Ichiriki offers delicious dining in group setting
By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Lesa Griffith
No matter the cuisine, Hono-lulu restaurateurs feel the need to filter their concept through that nebulous thing we call "local." Whether that means adding hamburger steak to the menu or adulterating cooking traditions, it happens all the time.
At Ichiriki, a contemporary nabe house that opened across the street from Ala Moana Center in August, that means including poke among the appetizers — to simple, successful effect. The kitchen's spicy twist has faultless cubes of 'ahi in a light sauce with a kim-chee base, sesame oil and a hint of that all-purpose Japanese ingredient, ketchup.
There are other appetizers, but if you plan on having a full cook-your-own dinner (and not just to nibble and sip your way through the selection of shochus) don't waste valuable stomach real estate on cheese yakko (cubes of cream cheese topped with green onion and bonito flakes — what, ran out of tofu?) and ita wasa (kamaboko with shiso leaves).
Nabe — a cook-your-own hot- pot ritual — is the specialty here, and the whole restaurant is geared toward group eating — you sit in a booth or a tatami room. You have two choices to make: broth and style. Take your pick of the house Ichiriki, shio (salt), miso, pirikira (spicy with garlic and chilies), kim chi and tsukune (a lighter shoyu). And you can have it in a metal pot or kami style — in a bowl fashioned from washi paper.
It's a novelty having your broth simmer in what looks like a giant coffee filter, marveling that the gas flame doesn't torch it and the broth gush all over the table. It ostensibly absorbs fat from the meats you add to broth. If you're not watching your cholesterol, the main difference is you can get the traditional style for one, while kami style is for two or more only. (The traditional metal pot can come with a divider so a twosome can eat two different nabe.)
Localization at Ichiriki also means boosting the broths. In a cuisine where delicate subtlety is a trademark, miso is sweet, salty and thick. The pirikira, with tiny rounds of sliced chilies bobbing on top, satisfies spice hunters.
If you go for sukiyaki, the broth is so sugary that as it starts simmering down, it's almost a glaze.
Purists might find fault with the bolder flavor, but the nihonjin who filled the seats on a recent weeknight, as cool jazz oozed from the speakers, didn't seem bothered.
Diners get a platter of fresh ingredients to add to the pot. Get the signature Ichiriki nabe and the ingredients are cubes of tofu, mushrooms (enoki, eryngi and shiitake), won bok, bok choy, leeks, abura- age (fried tofu), kuzukiri (arrowroot noodles), spray of green onion, beef that looks like the picture of muscle health, sausage, two scallops, two shrimp and a bamboo tube of tsukune — a chicken-and-pork paste that you scoop into little meatballs (and that taste disconcertingly like Jimmy Dean sausage). You're all set for interactive dining.
Engaging in food engages diners in each other. "Pass the scooper," "Don't let the meat overcook!" "Did you get a scallop?" In between chatter, bites and food-fishing, nabe (and shabu shabu and sukiyaki) dining is a feel-good communal effort aimed at sating your culinary desires. Like a selfish barn raising.
As the broth boils down, the items are plucked and eaten, and all the different juices intensify, knowledgeable servers come to your nook to top off the pot. Yes, the best is yet to come.
This is what you save room for: The noodle session. As is custom, you get an order of ramen or udon noodles. Nabe dining is a meal that evolves. By now, the broth is a masterpiece of concentrated flavor (the piquant pirikira is exceptionally layered with taste), and the doughy comfort of a thick, chewy strand of udon steeped in the stuff makes you wish you hadn't eaten that poke and weird cream cheese dish. You just want to sit back and keep slurping noodles until the last drop of broth is savored.
The low-lit, sleek room encourages lingering. It's practically a cliche to call a new Japanese restaurant stylish already. Like Momomo, Shokudo, Okonomiyaki Kai and a slew of others, Ichiriki gets the casual chic right. The owners, working with local architect Roy Yamamoto, retool the country-inn look with mist-gray walls, shoji accents and pendant rice-paper lamps.
The impresarios behind the operation are Issei Kazama and Riki Kobayashi. Both born in Japan and longtime Hawai'i residents, the duo are veterans of the local hotel and restaurant biz. Working at another well-known cook-your-own restaurant (which they prefer not to name), they realized "how popular cooking at your own table was here," says Kobayashi. But they had their own concept. So five years ago, Kobayashi went to Osaka to train in a shabu shabu restaurant.
The partners came up with the nabe broth recipes "to make it more local-friendly," he says, "Between Issei and myself, one of us is at the restaurant at 9 or 10 in the morning, preparing the broths and prepping the food."
Early evening, older, mainstream eaters fill the booths; as the night goes on, the crowd gets younger and more stylish. Kobayashi's wife, who works in a Waikiki hotel's public relations department, has gotten the Ichiriki word out to Japanese magazines.
However, he says, "Our target is ... to introduce this Japanese dish to locals."
With a handful of new and old restaurants handing their customers the key to the cooking pot, is Ichiriki part of a trend?
"It could be," says Kobayashi, "but we're different from everyone else."
Reach Lesa Griffith at firstname.lastname@example.org.