Zigu: A Hidden Japanese Izakaya Emphasizes Local Ingredients

Celebrating its one-year anniversary in May, this Waikīkī treasure is just getting warmed up.
Photos by Sarah Burchard


Hidden inside an unassuming 1939 walk-up, Zigu Japanese restaurant and sake bar charms with a lively setting and simple yet remarkable dishes. String lights and bistro seating beckon guests to its courtyard terrace. But it’s the inside that seduces me: Large, colorful liquor bottles parked on the bar. Sake boxes stacked high. Bartenders and chefs abuzz in the joint bar and kitchen. And is that “Jailhouse” by Sublime I hear?


Zigu may be nearing its first anniversary, but the restaurant and every visit to it remain a constant discovery. From the unique bar program and small plates menu to the chef’s counter, I’m surprised and delighted at every simple-sounding menu item which belies unique twists and precise technique. Zigu, which means, “eat local” in Japanese, advertises its fare as “authentic Japanese cuisine inspired by Hawai‘i’s fresh local ingredients.” 


The bar’s drink menu serves up several options including local Namihana shochu ($13); Honolulu Beerworks popular Pussy Grabs Back beer ($5.80); and Local Kale Beer ($7.50), a mix of kale juice, apple juice and Kona Brewing Co. Longboard Island Lager.




The food menu also boasts unexpected options in something as ordinary sounding as a potato salad ($8.50). The salad itself, underneath a haystack of crispy fried potatoes, masters rich, creamy, salty, sweet and acidic. Surrounding it are wedges of an OK Poultry’s egg, poached in dashi broth until the yolk reaches custardlike consistency, and then smoked with applewood.


For 23 years, Masaki Nakayama worked at restaurants including Sushi Yasuda and Corton, a modern French restaurant, in New York before arriving in Honolulu three years ago. He helms the chef’s counter and is so approachable that I felt as if he were hosting me for dinner in his home.


Nakayama, who grew up in a Japanese fishing port town and worked at the famous Tsukiji fish market, balances flavors and textures in seafood dishes such as the tuna and amberjack poke sushi ($12 for 4 or $18 for 6). The sushi arrives lined up like soldiers. The fish, chopped fine like tartar, is placed on a thin disk of rice and avocado wrapped in soybean paper; scented with truffle oil; garnished with sea asparagus, yuzu pepper and fried lotus chips; and presented on the edge of a nori piece. Fold the nori over the fish and pick it up like a taco for a crunchy and salty bite.



For the roasted tuna cheek teriyaki ($26), Nakayama special orders the cheek from the fish auction, and then marinates it overnight in a brine of sake, ginger, sugar and salt. It’s roasted so the meat rolls off the carcass like a slow-cooked pork shoulder. Mix the grated daikon with ponzu, dip the meat in, and alternate bites with the housemade pickled Waimānalo ginger. This decadent dish sells out every night, so preorder it when making your reservation.



The unctuous braised pork belly ($13) melted with one stab. I took advantage of its delicate structure by swirling it around with the other components on the plate – an earthy mélange of stewed lū‘au leaves, crunchy warabi and macadamia-nut-stuffed mochi – all snuggled up in a warm bath of sake, mirin and shoyu.


For dessert: a scoop of Lappert’s mac nut ice cream drizzled with honey ($5), the ice cream super buttery and taffylike. Still savoring the sweetness, I watched Nakayama drench an omelet rice with brown gravy, and I already began plotting my next visit.


Open daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to midnight for dinner (bar open until 1 a.m.). 413 Seaside Ave., (808) 212-9252, zigu.us