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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 22, 2004

Enjoy Kai's okonomiyaki; pass on the octopus

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

From left, Takashi Motohashi of Honolulu, Mike Kelly of Honolulu, Takashi Hata of Osaka and Yoshiki Matsunaga of Osaka share a dish of avocado and ginger salad on a recent night.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Okonomi Cuisine Kai

1427 Makaloa St. at Ke'eaumoku Street, across from Wal-Mart


Dinner: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays; closed Mondays

Club nights: 11 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays; "Classy" on Thursdays showcases hip-hop, dancehall and R&B "Blend" on Fridays features the shochu bar and deep house

Reservations recommended

Partial bar (beer, wine, select hard liquor)

Limited on-street parking; valet parking available

"Umeboshi tempura? What's that?" my dining companions asked as we studied the menu at Okonomi Cuisine Kai. And before we knew it, our own mini experience of "Lost in Translation" had begun.

Okonomi Cuisine Kai is an example of a particular type of small eatery I am always overjoyed to find. It's a funky food boutique with prices that don't make you wince — an almost non-existent breed in Hawai'i, but one that is rampant in New York, London and Paris.

Kai, as they like to be known, sprouted from four shops in Tokyo. This latest branch is within walking distance from Ala Moana, across from the new Wal-Mart.

Cool, comfortably urban yet without pretensions, this is a place where you can momentarily forget that you're on a tropical island. It offers the chance to sip drinks and nibble on small or big plates without going to a mall or museum for the latest in ultra-modern decor.

The sleek interior at Kai beckons even from outside its glass storefront window. A light and airy entrance offsets a darker contrasting teppan (griddle) bar in the rear. The restaurant's obtuse, triangular shape works in its favor by creating roomy depth as floor space lengthens and narrows to the back.

Kai doesn't have a full bar, but it does have a surprising selection of cocktails ($4.50 to $7.95). One of the highlights is trendy shochu (a type of distilled spirit) combined with flavors such as oolong tea, lychee and black currant.

Food choices here can be equally innovative. Most dishes are geared for Japanese tastes and contain ingredients familiar to locals but spun off with a Kai twist. Reading the menu, with its English translations, is not intimidating. Interpreting Japanese flavors, however, can be a little disconcerting for the unfamiliar tongue. House specialties are marked with stars and are useful as a rough guide to ordering. An obliging staff offers help if you are puzzled.

That umeboshi (pickled plum) tempura (a single plum, complete with seed, napped in batter, $6.50) was a first for me and my dinner companions. My friends, who are not umeboshi admirers, did not care for this dish because of its salty tartness and doughy batter. I thought it was all right, though an odd combination.

But we were enchanted by Big Island ogo (seaweed) and shiso-plum jellyfish ($8.50), a special one evening. Fresh ogo dressed with a mildly acidic, yellow mustard dressing was an astounding counterpoint to a pink, candy-like marinated jellyfish.

Although octopus was flown in fresh from Japan, the two dishes I tried did not appeal to me: Both were difficult to eat. Overly large slices of octopus got in the way with their tough chewiness. There was no way to take a bite from the slices. This meant you had to pop the whole slice into your mouth and chew an octopus gumball until it eventually became easy enough to swallow.

Kara miso tako sashimi ($9.50) was advertised as "seasoned with spicy miso and a bit of mystery" — which turned out to be a side dip of miso paste that tasted of Korean kochujang red pepper sauce. Akashi tako musubi ($9.50) resembled tako nigiri sushi.

A must here, however, is okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake with a variety of fillings. Kai serves two kinds: regular and a Hiroshima-style, filled with noodles. My friends devoured the hakodate ($11.95) made with scallops and shiso, served in three cake-like layers. I think pancakes, in any form, are part of a universal language. Soba okonomi with green onions and shiso ($10.95) belied its short description. Using a thinner, crepe-like batter, it overflowed with pork, cabbage, bean sprouts, noodles and a fried egg.

Isamu Kubota, president of Okonomi Cuisine Kai, prepares okonomiyaki with shrimp and spinach.
The teppan bar is an ideal place for a date. Watching the teppan chefs work their craft can be riveting, but you can still make conversation. Whether they're cooking up rib eye steak ($19.50) or pork-wrapped eggplant spears ($6.50), they display fluid motion and concise motions — a mastery that makes the mere act of scrambling an egg an art form. Visuals always help if you can't speak the language.

Kai does have some kinks that need to be smoothed out. Dishes listed on the regular menu should be available at least when service begins. When I tried to order two standard chicken dishes early one evening, neither could be had. Desserts are only passable. Their most inventive one is called "Hawaiian big pan de ice" ($7.95) — "pan" referring to the Japanese word (borrowed from early European arrivals) for bread — essentially cinnamon-honey toast chunks with ice cream.

But none of these flaws prevented me from enjoying the place. Those who have been searching Honolulu in vain for this elusive animal — the nocturnal, fashionable eatery with up-to-date ambience — needn't be frustrated anymore. This shy creature has alighted in town as Okonomi Cuisine Kai.

Reach Helen Wu at taste@honoluluadvertiser.com.