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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 3, 2004

Kicking up bar cuisine with Japanese elegance

By Helen Wu
Special to The Advertiser

Donald Swartz, his wife, Jean "Jin" Swartz, and son Don C. Swartz, all of Mo'ili'ili, chat with general manager Atsuko Yamaguchi over drinks and Momomo's unusually creative pupu.

Photos by Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser


3008 Wai'alae Ave. (at Kapahulu Avenue)


5 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays-Mondays; reservations taken only for 5-7 p.m.

Full bar


Momomo, a cosmopolitan izakaya (Japanese bar-restaurant), in the former Eastern Garden spot in Kaimuki, challenged my stereotypical notion of a recently opened restaurant as chaotic, slow and not quite having it together. When a new restaurant opens, most of us eagerly flock to test the waters. Often I am not that impressed by the splash, but sometimes something truly impressive arises out of the big blue.

The advent of Momomo brings a new high to the art of drinking and eating in Honolulu. Although we are a pau-hana pupu culture, we are missing bar cuisine such as found in the enotecas (wine bars) of Italy and the tapas bars of Spain, styles that have proliferated in other U.S. cities.

In bar food, bigger is not always better. Diners expect leisurely snacking on smaller plates with explosive flavors that can match a wide selection of drinks. As they socialize, friends share samples with their pals instead of eating a single large plate by themselves. This type of dining creates a far more enjoyable atmosphere, even when you are competing for the last bite.

Momomo is helping Honolulu catch up with this culinary trend, also already popular in Japan. In a comfortably casual setting, it offers a feast of small but substantial dishes and an extensive drink list that includes wine, beer, shochu (spirits distilled from buckwheat, sweet potatoes, or brown sugar), as well as more than 31 varieties of sake.

A swanky, minimalist black-and-red interior accented by dark wooden traditional seating sets the stage for dramatic presentations of food. The attentive staff welcomes you with a booming "Irasshaimase!" as soon as you walk through the doors, emphatically telling you they have noticed your arrival.

Patient and courteous, food servers descend upon you immediately to help you get started, and dishes arrive with practically the same speed from the kitchen. This can be a little unsettling and overwhelming, especially on your first visit.

No single server is assigned to your table, so expect a free-for-all as servers appear successively to take your order. If they see you looking at a menu, don't be surprised if they are in front of you before you can even look up.

Because of this overattentiveness, I do not recommend placing your entire order at once. Otherwise, you may find yourself confronted with a table full of dishes. Servers do not seem as eager to replenish your water glass or remove empty plates, perhaps because they are so busy with orders.

The menu offers grilled meats, vegetarian dishes, impressively fresh seafood, a sushi bar, and a smart balance of hot and cold foods. Find traditional and modern Japanese, some Chinese, and a dash of Western influence in reasonably priced offerings, all with English translations.

The lingering taste of sweet and briny fresh oysters with three kinds of salsa ($10.50) left me wanting more. The toppings, which despite the name more closely resemble mignonette (a French sauce of wine, vinegar, and shallots) than Mexican sauces, enhanced the fresh-from-the-sea flavor.

I found a bit of theater in new-style sashimi ($9), served at the table with a blend of hot olive and sesame oils poured onto suzuki (sea bass), which emitted a delightful sizzle.

Not to be missed by tofu lovers is warm tofu prepared at the table ($6.25). Set over a burner, the tofu cooks from a liquid state into a melt-in-your-mouth solid custard.

Each savory bite of the shrimp with mayonnaise sauce ($7.25) gave a delectable crunch. Hearty Taiwan ramen ($5.75) pleased with its spicy combination of chewy noodles, tender bits of pork and firm bean sprouts. Unagi fans will relish mixed rice with chopped eel in sweet sauce ($8.50), a Nagoya specialty that arrives with a little teapot of hot fish broth.

Takahiro Ito, front, prepares sushi at Momomo. The restaurant's style of service encourages leisurely sipping and noshing.
Pass on the bland meat and greens of shabu-shabu beef salad ($8). Grilled chicken wings ($3.50) are a yawn. Avoid mixed fried noodles ($6.75) with too-oily noodles and pervasive white pepper in the sauce.

For dessert, make room for almond gelatin ($5.50), which puts the version found at Chinese restaurants to shame. Chef Mitsuru Ito explained that it is prepared with Disaronno Originale amaretto liqueur but would not divulge any other ingredients. Its unique flavor and smooth texture seem to me to be what silk would taste like if you could eat it. Also a must is the soufflÚ cheesecake ($6), reminiscent of an elegant, creamy pound cake.

Through his translator, assistant manager Shintaro Yano expressed owner Haruki Kato's goal of creating franchises, ending in New York. I can happily say that I'm thankful Honolulu is their testing ground. With its emphasis on providing new tastes and "Ã la carte dining while you are drinking," as described by Yano, this place is helping to change our ideas about what a bar can be.

Helen Wu is a graduate of the Kapi'olani Community College culinary program and former lifestyle editor of Kapi'o, the student newspaper there.