu than bean curds.
That said, it would seem to be a shame to eat here and not order the tofu sampler. The tofu itself is remarkably light and clean tasting, and the sampler presents it three appetite-perking ways—mixed with sesame and seasonings as tofu “poke;” slathered in a deep red, formidably spicy “Kilauea” sauce; and deep-fried in cubes half-immersed in a deeply flavored dashi.

If you are not tofu’d out by that point, I suggest the tofu cakes with crab on top, broiled with plenty of butter, the plate dotted with a sweet Thai chili sauce.

But, as you sip your sake, there’s plenty more to explore–a whole sushi bar full of things like unagi and hamachi, fresh crab and ikura. For $1 extra, the chef will top your ikura with a raw quail egg, which seems to bind the flavors and textures together. Plus it looks seriously cool, the little yellow, round yolk atop the bright orange salmon roe.

The signature Kapahulu roll was red, white and green–‘ahi, tofu and avocado. It was wrapped in creamy white yuba, the thick skin that forms when you let soymilk sit. Yuba’s just firm enough to wrap a sushi, but yields appealingly to the bite.

The most remarkable things out of the kitchen are the fusion dishes from young chef Joe Almaguera, who’s come up with some fun plates.

His deep-fried cuttlefish legs are sort of French fries of the sea, with curry spices in the coating and a curry aioli.

Finally, he’s put a new wrinkle on fish and poi. He bundles ahi poke in a nori, and deep-fries the whole bundle, lightly searing the ahi, and serves it with a drizzle made from poi, rice vinegar and sugar, a sort of sweet-sour jelly. We ate one, thought about it a minute, and asked the waitress for another—and to meet the chef.
When Almaguera showed up, reluctantly, at the table, we asked how he had come up with the dish. “I think I was drunk one night,” he said. “But I always write down everything I do, so when I went back to it, it was pretty good.”

Compared to his other work, Almaguera’s soymilk experiments fall flat—I’d stay away from the cream-style soymilk soups and the soymilk coconut creme brulee–dishes in which both flavor and texture seem to be awry. How to describe the flavor of soymilk? If it were a sound, it would go BlahNK! WahNK! on your tongue, like a massive brass instrument in the hands of someone who didn’t know how to play.

None of that kept the three of us from having a good time—it was $160 well spent. Gochisosama deshita.

John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.