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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 17, 2004

Tucked-away Imanas Tei lives up to reputation

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Choon Hi Lee, left, Kyung Hi Bae and Soo Kyung Lee enjoy the shabu shabu at Imanas Tei. The restaurant is often packed, so go early or late or make a reservation to dine between 5 and 7 p.m.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser


2626 S. King St. (just off King, behind Puck's Alley)


Dinner 5-11:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Beer and sake menu

Reservations taken for 5-7 p.m.; after that, first-come, first-served

Very Good

Tell a friend you're going to Imanas Tei and I'll bet you my butter yaki they'll say: "Oh, I always meant to go there. I heard it's good." Pause. "Where IS it exactly?"

Even my newsroom mentor in all things Japanese — a man who has eaten absolutely everywhere — said that.

So, for the record: Go there. It is very good. And it's off King Street on the mauka side, just diamondhead of University, tucked behind Puck's Alley. Turn in as though you're going to the Puck's Alley parking lot, jog right and then pray for parking in the tiny lot on your left.

See that bench out front? It's put to good use six days out of seven. (They're closed Sundays). So come early or late, or make reservations unless you're willing to plant yourself out front and spend half your evening watching the door like a dog whose master isn't yet home.

Inside, owner Keisuke "Casey" Asai has created an attractive oasis, the most noticeable feature of which is a false ceiling of bamboo. Light fixtures above shine through the loosely spaced bamboo and create a lovely patter of light and shadow on the walls. Instead of more conventional art, there are natural tree branches affixed to the walls. A long, angled communal table of blond wood extends through the dining area with more tables around the walls and a pair of small tatami rooms at the far end (these seat two tables of six). The 12-seat sushi bar is tucked off in a small wing off the main room.

The effect is both contemporary and cozy and expresses the character of the place most effectively.

As at all traditional Japanese restaurants, a cry of welcome greets you and you're presented with a menu so extensive that it's a bit daunting — dozens of sushi and sashimi choices, grilled and deep-fried options, pupu and more.

We elected to begin with a moriwase order of sashimi ($28.50) — moriwase is a term that means, roughly, "chef's choice." This arrived pleasingly arranged on a platter and included several selections, among them a meltingly fatty and fresh 'ahi and hamachi (yellowtail).

Nabemono — combinations of foods cooked in broth on an electric range at the table — is a specialty here, including chanko nabe (the protein-rich stew famous for satisfying sumo appetites) and more delicate shabu shabu (thin-sliced beef). Both are $18.50 per order, which serves two. Asai said most folks who sit in the dining room rather than at the sushi bar order nabemono.

As we savored sushi and considered our selections, we watched a well-dressed Japanese-speaking couple ceremoniously readying for a nabemono meal: he sipping a beer, she deftly selecting ingredients and swirling them into the broth with long chopsticks. The ingredients arrive beautifully arranged, a bouquet almost too pretty to eat.

After sashimi, we ordered a round of little plates from which to graze, plus a bowl of spicy clams ($8.50) and some rice ($1.50 per serving).

I'm not much of a clam person but my husband is, and we found the perfect pairing in this dish: He slurped clams and I poured the fiery, sea-sweet juices onto my rice, and we were both very happy indeed.

Among the other dishes, we chose grilled salmon ($6.50) and chicken ($6.50), steak grilled in butter ($8) and misoyaki butterfish ($8), plus an order of cold steamed kabocha pumpkin ($3). All the grilled items were just as they ought to be: crisp and a bit marked by the grill on the outside but still tender and even, in the case of the chicken and the butterfish, melting within. Flavors were subtle, a balance of salty and sweet.

Imanas Tei offers an almost overwhelming array of dishes, including the shabu shabu, as well as excellent sake.
Imanas Tei comes highly recommended by my friends who enjoy sake. Take note of the separate sake menu on the table tent; the one on the menu is somewhat sparse. We ordered the house ginjo (premium but not top-quality), 300 milliliters for $13; it served four sippers nicely.

Afterward, we indulged in green tea ice cream and lychee sorbet ($2 each) and wanted to linger — we were enjoying the company of special friends — but we were conscious that others were waiting for our table (we had reserved for 5:30 and it was getting on to 7 p.m.).

Later, I asked owner Asai when the restaurant is busiest. "Almost every day same," he said cheerfully. "Busy all the time."

We could certainly see why.