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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

Dining Scene
Tokkuri-Tei takes patrons to finger-food heaven

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Kazuhiro Mitake, the owner/sushi chef of Tokkuri-Tei, also works behind the sushi counter, where customers can get all of their favorite combinations.
Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

• 611 Kapahulu Ave.
• Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-midnight Mondays-Saturdays
• 739-2800
• 3 1/2 forks=Good+

"Wahoo," I yelped across the table to Miss A when I first saw the multi-page menu. "Let the games begin!"

If you have a sense of adventure and can apply it to your dining habits, this place is a must-try. Tokkuri-Tei is a finger-food lover's E-ticket.

The interior of the place catches your eye in many different ways. There are lanterns from Japanese cities hanging all over the restaurant, given to the proprietors by longtime patrons (regulars who date back from the days when Tokkuri-Tei was on Sheridan Street).

There is also a flood of colorful pieces of paper with kanji (Chinese characters) posted along the walls. And there's a huge bookcase (of sorts) that holds bottles of customers' favorite spirits for them to enjoy when they visit.

This is an intimate touch that would be worth adopting in our homes. Imagine making room for your buddy's favorite Scotch, your mom's Amaretto and your boss's special vanilla bean and jasmine flower-infused vodka.

The menu could be daunting because of the dizzying array of choices, written primarily in Japanese, but the staffers are so extraordinarily helpful, it becomes a pleasure to play on their turf.

There are clever, if a bit vague, dish descriptions in English, but if you outwardly show signs of confusion or inquisitiveness, you will have any and all your questions answered. For instance, the aspara buta bata ($6.50) is described as asparagus and pork on the menu, but only through questioning could I find out that these ingredients are simply sautéed in butter with a touch of salt and pepper.

They take great pride in their (Sam Choy's poke contest) award-winning poke called "There's a Spider in da Poke" ($11), which comes as four huge nori-wrapped clusters of maguro, hamachi and salmon sashimi with soft-shell crab, topped with bursting orange ikura (salmon roe) and tobiko (flying fish roe). It's drizzled with a sweet chili vinaigrette, and you can definitely see (and taste) why this is an award-winning dish.

The dishes from the "kushi yaki" part of the menu are all skewered and grilled items. The enoki maki ($4) is grilled pork stuffed with those long thin albino enoki mushrooms. Tsukune ($3) are delicate chicken meatballs; shiso maki ($3.50) are delicious sliced rounds of shiso leaf and pork; and ume yaki ($3.50) combines chicken with ume (a tangy and tart Japanese plum) paste.

"Yaki mono" dishes are grilled and include choices like an artful stack of yaki nasu (peeled eggplant, $2.50); hamachi kama ($9.95), which is the rich meat from the yellowtail collar; gesso yaki (squid legs, $6.50); and the hard-to-find Japanese river trout, ayu shio yaki ($9.75). More conventional choices exist in this category, such as New York steak (12.50) and yaki gaki (oysters, $7.50).

We had just polished off some excellent sumaki (cut rolls) sushi items — ruby-red tekka maki ($3.75) and a California maki ($5.75) — when I began to feel particularly adventurous. I flagged our waitress and asked her to suggest something "very different" for us to try. She locked onto my gaze and sized me up, and within a few seconds she said I should try the ankimo ($6.50), dubbed as the "foie gras of the ocean."

Both Miss A and I love foie gras, the real stuff, that is, so it was easy to nod our approval. Well, ankimo is the liver of the monkfish, thinly sliced, and served with a vinegary ponzu sauce. It's considered a delicacy by some connoisseurs, but for us it was a bit more fish-intimate than we wished to get on this night.

We barely scratched the surface of all the foods listed on the menu. And sure, you can get all your favorite sushi, sashimi, deep-fried dishes (mixed tempura, $9.50), rice dishes, soba, udon, cold and hot, teishoku (complete dinners), nabe mono (cooked-in-a-pot dishes) like shabu shabu ($19.95) and yose nabe ($23.95), but the fun is in the discovery and playfulness of the unusual choices.

If you like, or are curious about sake, they are serious about it here, devoting an entire menu page to it, with a price breakdown and chart with flavor and body descriptions. You can have a glass of ki ippon for $3.25, all the way up to what they call heaven, suirakuten, for $20 a glass.

Tokkuri-Tei is a special place. The food is excellent in both presentation and flavor, tasting true to the food's source, with simple seasonings and techniques.

Send comments, questions and suggestions to ChefMatthew@LoveLife.com