A fond welcome back to a beloved Japanese nook
By Mari Taketa
Special to Metromix
Michinoku, were you a dream? Your luscious sushi bowls, their mounds of natto-flecked 'ahi, unagi cradled in silken pools of grated mountain yam, and our absolute, pound-the-table favorite negitoro 'ahi belly sprinkled with green onion: What happened?
The last time we saw you, in your near-hidden spot on Kalakaua Avenue, things weren't the same. Your negitoro was lacking its buttery freshness. Your steaming egg custard had a rubbery sheen. And even now it hurts to say this, because we totally get it, the economy was in the weeds and the crowds had dwindled, but there was no yummy gingko nut waiting for us at the bottom of the custard.
Sadness and sighs. We consoled ourselves with your awesome sashimi. Sweet morsels, gentle on the tongue and soul. But we were heartsick.
When we heard you'd closed, we weren't surprised. But of all the places that closed all over town over the last year and a half, we missed you most.
Time moves on. Now it's spring, and on a tip from our hairdresser, we discover that Michinoku is back.
The place is totally hidden from street view — it's on Ke'eaumoku Street, across from Daechun Cold Noodle and underneath the taekwondo studio. You literally have to be standing in front of it to see it.
If the place was cozy before, it's tiny now. Five seats at the sushi counter, room for 16 at the tables. Clean and bright. Same collection of tiny dolls on the back wall, same cute sushi clock on the side.
Sushi bowls, nigiri sushi, udon, appetizers — all same, says Takeko Kato, who owns Michinoku with her husband, sushi master Isamu Kato.
As always, more than 50 percent of the fresh fish choices are flown in from Japan, and the sushi here is totally traditional — no dragon roll, no chili sauce or tempura flakes, no mayo, no dynamite.
A few of our favorite must-try dishes at Michinoku:
i Mrs. Kato recommends the bodara netsuke ($8), semi-dried black cod simmered in a strong shoyu-mirin sauce. The fish is tender and completely saturated with flavor. Good on its own, awesome with sake. (The place is BYOB for now.)
i The stingray karaage ($8) comes with a ponzu sauce into which you mix red pepper and onions, and the stingray itself is soft and moist, not greasy or fishy.
i The hotate ikura sushi bowl set ($16) is as good as it ever was, the hotate is fresh and sweet and the rice is perfectly flavored. The naguro sushi bowl set ($14.50) is delectably slimy! Good-quality, soft natto, and translucently fresh maguro, with not a stringy piece in sight.
iAlso recommended: the moist and mild butterfish teishoku ($18 for the set), ikura oyako sushi bowl ($15 for the set).
Ah, Michinoku, we are stuffed to the gills — and happy.
That restaurant netherworld you disappeared to over the long fall and winter, it made us realize some things. You're one of Honolulu's hidden gems, a chill, no-frills place where anybody can pound some awesome fish and udon.
And you know exactly who you are.
Your menu is still small and exactly the same: You do fresh, and you do it traditional-style. Keep doing both, and you'll keep us eating out of your bowls.
Welcome back, Michinoku.
835 Ke'eaumoku St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closed Mondays
POP GOES THE POP
Brothers Joe Welsh and Joshua Lanthier-Welch have come up with a cool way to show off local ingredients without getting all high-maka about it (refreshing, right?). The brothers' OnoPops are Mexican-style paletas (or popsicles) made from locally grown ingredients that pack a serious Hawaiian-style punch. The icy treats come in a bunch of fun and inventive flavors such as "Pineapple Li Hing," P to the O to the G," "Orange Cinnamon," "Kona Latte," "Apple Banana Banana Cream Pie," "Kula Strawberry Maui Goat Cheese" and, our favorite, "Ume-Thai Basil." OnoPops are available at various farmers' markets and open markets, and they can also be special-ordered.
— Melissa Chang
Meat and potatoes
Highway Inn (94-226 Leoku St., 677-4345) now serves kalua pig quesadillas, which in itself isn't super noteworthy, because who doesn't make kalua pig quesadillas these days? But a kalua pig quesadilla that's also stuffed with silky okinawan sweet potatoes? That's something worth trying. Take our word for it. Bonus: it's only $4.50 for the filling dish.
— Melissa Chang