Lobster Jelly and Other Surprises

Japanese cuisine never loses its ability to astonish.

I once asked a friend, a local/ Japanese woman, if she ate Japanese food. She replied, “My people just call it food.”

But I find you still have to ask. Some elements of Japanese cuisine—teriyaki, musubi, katsu, sashimi—are so familiar in the Islands that they’re just food. Yet not everyone finds all aspects of Japanese cuisine congenial. When I asked another local Japanese friend if she’d come try a Japanese restaurant with me, she said, “No raw fish, nothing too weird. In fact, ask me next time you’re eating Mexican?”

I like Japanese food because it’s often full of things that surprise my palate. This was a great month for surprises, as I ate at three new Honolulu eateries, all offshoots of Japanese restaurants or restaurant chains.

1442 University Ave.
Dinner Monday through Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight, Sunday until 11 p.m.
Free valet parking, major credit cards

I was stunned when I walked into Tsukuneya, at the corner of University and Dole. People remember when it was a sports bar and before that a Pizza Hut.

But decades ago, when I lived down the street, it was a hamburger place that sold a drink called Cherry Lime and served Tater Tots instead of french fries.

I was unprepared for the location to go upscale.

Kinoshita, a staffer at Tsukuneya, sports two of the restaurant’s specialties: an orange-and-black color palette on his uniform and tsukune, which are chicken meatballs. photo: Rae Huo

Tsukuneya isn’t your grandfather’s Japanese restaurant. The walls, the outdoor lanterns, even the staff uniforms sport an eye-catching black-on-orange modern print.

On both ends of the restaurant are horigotatsu rooms (tatami rooms with a well under the table for your legs). Shoji screens partition off a couple of dining rooms, with wooden Western-style tables and chairs.

Best, sit at the long wooden bar along the grill. There, separated from the heat and smoke by a glass wall, you can watch the chefs in action.

Tsukuneya is more of an izakaya than a restaurant. At an izakaya, you order drinks, a little food. You linger, explore the menu, drink, talk. As the Chinese poet Li Po once wrote: “Drinking together, we drive away the sorrows of a thousand years.”

In the spirit of Li Po, my friend immediately ordered a martini. In the spirit of an izakaya, I asked the hostess which sake she suggested. “Rihaku,” she said. “It’s good. Even I can afford it, and I’m on a college budget.” I discovered later that Rihaku is the Japanese name for Li Po. A good omen.

The sake helped drive away sorrow, but the food helped as well. Tsukuneya, the first American branch of a Nagoya-based company, takes its name from tsukune, a common Japanese dish. A tsukune is ground meat or fish stuck together with yamaimo, a gooey mountain yam.

In Japan, tsukune are often steamed or cooked in soup, which sounds pretty dull. Since Tsukuneya is a robatayaki—a charcoal grill restaurant—it places its tsukune on bamboo skewers and pops them on the fire.

Tsukuneya serves 20 different kinds of tsukune. You can get tsukune with teriyaki sauce, with miso, even, should you be so inclined, with Parmesan cheese and tartar sauce. I insisted on the plain lightly salted variety, so we could better taste what they were made of.

They showed up on top of a ti leaf on a hand-formed pottery plate, and turned out to be remarkably tasty for what were essentially chicken meatballs.

We ordered another round of drinks and put the grill chef through his paces. We had chicken thigh skewered with negi, thick green onions, plus several skewers of grilled vegetables, including Kona Ali‘i mushrooms. Then we got serious.

The half-dozen Kahuku prawns came in the shell. Still raw, they lay translucent and beautiful on a blue pottery platter. It was up to us to cook them—on a gas grill topped with a flat stone, sufficiently hot to almost instantly grill the prawns. They were best dipped in ponzu, which we doctored with green onion and momijioroshi, a mix of daikon and red pepper.

“Still hungry?” I asked my friend, who was slowly working on his second oversized martini.

“Just warming up,” he said. We ordered the catch of the day, which turned out to be a surprise—the collar cut of a small tuna. It was like hamachi-kama, but larger, meatier, easier to pull the flesh off bone and fin.

You’d have thought we’d be full by then. But somehow good food, and a slow dinner, perks rather than suppresses the appetite. My friend was intrigued by the king crab dynamite. “It’s a specialty of the house,” he said. “From Nagoya.”

I wanted the “overnight-dried” squid.

“Squid’s already tough. This is likely to be shoe leather,” he complained. But since we were in too good a mood to argue, we ordered both.

The “dynamite” was the same as it is in most Island sushi bars—seafood broiled in a flavored mayo. Tsukuneya’s dynamite was sweeter than most, obscuring whatever natural sweetness might reside in the crab. Since this was the most expensive thing we ordered ($18.75), we were disappointed.

The squid, on the other hand, was the most tender we’d ever eaten, with great grilled flavors, served with a mustard sauce. It was a huge portion, which my friend was not too proud to finish off.

The only thing that made us feel incomplete was that we’d had no rice. Tsukunaya specializes in kamameshi, elaborate twice-cooked rice dishes, which can include anything from eel to powdered bamboo charcoal. Kama-meshi takes, however, 45 minutes to prepare.

Instead, we ordered something that turned out to be wonderful—some grilled, triangular musubi called yakionigiri. Slathering a musubi on the grill gives it great flavor. But it also dries it out. So the yakionigiri came with a large bowl of chicken soup for dipping. For a pair of non-dessert eaters, it was a perfect end to the meal.

We’d been there for nearly three hours, through a couple rounds of drinks, and spent $130 with tip. Not bad for driving away the sorrows of a thousand years.

1436 Young St.


Lunch Wednesday through Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner Wednesday through Monday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

No food I encountered this month was as unfamiliar to me as the food at Hakkei.

That’s strange, because Hakkei promises comfort food. A person sampling its cuisine, says the restaurant’s Web site, “will reminisce, ‘How mom used to make it at home.’”

Not my mother, however, who specialized in macaroni and cheese. Hakkei specializes in a Japanese hot pot dish called oden. It may be home cooking, but I doubt many home cooks make oden as elaborately as Hakkei.

It’s a charming micro-restaurant, deliberately rustic, tucked into the bottom floor of a hard-to-find Young Street office building. The best part is walking in: The aroma of dashi seems to permeate every corner of the room. The very air seems nutritious.

Before you order, the waitress leads you to a double bowl, made of hammered metal in the shape of a figure eight. It’s chock full of things to put in your oden—about 20 items, from which you are allowed to choose three.

Some things are simple—boiled eggs, bamboo shoots, blocks of tofu. Others are sophisticated: little purses filled with mochi. Elaborately tied bundles of winter vegetables. Pancakes of scallops and seaweed. Kabocha pumpkin and—believe it or not—Swiss cheese, wrapped in cabbage. The latter I had to try.

Once we’d chosen our oden ingredients, further choice defeated us. Two of us ordered dinner “A” for $35, and I, not wanting to miss anything, ordered dinner “B” for $60. Don’t do that unless you are seriously hungry. Even I faltered at the profusion of food.

Both dinners A and B kicked off with three decoratively presented zensai—a ball of pinkish sesame tofu topped by a cherry blossom leaf. A bit of shrimp sat on finely diced cucumber and a mountain of yam julienne, and a cone of mountain yam paste was topped with fresh tofu. Bright fresh flavors, a dab of each. Then we got to the real appetizer—thick slices of ‘ahi and tai.

All this was a prelude to the oden, a pot of soup simmering on our table. It came with two spoons, a slotted spoon to fish out the goodies we’d chosen, a ladle to scoop up the dashi.

The Swiss cheese-pumpkin mix was a surprising juxtaposition of flavors. But my favorite things were the shrimp balls, which looked like they might be flavorless and glutinous, but actually tasted quite like shrimp.

Like much comfort food, this dish was bland, and the broth turned even the most elaborate ingredients mushy.

I entertained the notion that, with a culturally deficient palate, I was missing significant subtleties. I doubt it, though. The waitress insisted the inevitable accompaniment to the dish was a hot mustard called karashi. I’m skeptical of dishes that rely on some external flavor blast: They remind me of those nearly inedible meatloaves that are only palatable when slathered with ketchup.

However, the meal was far from over. Meal “B” apparently included a whole barrage of food—a wonderfully textured fried mochi with vegetables in the broth, a haystack of vegetable tempura that was miraculously light in texture, with some vivid-tasting shrimp.

There was sea bream, broiled, covered with grated daikon and sprouts, and a similar preparation of ‘ahi.

Finally we all got to dessert—the inevitable green tea ice cream, topped with adzuki beans.

This dinner for three, ho-hum in spots, but pleasant enough, was $170 with tip. That didn’t include the bottle of soft Italian white wine I brought along, since Hakkei is still waiting on its liquor license.

I suppose I had better mention that Hakkei is the offshoot of a celebrated hot-springs ryokan in Japan. Its chef, who doubled as the founding chef of Hakkei, is Seiya Masahara, celebrated for outcooking Iron Chef Morimoto in a TV battle. However, Masahara’s cuisine at the ryokan is elaborate kaiseki fare. This restaurant does something much simpler and, I’m guessing, nowhere near as interesting.

Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd.
Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner nightly 5 to 11 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

OK, Rokkaku is a shopping center restaurant. It’s a tiny slice of Ala Moana Center, not quite the size of Panya Bistro next door. Its clientele seems to be mainly Japanese visitors toting bags from the luxury shops upstairs.

Despite Rokkaku’s diminutive footprint, it seems luxurious, in the way cramped Tokyo restaurants seem luxurious, by having every texture and color and corner calculated. For only 60 seats, it has 15 wait staff, all of whom throw themselves into their work.

The kitchen is ambitious, the food expensive. You may wonder at the end if it wouldn’t be cheaper to eat at Alan Wong’s or Chef Mavro.

If you confine yourself to simpler dishes—shabu shabu, sukiyaki, kamameshi—it’s merely pricey. But Rokkaku’s most compelling offerings come on small plates. At $12 and $15 a plate, the check mounts rapidly. But then again, so does your pleasure.

The menu was eight pages long and somewhat inexpertly rendered into English. To give ourselves time to decipher it, we ordered sake samplers and sashimi. The sake arrived in three small glasses, with a printed guide to what we were tasting. The sashimi arrived in a vast bowl of ice—thick slices of hamachi and ‘ahi, ama ebi, and sliced scallops, which were fresh, sweet, and mild. However, my heart sank when I saw the large portion of mustard-colored uni.

Most of the uni I’ve encountered in Hawai‘i is brackish, bitter, iodine-heavy, thoroughly nasty.

Not the uni at Rokkaku. This uni was smooth, cold, and sweet, with just enough marine character to keep it sashimi instead of ice cream.

Then we resolved to have the uni “lobster jelly gake,” even though we didn’t know what it was and it cost $16. Envision a little parfait glass. It looks like dessert—perhaps one of those Jell-O desserts with chunks of fruit in it. Except the jelly tasted like essence of lobster, and the chunks were some incredibly firm pieces of shrimp and dribs and drabs of the delicious uni. We attacked this avidly with three small spoons.

We were already in $54 for food alone, and we’d just gotten started.

The beef tataki was a half-a-dozen thin slices of perfect Wagyu beef, the American version of Kobe. Except for the seared edges, it was raw, yet seemed to dissolve away on the tongue.

The grilled cod roe is an intact sac of fish eggs, sliced into small pieces. Roe, is of course, a blast of super fishy flavors. These proved to be a perfect foil to the Koloryu “500 Mangoku” sake we were drinking.

Up to that point, we merely liked Rokkaku. The minute the kurobuta bacon arrived, we fell in love. From black Berkshire pigs, kurobuta is the Kobe beef of pork. Celebrated in Japan, it’s now raised in the United States. In America, bacon comes as thin fatty strips. The rest of the world eats better. Rokkaku’s kurobuta bacon is cut from a slab as thick as a pork chop.

You only get four small slices, but they are extravagantly flavored, reminding me of aged cheese or that first bite of great pastrami. Better yet, you ate this bacon with wasabi—fresh wasabi, not that awful reconstituted green paste. Four slices of the bacon were $12, but seemed so worth it, that we immediately ordered a second round.

We had a similar reaction to the “age cheese.” We’d ordered it simply because I was curious. This cheese was served warm, slightly melted, because it had been prepared like tempura, covered with panko and deep-fried, topped with green onions and bonito flakes. The outside was all Japanese delicacy. The inside was French decadence. It was real Camembert, with a taste as opulent and worldly as a stolen kiss in the halls of Versailles. When we recovered our wits, we begged for another round.

After that, two of us threw in the towel. One friend demanded, as she always does, dessert.

She had the Rokkaku version of a banana split—half a banana with a burnt sugar crust like a crème brûlée, plus a scoop of green tea and another of caramel ice cream. You can think of this caramel as sugar mellowed by experience, not too sweet, but with depth and distinction. Yes, we weren’t really full after all.

This three-hour culinary festival cost $260 for three, $300 with tip. The tab raised our eyebrows, but, wherever you might find yourself, food of this caliber is never inexpensive. My only regret: We had forgotten to order the poached foie gras in miso sauce. Next time.