Wow! Little did wifey and I know how much of a treat we were in for! It wasn't supposed to be a big night out, just a few pieces of sushi and small dishes on a quiet weekday evening. However, one thing led to another, and pretty soon we were sent splurging on a big-time culinary education that pushed right out to the very borders of everything I ever imagined good sushi was all about! In fact, for sheer diversity, creativity, and presentation, this had to have been one of the most memorable sushi dinners I'd ever experienced!
We both walked into Zen Shu on Kapahulu Avenue, at the old Harpo's Pizza building, with very little in the way of high expectations. Being hailed as a kind of island-style Sports Bar, we both assumed its dishes would consist mostly of the usual local culprits like crispy garlic chicken, fried noodles, sliced rib steak, and other such choices, along with, ooops, almost forgot - a mediocre sushi consisting of sub-par-quality rice and a few basic varieties of fish, just enough to hold us over until we got the real thing later in the week!
However, much to our pleasant surprise, all it took was one look at the sushi bar to realize that this was no part-time sushi operation! The refrigerated showcase was large and cram-packed with a wide variety of fresh fish and other exotic-looking items, several of which are seldom seen on the island!
Zenshu Sushi Bar
But the real kicker was when someone very much unexpected came popping out of the kitchen. Chef Ryuji-san (most just say Yuji-san - and that's not him above!) is a long-time veteran of several top-knotch sushi establishments on the island, including Tokkuri-tei, Maguro-ya, and Yohei. When he then explained he was not only a chef, but part-owner, I knew right then and there we were in for something truly special! Here's a shot of chef Ryuji-san, with headband, along with, from left to right: myself, Alyson Helwagen from LeiChic.com, Grace Lee from KGMB news, part-owner John Tsuda, and part-owner/chef Wilson Chang, from a recent KGMB news story:
Chef Ryuji-san, with headband, along with, from left to right: myself, Alyson Helwagen from LeiChic.com, Grace Lee from KGMB news, part-owner John Tsuda, and part-owner/chef Wilson Chang
The store design was a cool fusion reflecting both a clean, simple Japanese decor and a schnazzy, upscale sports bar look. I'm not so sure about gazing upon the same colorful reef fish all night on large, brightly-colored screens situated throughout the room, though - I kept thinking the scene would change once-in-a-while, maybe veering off to a passing moray eel or hungry ulua snapping up some dinner, but it stayed constantly serene the whole time, as if a live-action video camera were anchored onto the reef and simply left there. Perhaps this was the "Zen" side of Zen Shu?
Nevertheless, this is a sports bar, too, so there are yet other screens playing all your latest scores and favorite highlight reel's. Another section opens up to a few more tables and a full bar, which is where you'll find a little more action.
Zenshu bar area
Wifey and I were sure to talk story a little bit with chef Ryuji-san and get the scoops on what items were coming in particularly fresh that day. There happened to be so many of them we ended up just doing an omakase, the name used for not ordering anything yourself, but leaving fate completely and totally in the hands of your chef. Naturally, it's considered an honor and sign of trust in the chef's skills and abilities, as you are giving him freedom to present his own special array of tailor-made dishes, each unique course reflecting only the very best the chef has to offer on any given day. For a pure sushi-lover, there's simply nothing better than omakase, so long as you're willing to pay for it - get ready to shell-out anywhere from $75-$100 at most places!
The opening course came as quickly as our first sip of icy-cold Kirin draft, and in the form of a very dramatic opening...
Sazae sea snail
Yes, that is a fire, burning from a mound of salt crystals and a touch of alcohol. It's called sazae, or sea snail, and is very popular all over Japan but seldom seen here. It's not something I'd order myself, actually, but wifey goes crazy for this delicacy. While in Japan, I've had it simply roasted lightly over an open fire, which is the way it's normally enjoyed, but pulling out and finishing the whole creature, just barely-cooked and with its huge section of black guts, was a bit much for me to handle! This one, however, was easier to eat because its sections were already pre-cut. Wimp that I am, I ate only the cleaner, meatier parts of the snail while wifey happily enjoyed the rest. Yeah, she's pretty hard-core, you know!
Next-up were a couple of waaay cool-looking items...
These pretty bowls couldn't have been much longer than my pinkie-finger, each one containing a trio of what I thought were baby squid, but were actually full-grown adults called hotaru-ika. Found seasonally in Japan, the name means firefly squid, so named because they come up nightly from deep waters and actually glow in the dark, blanketing the surface of the ocean and providing quite the show for fisherman, who are sometimes seen throwing them up into the air for added effect.
Of course, when dead they glow no longer, but still provide much in aesthetic value when served whole and propped-up beside a pinch of green onion and bathed with a luscious, perfectly-matched togarashi/miso cream sauce. Though the combination of flavors on this dish was simply outstanding, just the colors and presentation alone, with its iridescent-pink and cutesy squid, highly sheened miso sauce, dark-green onions, and deep-blue porcelain bowl, was enough to set my own sense of culinary fascination on fire, heightening the mood and creating an anticipation deep inside, especially knowing that we were yet only two orders into this royal treatment of dishes!
By the time the next round came, I was simply floored. Could life be any better than at this very moment in time?
And yet, even this gorgeous shot fails to reveal the whole story behind this particular master-piece! Everything you see here, besides the shiso leaf and green onion, is made from different parts of a karei, or flounder, flown in from Japan. The fan-shape is, of course, made from the sweet, white flesh, while the brown, irregular-shaped pieces are from the liver. The bright-orange mound contains its roe, while the thick, pinkish-white slices come from the fattiest portion of the fish. A back-side shot of this beautiful presentation also reveals a silvery-gray mix that is actually flounder skin, minced into small shreds.
Our kind waitress, one of several who provided excellent customer service in a sweet, laid-back, but very helpful and attentive way, explained that a little bit of everything was meant to be placed and rolled inside each slice of the fan-shaped sashimi cuts, then dipped inside a small bowl of ponzu sauce. The thick, fatty slices on-top were a little too big to mix-in, however, besides the fact that you probably want to savor this prized section alone. Unlike buttery-soft toro, or fatty section of tuna, this cut was firm and crisp, reminding me of engawa, which is the fatty area coming from just under the dorsal fin and mostly associated with hirame, or halibut.
Not only did this dish have a show-stopping presentation, but it also came with a taste, freshness, and creativity that very much matched the modern, fusion nature of this particular restaurant/bar. I'd love to linger a while longer on its many unique qualities, but with so many other dishes coming, I think I'd better just move along...
Wifey sure was happy to see a small bowl of kazunoko, or herring roe. These firm, crunchy fish eggs are presented in a number of different ways, and often right along with the konbu seaweed they are naturally attached to in the wild. Here, Chef Ryuji-san simmers them in a soy/dashi/sake mix, which left them much sweeter and more mellow than the salty brine it usually comes in at grocery stores and even most other restaurants.
Next-up, because of a tougher texture, these grilled scallops seemed to come from smoked or dried varieties, but since they were also simmered in a soy/sake-based broth, there was a certain wetness that also provided a slightly more delicate touch. The black strips you see on the right are simply sheets of nori seaweed served alongside.
Another bi-valve came next, this time a set of Big Island mini-abalone, deep-fried in a light, golden batter. Farm-raised from the cold, deep waters off the Kona coast, these Japanese Ezo abalone species carry a crisp, snappy texture and a mild, super-clean taste, making them very popular with island chefs throughout the State.
Keep in mind that chef Ryuji-san is preparing a slightly more local-friendly line-up of dishes tonight by mixing-in all of these cooked shellfish varieties. Which is fine by me, of course, but Kumi would probably have been a little happier with a more Japanese-friendly set of courses that included more shellfish completely in the raw. Everyone being different, be absolutely sure to let the chef know if you have any preferences, as he is equally adept and capable at presenting either strictly traditional or local-style fusion dishes.
Our next course, for wifey's sake, was completely raw, coming from cuts of ika, or squid. Honestly, I reee-ally don't know what it is about raw squid that people love so much. I mean, I've had it as fresh as could be, literally while still moving and flashing in brilliant colors on my plate, but to me, it's still very much on the flavor-less side when fresh, and stinky-slimy when not. Of course, sushi-lover's everywhere are already scoffing at my unsophisticated lack of palate concerning this popular taste, but what can I say, local-boy that I am? Me, I'll take mine either hibachi'd or dusted, deep-fried, and dipped in a wasabi or mustard aioli!
The bright-pink you see on-top comes from another fish-egg roe called mentaiko, or pollock roe. On-top of that lay the tiny quail eggs so often used in sushi, their size making the perfect match for any sushi piece. This was actually wifey's favorite dish of the entire evening, but me? I have no idea how any of it tasted...
The next dish was right up my alley, however. All that fresh flounder flown-in from Japan was being put to good use that night, as these fatty pieces sat next to a crispy-fried section of bone and skin. On most sushi nights, we eat so much raw fish and rice that I look forward to at least a little piece of fried-anything to kinda round all the flavors out, but on this particulary lovely night, everything was so rich and luxurious that I had already had enough deep-fried treats! In fact, I couldn't help but having the same type of feeling swoop over me as occurred on our last visit to Alan Wong's, when the richness factor was so amazing I knew I couldn't go on much longer without falling into a level of decadence seemingly reserved for Sheiks, Princes, Emperors, and dictators!
A perhaps more familiar-looking dish, at least to visitors of my aku eats website, came in the form of two of wifeys' favorites - raw uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe). Only when uni is super-fresh do I love it, and on this evening it was, indeed. As for the ikura, chef Ryuji-san diffused the normally savory-strong flavors down a bit, soaking them in a soy/mirin base that made them extremely less salty and much more palatable. Ikura shipped into Hawaii is almost always high in salt, as it is used as a preserve. Tonight's salmon roe, however, tasted more like the fresh varieties you'd find in Japan, where extra salt is unnecessary. The white slices in-between are cuts of yama-imo, a mountain-type root vegetable that is very crisp, but also comes with a super-slimy substance many enjoy.
Ikura uni sushi
If I had to pick a favorite for the evening, I think it would be between either the baby squid shown as our second course, or this next one, which was a toro (fatty tuna), ever-so-slightly grilled. When it comes to highly fatty cuts like salmon and toro, I often waver between choosing completely raw and quickly-heated, as flash-searing really enhances the rich fat content, much like warm butter is more flavorful than cold, and also provides a nice contrast, with the inner portions still completely raw. The fish was so creamy-soft and buttery-good, though, that either preparation would have suited me just fine!
And I didn't even mention how great the rice was yet! Well, these grains are definitely of a superior grade like Koshihikari, and also from a skilled cooking process, as they were fluffy, pearly-white, and glistening with sheen!
Taste aside, the hands-down winner for most, uh, interesting dish of the evening went to our next course...
Fish sperm (shirako)
Lemme give you a hint - it's very closely related to another, very-infamous dish known by several different terms - tender groins, mountain beef, cowboy caviar, huevos del toro? Heck, I'll just give it away by saying Rocky Mountain oysters, or... bull's ball's! No, fish don't have ball's, but they do have a whole lotta sperm, which is what this dish consists of!
The creamy-white sperm sacs called shirako, this time coming from cod, is a delicacy not even a whole lotta Japanese can appreciate, with a taste I can only describe as perhaps part sour milk, part pork fat, and part ocean water! I'm sorry, but this thing was just waaay too rich and nasty for me, especially after all those decadent dishes already served! Even wifey, who usually loves anything and everything wild and exotic as this, didn't seem to care much for it. She said it didn't taste the same... Eee-zee over there, just kidding... They say the sperm sacs of fugu (pufferfish) and tai (sea bream) have an even more flavorful and sought-after taste, but I was kinda hoping for something with a little, uh, less taste?
Oh, well... we had to do it, or I couldn't live with myself, otherwise. Actually, when chef mentioned it in our little pre-meal conversation, it was the one thing I actually specifically requested trying! No regrets at all, but still... it sure was great seeing our next dish! A pair of super-jumbo U-9 shrimp, the largest size regularly available on the market, were presented before us in stunning fashion, and they were absolutely delicious, coming grilled to perfection and topped with a slightly mellowed wasabi:
It was kinda funny how a total of 12 separate courses had already been served, and for some reason, it all seemed to pass-by in such a flash! Though my mind kept arguing, even feigning surprise that something so grand had finally reached its inevitable end, my stomach, on the other hand, knew it was high-time to throw in the towel! Wifey, though, having had much smaller portions of most dishes served tonight, wrapped things up with one final dish to wind-down and warm the tummy, an uni chawanmushi:
And what more can I say? Zen Shu on Kapahulu Ave. wildly exceeded my every expectation. It's definitely not a menu I'd want duplicated every night, though, as specialty items like abalone, uni, kazunoko, and giant shrimp are super-rich, super-decadent, and sure to induce that age-old rich-man's disease so many of my friends come down with every so often - gout! Really sucks, from what I hear!
Hey, be sure to stop by and say hello to chef Ryuji-san - he is the coolest of guys, really down-to-earth and not your stereo-typical, sushi-Nazi-type chef. He'll be happy to accomodate your needs and concerns, and will indeed whip up a grand feast that'll probably leave you just as happy and impressed as wifey and I were on this highly memorable occasion. Can't wait to return!
Take care, and Aloha till next time!
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I gotta eat here after reading this article and seeing these gorgous pictures!!! Now I'm hungry...again!!!
Oh wow...I thought Chef Ryuji did omakase only for meeeee ... (pout/whine).
But that's in my dreams... Ryuji-san is such a sushi/fish master and serves such gorgeous, incredibly fresh and simple but delicious food that I'm a hopeless addict.
Yes, the hotaru ika is that good. If you get served the paper-thin flounder, your timing is exceptional. If you get the seared toro (seasoned with a touch of salt and lemon - NO SHOYU), don't flop around too much on the floor in celebration ("woohoo").
This is how it is at Zen Shu.
My friend Victor-san and I have a vicious Zen Shu photo fight going on since we aren't usually there at the same time. But we loooove to eat the same thing. Ryuji-san knows of this one-up competition and adds flame to the fire by serving us different creations that keeps the competition going on.
The people at Zen Shu are top-notch. Nick, Erin, Wilson, John and of course Chef Ryuji-san and the rest of the crew at Zen Shu are awesome.
Last comment - ask for the ume and shiso sorbet. It's true umami - a little sweet, fresh-tasting, sour, tangy, cold, textured, crunchy, salty...a memorable way to end an unforgettable experience.
Sorry guys!!! Hey, this whole AroundHawaii thing is new to me, so I haven't gotten around to correct some back-end things down until now! Now I know how to respond promptly. I'm so un-techy! Thanks Kikuchi for da props! And thanks Melo - got some pics on-line somewhere? I'd love to check 'em out! Yes, the folks at Zenshu are truly great, and Ryuji-san is a true artisan!