Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Gaku Sushi Izakaya Oahu - Best Traditional Japanese in Honolulu

Rating 9.5/10

Definitely a hidden gem recommended to us by a nice chatty Japanese waitress at a totally different restaurant, and a place frequented by the local Japanese crowd. Went for dinner May 2010 - We initially felt a bit out of place as customers in the small bar with a few dark wood tables were primarily japanese, however, we were soon put at ease by the excellent service facilitated by Daniel the host (who was fluent in english and japanese) and Hideki, one of the chefs working in the open kitchen/bar assigned to us as we were seated at the bar. 


the FOOD
Giving free rein to Chef Hideki, he created an excellent omakase menu, choosing to prepare dishes made with our input on taste preferences, along with whatever fresh seafood was present that night as well as a few of their house specials.

Domo arigato gozaimatsu Chef Hideki!
First up for the night was fresh shelled Sunset Beach oysters.  Succulent, creamy and sweet, drizzled with a ponzo based drizzle and topped with fish roe and an ingredient only the chef could pronounce, they quickly disappeared after a few slurps. An excellent start to a memorable meal.


Next up was Gaku's special silky homemade tofu (on bottom of the cup), with dashi shayu jelly cubes (savory with a hint of sweet) topping, and garnished with a raw quail egg, and a superthin slice of cherry baby tomato.  It is easier to experience the contrast between the cool silky tofu and the savory, sweet, salty, richness and creaminess than to describe it.  The only thing I would wan tot suggest is to make the serving size of the tofu a bit smaller for a better balace as there was a fair amount of tofu in the cup.  Serving it in clear glass would also give customers a look at the lovely layered appetizer, instead of only when we dig out spoonfuls.

The Spicy Neghihamachi tartare was my favorite of the night.  Hamachi paste is topped with Gaku's special spicy sauce and a raw quail yolk was especially memorable as it combined the richness of quail egg yolk with hints of acidity and spicy peppers that never seemed to overwhelm the subtle sweetness of the hamachi. Mixing it all together and spreading it on small pieces of roasted nori added an element of interaction and play with your food.  You could also briefly pretend that you made the masterpiece in front of you as you stir the sauce and yolk into the tartare. Pretend of course, as we're leaving the realm of mastery to Gaku's chefs!


A Japanese meal wouldn't be complete without trying some sashimi.  A deftly and expertly cut plate of sashimi is plated before our eyes.  From the left to right, we had fresh and subtly sweet hamachi, sweet Kahuku shrimp found only in Hawaii, lean Ahi tuna, O-toro (creamy rich melt in your mouth yummmmmmm!), distinctly stong tasting japanese mackeral,  and a very crisp almost crunchy lightly sweet fleshed beltfish found only in hawaii.



Busy appreciating the textures of the sashimi, we missed our chef making our next dish.  A steaming hot bowl of aromatic broth is placed before us with strange floating items in it.   Another favorite of the night - The Chef explains that the floating items are made in house shitake mushrooms stuffed with with fish paste and taro root agedashi.  In otherwords, freshly ground fish paste is adhered to shitake mushrooms as well as chunks of taro root, dunked in a light tempura batter, fried and finally floated in a salty bonito based broth.


Next up was fresh Japanese Asari clams were sauteed in garlic and sake, then steamed in same to perfection - topped with shaved sweet onions and mini greens. Hands down best clams ever!!! Simplicity at its best. I think the chef was amused that we picked up the serving bowl, and proceeded to drink all the broth and sake the clams were steamed in..  yes it was that good.  It packed a bit of an alcoholic punch due to the amount of sake involved, but sooooo tasty!

There was an elderly gentleman who was celebrating his birthday, and our chef who was happily explaining different elements of whatever dishes he was happening to be preparing for other tables, took time to make a gorgeous plated mango pudding and fruit platter au gratis for the birthday boy. His knife skills were amazing as he deftly cut up a blueberry into 5-6 slices amidst other fruits and arranged the dessert into a piece of art.
Despite getting very scare in tummy space, the mark of a good Japanese sushi resturant is how well thier chefs make the seemingly easy layered egg nigiri, which reflects the skill of how well the other sushi nigiris will be executed.  Suffice to say, the sushi nigiri is made flawlessly. If you're only going to try one item on their menu, you must have a piece of their seared O-toro nigiri. One of the master chefs deftly makes the nigiri, then with precision of a diamond cutter, slowly and evenly caramelizes the top of the O-toro nigiri with a blowtorch. Results = Pure pure bliss. nomnomnom!!!



Miraculously still having a bit of tummy space, the chef whips up a heavily marbled Hawaiian beef carpaccio since we told him Canadian beef makes excellent beef tetaki.  Hawaiian cattle is finished on grazing on tropical plants instead of the usual corn or grass finishing, resulting in a heavily marbled meat that has faint hints of sweetness.

Only thing I want to suggest is - only gently sear the outside of the beef you use for beef carpaccio, and slice the beef paper thin to impart melt on the tongue tenderness.  Your chefs definetely have the knife skills, so I was surprised the slices of beef were quite thick, and a rather deep ring of overcooked beef around the edges of the carpaccio.  The flavor profile of the wasabi mayo tended to mask the ponzo sauce, so I would also suggest eliminating the wasabi mayo and perhaps add in some shaved sweet Hawaiian onions instead.


Finally, we finished off the almost near perfect meal with a mago pudding made with fresh mangos that just came into season three days ago.  The pudding was not as light and airy as I prefer, being on the slightly heavier side, and there was a few mango chunks within that indicated yup, there was fresh mango in it.




the VERDICT
With amazing service, super friendly staff (despite some language barriers), I was truly sad I didn't discover Gaku earlier and was only able to have one incredible meal before heading home to Canada. Then again, if I ate there everyday day, I'd be happily broke. Only quibble - the beef carparccio execution, 9.5/10.  Domo arigato gozaimatsu again Chef Hideki and the other 2 sushi masters for a truly amazing gastronomical experience!!  (and I'm sorry I probably horribly misspelled your name) Definitely will be heading back soon!

Gaku Sushi Izakaya
Address 1329 S King St Honolulu, HI 96814
Phone (808) 589-1329
Hours varies, call to find out and make reservations ahead of time
Gaku Sushi Izakaya on Urbanspoon



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