Local-style deli marries upscale cocktail lounge
|Photo gallery: Kochi Restaurant & Lounge|
By Alex Salkever
Special to The Advertiser
By Alex Salkever
Expensive track lighting. Big, frosted glass casement windows inlaid with a floral motif. High-backed booths in black fabric and a sleek, stone-floored bar area with copious cushions and an upscale sports bar vibe. Plates with artfully swirled sauces that you might expect at Roy's, Alan's or Sansei. Hawaiian shrimp slicked down with a cream curry sauce and paired with haupia fritters. Blackened 'ahi served atop a bed of mixed greens. Spinach salad. Could this slick restoboite really be the sibling of Gulick Delicatessen, the humble, much beloved blue-collar okazuya on School Street?
When megabuffet Makino Chaya shuttered its King Street location last year, the sign on the window went up announcing that Gulick Delicatessen would open an outpost on this bustling corner of Mo'ili'ili. Must mean the arrival of a mega-okazuya, right? The space was appropriate — lots of parking, close to the freeway, probably more room for catering (the real cash cow for many restaurants). Then the Makishi family, the clan that opened and still runs the old Gulick Avenue okazuya, threw a curveball, put up the fancy windows and announced that the new deli would be twinned with Kochi Lounge — a more upscale dining-and-cocktails hall.
When the deli shuts at 4:30 p.m., Gulick's kitchen is pressed into service for Kochi Restaurant & Lounge — aimed at young professionals and family-style diners willing to shell out $20 to $40 per person.
The eclectic, extensive multipage menu reflects the Makishis' upwardly mobile aspirations. It is still a fish-and-meat fest, with most a la carte items from the animal kingdom. And portions are enormous. Half orders are possible on many plates and generally sufficient to feed two.
I brought along my taste-test quartet to put Kochi through its paces. We ate early and were one of only a few parties in the dining room. First up, edamame, the only way to start a family-style dinner at a local restaurant in my mind. Kochi's iteration — a heaping plate of lightly boiled soybeans still in the shells with a hint of salt — was perhaps too minimalist for my taste. I'm partial to a bit of chili oil and shoyu or lemon juice on my edamame, a la Side Street Inn.
Next to arrive was agedashi tofu, three large rectangles of the squishy stuff adorned with the requisite green onions and resting in a pond of gingery broth. The taste-test quartet gave it a major thumbs up, with the kids fighting over scraps and my wife and I fighting over the rest. The flavor balance was right, with onion, ginger and sweet overtones playing nice and easy on the palate. Only a thin skein of deep-fried exterior alluded to the cooking method.
Yakisoba, with thin pork slices on the side per our request, tasted suspiciously like chow mein. The noodles weren't soft enough and the yaki sauce not potent enough. The pork came with a stronger, sweet-and-sour sauce that when added to the noodles, kicked it up a notch. Still, the plate could have used more zip.
On the other hand, we polished off the cold soba salad with hijiki seaweed, thinly sliced bell peppers and fresh greens, dressed with a zingy shoyu-mirin-ginger sauce. The veggies and seaweed made a nice crunchy contrast to the perfectly cooked noodles. I looked dolefully at my wife wiping out the last noodle cluster. "No more for you," she said, wagging her finger. "No more, Daddy," said the 2-year-old.
The heavy plates arrived at the table. The blackened 'ahi was more akin to sashimi, with the cooked border only a wafer-thin line of meat. No matter. The quality of the fish was excellent, with lovely fat lines running through the red flesh. On top, the chef had placed a bit of what tasted like the sauce you might get on unagi at a sushi bar. Under the bed of greens floated the aforementioned swirled pool of red cream sauce.
The half-order of Gulick Deli-style barbecue ribs came in a good-sized rack of eight or so beef bones. Half-order? Hah. Maybe if you're a sumo wrestler. The rack glistened with a sweet, ketchupy crimson sauce (that the menu proclaimed to be a house specialty). The braised meat fell off the bone with little coaxing in glorious, fatty chunks.
The Kochi Lounge ribs didn't have much shoyu or black-bean flavorings, a style favored by many local cooks whom I also like. No matter, the ribs were finger-licking good, and I licked my fingers copiously.
Out of curiosity, I ordered haupia fritters as a side to the 'ahi. My advice: Order them for dessert. (The waitress said they're intended for the curry dishes.) Fritters they are not. More like deep-fried cubes of extremely sweet haupia, they're decadent in the fashion of a deep-fried Snickers bar.
The dessert menu has five relatively unambitious items, such as a mochi sundae. Azuki beans, whipped cream, strawberry sauce, canned fruit and translucent balls of mochi rest atop a generous portion of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. Pleasant? Yes. Original? Not really. But perhaps I was expecting too much from a Gulick's sibling.
In the end, we had a great meal. Service was solicitous. Portions were generous, and the food was generally tasty. Nothing we ate was bad, and much of it was quite good. Now if I can only persuade my wife to stow the kids with a sitter so we can return as a duo and browse the cocktail menu.
FOOD AND RESTAURANT NEWS
Waikiki Beach Walk's latest eatery is Kaiwa (226 Lewers St., second floor, 924-1555), "teppan and sushi roll restaurant." Designed by Tokyo's Ken Numatani (he's also the man behind Okonomiyaki Kai's sleek look), Kaiwa serves innovative sashimi and sushi, along with tempura, teppanyaki and comfort food such as okonomiyaki and omurice.
Goran Streng, who was executive chef at the Hawaii Prince Hotel, is opening his own spot in the Hokua condominium building. Tango Contemporary Cafe is scheduled to open late next month.
The annual Lupus Foundation benefit bash, Honolulu Wine Festival, happens at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 29 in the Sheraton Waikiki's Hawai'i Ballroom. Dubbed "Evolution," as usual it features some of Hawai'i's favorite chefs, such as Hiroshi Fukui, Keith Endo, Donato Loperfido and Russell Siu. Chef George Mavrothalassitis will give a special VIP tasting. Tickets: $150. To buy tickets, go to www.lupushawaii.org or call 538-1522.
Hoku's chef Wayne Hirabayashi goes Californian on his "All Things Napa" menu Sept. 26, 27 and 29. His seasonal-ingredient concoctions include warm basil gnocchi salad and lamb stew with kabocha polenta. The special three-course menu (plus amuse bouche and dessert) is $88 per person. And on Sept. 27, rising culinary star Chris Manning of Domaine Chandon's Etoile Restaurant in Napa will offer his own prix-fixe menu of dishes (smoked Manila clams with creme fraiche, pan-roasted Wagyu beef) paired with wines from the famed winery. It's $88 for the food, $40 for the wine. To reserve, call 739-8780.