New-wave Japanese cuisine in a stylish setting
By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
Tetsuyu Emura, president and chief executive of Dream Dining Honolulu, clearly understands the challenge, judging by the look and feel and the food at Shokudo, the Honolulu restaurant he recently opened as the first U.S. eatery in a chain that's well-established in Japan.
Honolulu diners, with their affinity for kim chee, never-ending attraction to apple pie, and quirky open-mindedness that has made Spam an object of affection, are in a prime position to act as arbiters of what works and what doesn't in interpreting Asian foods for Mainland palates.
Shokudo, just a block from the Hawai'i Convention Center on Kapi'olani Boulevard, is both a testing lab and a model for a revolution that's already begun here in the booming izakaya (Japanese pub) explosion.
Design is paramount in this enterprise. The large dining room, which accommodates up to 182 guests, is one of the most stunning on the island. A vermillion ceiling highlights the neutral beige and wood tones below. Tiered seating to the right of a central bar is more intimate than the spacious main area to the left, which has a hoi-polloi feel. But pretty much anywhere you sit, you will experience the drama of the place.
The modern aesthetic appears in an ikebana-styled platter of sashimi ($12.75 for three kinds of fish; $18.75 for five kinds) and rice-paper lanterns that vaguely resemble monotone koinobori (carp) kites. It is displayed in a well-constructed and informative drink menu containing tasting matrices for red and white wines along with offerings of cocktails, shochu, sake and beer. The food menu looks like a shopping catalog, with vivid color photos and English translations that give customers a clearer idea of the cuisine than even a written description or a a Kappabashi Street plastic display model could.
If you are still puzzled about an item or ingredient after looking over the menu, just ask. Shokudo's wait staff seems trained to be as accommodating as possible. However, service can be irregular, especially when the restaurant is busy at dinner time. And because you will likely be sharing dishes, you may have to remind them to replace soiled share plates.
On one visit, a friend and I waited more than 20 minutes after being seated before we were even acknowledged with a glance or served water. But our initial irritation melted away faster than a Popsicle on a hot summer day when food began arriving within minutes after the waiter took our order. He also apologized profusely throughout our dinner. I was amazed at how quickly the kitchen turned out some dishes, so rapidly it would make a fast-food drive-thru seem slow. To avoid a sudden onslaught, pace your order with a few dishes at a time.
Shokudo delivers reasonably priced sumo portions, but the menu includes some odd dishes that don't work well with the rest of the selections. For example, BBQ cabbage ($6.75) and Mexican taco rice ($6.75) are out of place. Another suspect dish is warm shiso-rice noodles ($6.75). The tart, pungent shiso flavor was lost among haphazardly tossed bits of minced chicken, cabbage and soggy bean sprouts. Deep-fried sweet potato ($2.75) also was disappointing. We anticipated hot fries but instead received shoestring sweet potatoes dusted with sugar, reminding me of One-Ton chips only not as good.
Tried and true approaches featuring a little less fusion proved wonderful, however. Chunky cubes of deep-fried (agedashi) tofu ($4.75) were accompanied by a handsome amount of daikon, shaved bonito and a full-bodied tentsuyu sauce. Deep-fried (karaage) chicken with spicy tartar sauce ($7.75) was crunchy on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside. A mayonnaise-based sauce pepped up by a shichimi spice blend provided a creamy, lively accent. Garlic tuna seared on hot plate ($7.75) allows diners to cook each slice of garlic-infused fish according to their own preference. Small fish and shiso-seaweed rice ($6.75) cooked in a hot stone pot featured small, salty white fish that crisped up nicely. Morioka-style cold noodles ($6.75) were chewy and refreshing in their icy, tangy soup.
The only time photos really didn't do justice to a dish was in conveying the scale of the honey toast ($5.75) for dessert. A waitress admitted that guests rarely finish off the large serving of soft, toasted bread hunks drizzled with honey and capped by vanilla ice cream. A thin, sweet, black sesame soup with mochi ($5.75), also served a la mode, would be better with more and smaller mochi balls.
With Shokudo's opening two months ago, Honolulu leapt light years away from KC Drive Inn mode. Families as well as young hipsters can now dine comfortably amid new-wave Japanese chic until the wee hours. The hum of the new eatery shows that average locals want to eat in a Yasumichi Morita-designed dining space that recalls a movie set from "The Cell" just as much as their Manhattan brethren at Megu.
If Shokudo is able to balance style with substance (smoother service and a menu that doesn't overdo the fusion), the restaurant could herald a blossoming in the dead zone of Kapi'olani Boulevard as well as in other parts of the nation for diners for whom visuals are as important as edibles.
Reach Helen Wu at firstname.lastname@example.org.