Upstairs Hawai‘i Pairs Two of Japan’s Best Under One Roof
It’s the only spot to get Sushi Sho’s glistening bara chirashi bowl and back it up with Hachibei’s jidori chicken and a hefty sake list.
A PR executive, a sushi master and a yakitori chef walk into a sake bar. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but I assure you it’s not. In the former Bills Hawai‘i space at 280 Beach Walk, Upstairs Waikīkī is an intriguing new collaboration that brings dishes from two top-tier Japanese restaurants together with a sake bar. What does that look like? We attended a hosted media dinner to find out.
The closure of Bills because of the lengthy drop in visitor traffic left Tokyo-based Sunny Side Up, which brought the Australian brunch spot to Waikīkī (and Japan and South Korea), with a large, vacant dilemma. CEO Norihito Watanabe approached his friends Keiji Nakazawa of Sushi Sho at the nearby Ritz-Carlton Waikīkī and Kazunori Yashima of Chinatown’s Yakitori Hachibei with novel proposal: A restaurant featuring dishes from both, supplemented by dishes from the eatery’s own kitchen. If it worked, other local chefs and restaurants would be featured in a seasonal rotation.
If you’ve been to Bills, you’ll find the cavernous second-floor space virtually untouched. It’s on the quieter ‘Ewa side of Waikīkī, with validated parking across the street at Bank of Hawai‘i. Upstairs, the afternoon sun filters through skylights in the lofty vaulted ceiling to a spacious dining room with a backlit bar. If you’re unsure about dining indoors, the airiness of the space and a policy of leaving every other table open may alleviate some doubts.
As day fades into evening, Edison bulbs glow, making the vibe cozier. It’s all conducive to settling in with a chilled daiginjo. The broadsheet menu’s four categories—bar snacks or tsumami, salads, mains and sweets—reveal a mix of esoteric Japanese and Western dishes. It’s like a first class menu aboard a long-haul flight from Tokyo, with a little bit of everything to choose from.
To accompany your first round of drinks, start with tsumami appetizers. Sipping a glass of junmai or ginjo draws out the sweetness of the cubes of Islander Sake’s funky, aromatic kasu cream cheese ($6); eat it as is or spread on slices of toasted baguette. Namero ($12) is a salmon tartare with tobiko, spicy ichimi powder, shiso and negi. Rolled with nori and cucumber, it’s a fresh bite that also goes well with sake. Not as memorable are crispy Kaua‘i shrimp wontons ($12) with a salty-sweet-sour nuoc cham dipping sauce, and the under-seasoned Island Potato Salad ($8), made with kalua pig and Waimana TKG eggs.
For the adventurous, fermented squid innards or shiokara ($7) and shoyu-marinated squid called okizuke ($8) are also on the menu and a recommended pairing with sake.
SEE ALSO: Now at the Ritz-Carlton: Sushi Sho
The star of the menu is Sushi Sho’s bara chirashi set served with tsukemono and suimono soup ($35). It was a limited special offered at Dean & DeLuca at the Ritz-Carlton in late 2019 before it took off as a luxe takeout option during the 2020 stay-at-home order. It is easily the most complex item on the menu, with various cuts of sashimi, roe and shellfish cured in the Edomae style, then arranged over seasoned sushi rice with strings of fried tamago.
Panning over the wide bowl is like peering into a box of jewels where bright orbs of ikura, lobes of uni and slivers of maguro and aji shimmer in the faintest light. Take your time discovering new and familiar textures and flavors with each bite. If you can’t justify the $300 for a seat at Keiji Nakazawa’s sushi counter across the street, this chirashi will get you close enough for a fraction of the price.
Hachibei’s contributions consist of three hits from their menu in Chinatown: the homey oyako donburi ($15) of simmered chicken and eggs over rice, the signature chicken ramen ($15), and a torimomo ($16) grilled chicken leg exclusive to Upstairs. The oven-roasted jidori chicken thigh quarter arrives crispy skin up in a lake of seasoned schmaltz, with two plain rice rolls to sop it up. The only thing missing is Hachibei’s signature succulent pork belly.
The oyako don is rich with juicy nuggets of jidori chicken thigh simmered in dashi and coated in Waimana TKG eggs cooked just enough to remain silky under the weight of the spoon. And like its counterpart in Chinatown, the ramen is served in a custom Hachibei cup ramen bowl and has everything you’d want from a chicken ramen: a clean broth, tender chicken “char siu,” chewy noodles and spots of brightness in the form of yuzu kosho and pickled ginger.
Also on the menu are L.A.-style kalbi ribs ($24), which bolster our dinner with more protein. With thin bones and a decent flap of tender, marinated shortrib, I’d order them again. The rigatoni carbonara is also solidly good for what it is, a simple bowl of pasta with a creamy sauce made with rendered pancetta, Waimana TKG eggs and Parmesan cheese. Other options include a pomodoro spaghetti and a burger.
Although the dessert selection is slim, with only two choices, the coconut pudding and strawberry granita ($10) are musts, both intensely flavored with local fruit and refreshing scoops of gelato. We couldn’t put our spoons down.
Between Sushi Sho’s God-tier bara chirashi, Hachibei’s well-executed chicken dishes and a large sake list, Upstairs is the kind of place you want to be when you can’t decide on anything: The options cover most bases, many of them recommends. And certainly the 15% kama‘āina discount makes it even easier.