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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 31, 2006

Fresh flavors by chef Ogame are a well-kept secret

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Koichi Ogame, owner of Sushi Ogame on Sheridan Street in the Ke'eaumoku neighborhood, prepares an order for Aki Phillips, left, and David Phillips, both of Tokyo.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Three and a half (good to very good)

920 Sheridan St. at South King Street


Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 5-11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Details: Beer, wine, whiskey, sake, shochu. Reservations recommended. AmEx, JCB, MC, V. Small parking lot and street parking.

Overview: Fresh fish, creative small plates and sumo stews keep this gem of a neighborhood sushi bar busy with regulars.

Price: Lunch: $6.50-$13. Dinner: $3.50-$13 appetizers; $12-$30 sushi and sashimi sets; $3-$7 rice and noodles; $16 per person for chanko-nabe for two or more; $4 desserts

Recommended: specials, sushi, sashimi, nasu shigiyaki, ebi chili, buta kakuni, chanko-nabe, lunch teishoku, milk jelly

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The meal comprises ingredients freshly purchased by the chef. The 50-seat restaurant accommodates 11 customers at the sushi counter.

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In the constant battle of new and improved versus tried and true, restaurants sneak ammunition from both sides. Trendy upstarts rework traditional favorites while older standbys add novelty to their repertoire. (Lowest-common-denominator version: Starbucks launched a breakfast sandwich and McDonald's retaliated with "premium roast" coffee.)

So what happens when a David goes against a Goliath?

Koichi Ogame, chef-owner of Sushi Ogame, could probably tell you if he weren't so busy. Customers fill his modest 50-seat eatery tucked away on a side street behind the Ke'eaumoku Wal-Mart. Or they sit on a bench outside, waiting for a turn on one of 11 chairs at the sushi bar.

Opened in 2000, Sushi Ogame has a spartan interior that's a throwback to the pre-izakaya-boom days before big-money Japanese chains upped the design ante. Brush-painted calligraphy (done by an artist friend of Ogame) starkly adorns the walls. They echo the simplicity of the worn wooden beams of the Shingon Mission temple across the street, visible through the restaurant's front windows.

The Japan-born Ogame moved to New York at 20, working in restaurants there. Then he worked in Los Angeles. After five years at the Ala Moana Hotel, he started up Sushi Ogame.

Although some might consider Ogame's portions small, the food more than makes up for that deficiency in its bright, fresh flavors and creative but straightforward presentations. No showy inedible embellishments, just appealing, unpretentious food. Whatever is purchased — Ogame visits fish and vegetable markets every morning — is pretty much served that day.

Cleanly sliced sashimi arrived on a little metallic-glazed plate instead of the usual wooden geta tray. Maguro and hamachi practically melted in my mouth, with that certain ocean sweetness found in only the freshest seafood.

Ogame serves ebi chili ($8) in a bowl made of thin, translucent deep-fried white rice paper. A creamy, spicy sauce of mayonnaise and Vietnamese Sriracha sauce topped the dainty mound of lightly battered shrimp. Each bite flared and sparkled like adult Pop Rocks.

Okoge to tarako no dip ($6), a recent special, gives new meaning to fish and chips — and dip. Deep-fried rice chips combined the crunch of arare with the slight puff of rice cakes. The faint pink dip is speckled with cod roe giving a boost of real fish flavor.

Nasu shigiyaki ($4) — pieces of soft, hot eggplant painted with miso — yielded a haunting blend of smoky, salty sweetness.

My overall impression: Many of Ogame's dishes leave customers with a delectable memory that keeps them returning.

An outstanding chanko-nabe, a soup-stew commonly eaten by sumo wrestlers, made this apparent to me. The large pot showed up already bubbling, and was set on a portable gas burner to keep it simmering. The delicate broth was generously dotted with glistening shirataki strands, tofu and konnyaku cubes, chicken chunks, tender tsukune morsels and enoki, oyster and shiitake mushrooms. Perfectly cooked bean sprouts, napa cabbage and chives still crunched down to the last spoonful.

A three-compartment tray of condiments added a wonderful dimension to the stew. Fiery, sliver-thin rings of dried takanotsume (red hot pepper), finely grated garlic and freshly made yuzu kosho (a citrusy, hot paste of yuzu and jalapeno peppers) — each offered its own brand of heat, giving the dish complexity, if you wanted it.

Dessert at Ogame goes beyond the usual green-tea ice cream, with crEme brulée and milk jelly. The refreshing milky gelatin topped with strawberry coulis — a spinoff of berries and cream — was the best of the enders.

At lunch, Sushi Ogame serves only set teishoku meals, and udon, soba noodle and donburi dishes. The mix-and-match teishoku options ($7.50 and $8.50) make it an affordable option.

Newcomers to this nook might feel like they've stumbled upon a secret — one well kept by regulars who value Ogame's approach to standard Japanese dishes and his devotion to quality. Sushi Ogame may be a relative oldie, but it's certainly a goodie.

I asked Ogame if he felt pressure from showy upstarts such as Shokudo and Tsukuneya. He humbly put it this way: "Some of my customers, they go, but so far, OK."

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com. 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.