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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 28, 2007

Kaiwa takes Japanese creativity up a notch or two

Photo gallery Photo gallery: Kaiwa restaurant

By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Chef-owner Isamu Kubota at the teppan bar.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Advertiser

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Rating: Four forks out of five (Very good)

Waikiki Beach Walk, 226 Lewers St., second floor, 924-1555, www.dotcommise.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight daily

Prices: $7-$12 starters, $15-$22 sashimi, $10-$35 teppan

Payment: MC, JCB, VS; no checks

Details: validated parking (though it's still $6) at Embassy Suites hotel, entrance on Beach Walk (the street, not the mall), full bar, reservations recommended.

Recommended: Pure Nippon, uni and caviar gelee martini, soba cocktail, Hoku Hoku kabocha, kurobuta moromiso, nasu enoki kurobuta maki, Akashi tako and tsubugai

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Amazing dish alert: Chef Hiroshi Fukui's latest edible plaything is Big Island baby abalone. He cooks the tender shellfish sous vide (in an airtight plastic bag in water) with garlic butter for 4 1/2 minutes at 120 degrees, then serves them with a tangle of red and green tosaka seaweed, sea asparagus, shiso and lap cheong in a sesame vinaigrette. That's just one of five abalone preparations that will be on special at Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas (Restaurant Row, 533-4476) from Monday to Saturday.

Animal cookies: Addicted to Hokulani Bake Shop's cupcakes and cookies? The flour-and-frosting masters are now a vendor at "The Lion King." They are selling cookies in the shape of what else? animals and their unparalleled cupcakes in the Lion Pride Cafe on the diamondhead side of the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

Event: Chamber Music Hawaii celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special four-course benefit dinner 6 p.m. Oct. 7 at Cassis by Chef Mavro. Each dish will have a wine and live music pairing. A live auction will benefit the Chamber Music Hawaii Endowment Fund. Tickets: $300. Call 372-8236 for reservations.

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Husband-and-wife team Isamu and Motoko Kubota were the masterminds behind soon-to-close Kai, which broke new restaurant ground when it opened in 2004, specializing in okonomiyaki and sporting a Jetsons-modern look by hot Tokyo restaurant designer Ken Numatani. (The team will open a new location on Maui.)

Just opened last month in Waikiki Beach Walk (the am-I-in-Orlando? mall, not the street) is its replacement, Kaiwa, and the Kubotas are thinking bigger and better. They again hired Numatani to create a culinary Disneyland (in a good way) choose from the teppan bar, the sushi bar, the main dining room, or the sexy erstwhile tatami room (called the "zashiki" room). It's a kaleidoscope of chocolate brown tiles, understated waterfall (more a glistening sheet over aforementioned tiles), strands of lights that form celestial curtains, dropped ceilings of Japanese fabric.

It's easy to lounge in the zashiki nook, where a carpet that's like the pelts of expensive teddy bears replaces traditional mats. You sit on pleather cushions that soothingly cup your bottom, at pristine white tables, ready to hold your spectacular stemmed glass sake cups.

The food matches the setting. In these days of western chefs talking about gelees and sous vide, we seem to forget that in Japan's kaiseki realm, kitchens have for eons been doing seemingly impossible things with food.

The restaurant has an executive chef, Daisuke Miyakawa, but according to General Manager Dan Nishiyama, Motoko Kubota is behind the menu. The talents together make a supreme team.

Premium ingredients such as kurobuta pork, Akashi tako (octopus from Akashi is supposed to be the best in Japan), Japanese sea salt and Sumida watercress from Pearl City litter the menu. They are listed simply, but not all the dishes are simple.

Under "refreshers" and "Kaiwa Style Sashimi" on the menu come edible jewels each dish is like a finely crafted bagatelle. "Pure Nippon" is just a list of things like tako, cucumber, ume, ponzu and shiitake but what arrives are three red lacquer bowls, each filled with an exquisite arrangement. One contains slices of lotus root, tender after being braised in a soy sauce and topped with what looks like red hair chiles sliced as thin as threads and fried.

Somen as fine as angel hair pasta comes in three colors and is coiled in a martini glass and topped with shiso, shreds of crab, little balloons of ikura and iwanori (a type of seaweed).

Blobs of dashi gelee topped with uni and osetra caviar yields waves of subtle sweet and salt in an edible "martini." This reeling off of memorable dishes can go on a while.

From the teppan comes more straightforward dishes such as grilled tako (and whelks), but even that elicits oohs and ahs, the meat so tender and just tinged with a basil sauce.

The chef sautees sweet hotato scallops in butter and garlic and tops them with a tobiko mountain, each construction placed on a crisp strip of nori bite-size sculptures in white, red and black.

Grilled, moist kurobuta pork loin is topped with a thick miso sauce textured with barley. On top lay a few branches of fresh oregano. Do this: Pluck off a leaf and eat it with a bite of meat and miso; it's transporting.

From the well-chosen sake menu Akitabare Koshiki Junzukari junmai is a workhorse that goes with everything. Likewise the Dewazakura Oka is an eminently pairable choice. Be careful: In your sake joy, abetted by attentive, knowledgable servers (hope you get Miho), you may order more than you can chew, and the bill adds up fast.

Isamu and Motoko Kubota are the closest thing Honolulu has to New York's Jack and Grace Lamb, the culinary couple who know how to mix food and style at their seminal spots Jewel Bako and Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar. Kaiwa is the restaurant equivalent of a tennis bracelet. You'll leave a shiny, happy people.

Reach Lesa Griffith at lgriffith@honoluluadvertiser.com.