Tsukuneya's grilled bar snacks great with beer
By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
By Helen Wu
It's a meatball. It's a kebab. Actually, it's tsukune, the Japanese bar snack. This fancy chicken on a stick is the specialty at Tsukuneya, the latest twist-on-tradition restaurant from Japan to land on our shores.
Leave it to a Japanese restaurateur to turn a bad-luck space into a stylish, souped-up robatayaki — an izakaya (pub) that features the skewered and grilled or deep-fried foods known as kushiyaki, of which yakitori is the best known.
Like ever-popular Shokudo, Tsukuneya has plans to expand to the Mainland. It's part of a 30-year-old, 11-restaurant Nagoya chain owned by the Sakuma family, which is now seeking American franchisers. But before Tsukuneyas can pop up like mushrooms after a rain, the restaurant needs to refine its act.
Chef Mitsuru Ito, who moved here from Nagoya to ensure quality control, prepares the restaurant's chicken tsukune using a secret (aren't they all?) recipe. The kitchen blends ground chicken with grated yam and more than 10 ingredients, kneads the mixture for exactly 30 minutes, then lets the flavors meld overnight.
Other eateries usually steam tsukune before grilling. Tsukuneya directly grills their version either on binchotan (white charcoal prized by chefs for its extra high, smokeless heat), an electric grill or both, depending on what kind you order — there are 20 different toppings and dipping sauces.
The result is an almost fluffy meatball of poultry flavor that's perfect for its job — beer partner. The tsukune is at its apex as suds enhancer when ordered naked save for some salt — unadulterated meat lollipops ($1.80 per skewer).
I prefer the easier-to-eat un-skewered versions, such as goma ($2), crunchy with black sesame seeds and crushed almond, and wasabi ($1.80), dabs of green paste adding a little kick.
But even better are the ordinary sumi selections (kushiyaki) from the robata grill. These items are grilled only over binchotan. Meaty shiitake mushrooms ($2) arrived as thick and juicy as a beef filet (and are as close as carnivores will get to red meat — there's no beef or pork on the menu).
After exhortations from a parade of young waitresses to try shrimp spring roll ($4.25), I gave in. I shouldn't have. What arrived was a boringly safe lone eggroll filled only with shrimp. Blobs of ketchup and mayonnaise couldn't dress up this plain Jane.
"Kamameshi-style (baked in an individual-sized pot) rice cooked with fully flavored yam and bamboo charcoal powder" ($8.50) arrived with a clear dashi (broth) to eat as a porridge similar to ochazuke. The chewy rice, dusted grey with charcoal, developed a beautiful golden crust the way Korean dol sot bibim bap does, and the pasty side of yama-imo was neutral-tasting.
Reputed to have detoxifying properties, the charcoal is supposedly one of the healthy benefits of Tsukuneya's food. The menu also hypes smooth skin from eating isoflavone-laden tofu made fresh (by machine) daily using soybeans imported from Gifu prefecture. Intriguing dishes of refreshingly crisp daikon salad ($7.75), dotted with melting bits of shiso jelly, and Nagoya bijin salad ($10.50), a sashimi-and-salad combo, canceled out four unexciting, overpriced desserts. I'd rather spend money on more small plates than on a $7 slice of cheesecake — made with tofu — that resembled pound cake, or a $5.25 annin tofu that's like extra-silky almond float.
While different dishes here may lag behind their counterparts at spots such as Konotori and Momomo, Tsukuneya is a winner on one count: booze prices. Kirin tall boys are $5.50 (up to $7 elsewhere).
Tsukuneya's luminous orange glow across from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa campus attracts an East-West crowd. The dilapidated shell that seemed destined for demolition has been reborn as a contemporary space with black-stained wood walls and Art Nouveau-esque swirls behind the backlit bar. Halogen spotlights and intimate dining nooks give it a nightclub feel. Dance music, which alternates fitfully with no music, along with other ups and downs, give an amateurish quality to what could easily be a class act.
The PDA-equipped staff has been hustling ever since Tsukuneya's soft opening early last month. They try to describe and recommend dishes but still need to become more familiar with the multi-section menu, which can read like a Hello Kitty passage.
With a little time and practice, I'm sure the restaurant will perfect its presence. In the meantime, it will definitely draw crowds for its novelty. As operations director Tony Jones described the Tsukuneya concept, "It's something that's new, but it's also not too unusual. It's still chicken."
Reach Helen Wu at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, service and ambience in relation to price. Menu listings and prices are subject to change. Reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. The Advertiser pays for meals.