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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 24, 2001

Dining Scene
Think of Sasa as sort of a work in progress

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Hisako Ueda, manager of Sasa Japanese restaurant on Beretania Street, shows off an assortment of sashimi. Food preparation and service both need to improve.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser


2012 S. Beretania St.


Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily Dinner: 5-11 p.m. daily


Sasa bills itself as offering "fine Japanese cuisine," but this almost three-month-old restaurant has considerable work to do before it can actually make that claim.

Something feels a bit odd about this place, and I'm not quite sure what it is. It may also be the first Japanese restaurant I have visited with a primarily Chinese decor.

I was hoping for an experience similar to the kind you get at Tokkuri-Tei, Mr. Ojisan or Kensei, three notable (and what I refer to as "new-wave Japanese") restaurants offering progressive food choices along with the more traditional items.

When I first looked at Sasa's menu, I thought because of the 36 appetizer choices that it, too, could go head to head with the above-named places. But upon further scrutiny and tasting, I see that there are several problems to address. We'll begin with the food.

The sautéed oyster wrapped with bacon (bacon no kaki maki, $4.95) looked good on the menu, but it was bland. The bacon strip was too tough and chewy for the delicate oyster. The nameko oroshi (nameko mushrooms with grated daikon, $3.95) was suggested by our waitress, but except for the flavor of the daikon, was tasteless. These mushrooms are tiny and have little flavor. And for an extra $1.45, they'll add them to your miso soup ($1.50).

Speaking of miso soup: On both visits, it took way too long to get it from the kitchen. In most Japanese restaurants, a pot of the soup is warm and ready, with a few pieces of tofu and a sprinkling of green onion added at the last moment.

The seared tuna with garlic sauce ($5.95) was OK. The tuna was thinly sliced, dressed with a ponzu-like sauce, somewhat vinegary with a bit of garlic flavoring. I was expecting another kind of sauce, exclusively garlic without the vinegar, I suppose. They also offer seared bonito ($4.95) and beef ($5.95) in this same tataki style.

Gyoza (potstickers, $3.95) had a mushy — not meaty — filling, and were not steamed enough before being finished in a wok or sauté pan. Seafood kushi katsu combo ($6.95) combines shrimp, fish, scallop and onion, and threads it on two skewers. It's then coated in batter and deep-fried. It's pretty good if you like fried items, as was the mixed tempura ($5.95) with three large greaseless shrimp, accompanied by three kinds of vegetables.

The fried tofu ($3.95) with daikon and more of those nameko mushrooms had a very nice flavor, but the fried exterior was mushy. That's most likely because the tofu is placed in its dish of sauce. It would be best served with sauce on the side to retain its crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside consistency.

The service here is problematic. Neither of the people who waited on us seemed to have much experience or training. On the first visit, my friend Terry realized her zaru (cold noodles, $4.95) never made it to the table. She flagged down our waitress and said, "I ordered cold noodles ... " to which our waitress replied, "Oh yeah?" in as quizzical a fashion as could be. The next visit saw our waiter bring our water glasses to the table while handling them near the brim, where your mouth goes. Small side plates brought to the table also got this unfortunate personal touch. There's no manager on the dining room floor either, which I believe makes a difference.

The two sushi chefs, while able to make fine-tasting sushi, were not very creative or artistic with their plate design. Presentation skills are usually very high in Japanese restaurants, but here they do not appear to play an important role. There were more employees than patrons walking in and out of the restaurant on each of my two visits, which proved to be quite a distraction, to say the least.

Sasa is awaiting its liquor license, and the management is slowly building a retail fish market next door. Some might applaud this, but I think Sasa has jumped the gun by rushing into a second business before the first is running smoothly.

Reach Matthew Gray at ChefMatthew@LoveLife.com