Obake Honolulu Brings Dry-Aged Sushi Hand Rolls to Chinatown
The former Ethiopian Love space is also a cocktail bar by night, matcha bar by day.
Obake Honolulu isn’t your grandpa’s sushi bar. Hip-hop beats fill the air, street art by some of Hawai‘i’s best known muralists and taggers cover every surface, and bar stools at the poured-concrete sushi counter are often filled with thirty-somethings clinking cocktails and devouring hand rolls. Obake isn’t just Hawai‘i’s first hand roll sushi bar—it’s also the first local eatery to focus on dry-aged seafood.
All of it comes together when you look at the players. Obake is owned by Noa Laporga and Angelina Khan, who also run Skull & Crown Trading Co. tiki bar around the corner on Hotel Street. Laporga is also part-owner of Kaimukī’s Daily Whisk Matcha, which explains why Obake is a matcha bar by day. The executive chef is RJ Abad, who cooked previously at Heiho House, Juicy Brew and Pai Honolulu. His fascination with dry-aging fish drove the menu in that direction.
Abad dry-ages ‘ahi, New Zealand king salmon, local swordfish and Japanese hamachi for up to 20 days in custom refrigerators; and is experimenting with other local seafood. “A lot of the process is very similar to aging beef,” he says. “I want people to know that this is what dry-aged fish is. They get the creative side of what a very nontraditional animal can be. I have no sushi experience, but that allows me to approach it from a different perspective. I still have a respect for the traditions. I definitely eat and appreciate sushi a lot.”
Although dry-aging fish has taken root in foodie hubs like New York and L.A. only recently, it’s not new: Sushi connoisseurs know the Edomae style is rooted in Japanese traditional preservation methods. Dry-aging reduces moisture content and changes the texture and flavor of seafood in subtle and often delicious ways. In Obake’s King Salmon roll ($9), for example, you’ll notice a slight change in color, a smooth, almost jelly-like texture, and a nuttiness that adds to the buttery flavor of the fish. The same salmon is in the Un-a-Philly-ated roll ($12), along with house-made vegan cashew dill cheez, a custom spice mix, alfalfa sprouts and cucumber.
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The menu offers hand rolls a la carte or in themed sets: a basic dry-aged set with hamachi, ‘ahi, kampachi, king salmon and white kim chee toro for $45; and more complex specialty rolls in a Bold flavor set ($43 for 4 rolls) and a Light set ($40 for 5 rolls). Specialty rolls include the Fort Ruger ($11), named after Abad’s first poke bowl with lechon, which combines ‘ahi aged 9 to 10 days with fermented Thai chile, house-made rice cracklins and negi, topped with a hot sauce that has been fermenting since October. All are packed with flavor so that you don’t need soy sauce, which is available.
Vegans and vegetarians have two choices including the Mazel Tov ($8) with smoked carrot lox, cashew dill cheez, house spice and cucumber. It’s as delicious and memorable as some of its protein-driven counterparts.
Not containing seafood but worth a mention is the Beef Rapp roll ($11). The aged Mauka Meats veal cheek is subtle and combines with tomato bonito emulsion, red shiso and fried capers for bites that are savory and melt-in-your-mouth tender with a very light crunch.
Attention to detail and the synergy of ingredients shine on Abad’s menu, which showcases seafood flavors of varying intensity and texture. Just note that what you end up with will be noticeably different from most sushi, which uses fresher, un-aged seafood. If in doubt, ask the server or sushi chef for recommendations.
Obake’s cocktail menu features 11 drinks crafted by beverage director Gabriel Keller of Skull & Crown, who brings in Japanese flavors that complement the sushi. Your top pick will vary according to your preferred cocktail style; ours is the Letter From Yokosuka ($12), made with toasted rice and hojicha-infused Jim Beam, with genmaicha honey, yuzu, soda and osmanthus. Old Fashioned fans will appreciate the subtly spiced Iron Fist ($16), made with Knob Creek Rye Whiskey, notoginseng and chrysanthemum syrup and bitters; it’s served with smoked alfalfa hay. Gin aficionados will be intrigued by the Shinigami ($13), a light and refreshing black cocktail made with Roku Gin, lychee campari, lemon, rose water and squid ink for color. There are also selections of Japanese sake and beer as well as stronger spirits.
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The daytime matcha bar uses organic matcha powder in drinks that include a matcha latte ($6.50), matcha beer ($12) and ceremonial matcha ($6.50). A few snacks are on the menu as well: small, house-made daifuku mochi ($2 each) and a raindrop cake ($4.50), so named because it looks like a giant raindrop and dissolves in your mouth.
Obake is walk-in only, first come, first served, no reservations. There’s no takeout for hand rolls, which are meant to be eaten fresh, while the nori is crisp; takeout would render them soggy.
Chinatown parking is available at a number of municipal or private paid lots close by, or on the street.
Matcha bar open Tuesday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; hand roll and cocktail bar open Tuesday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., last call for food 9:30 p.m. 1112 Smith St., @obakehonolulu, obakehonolulu.com