Japanese chic all the way at Sushi Izakaya Shinn!
We've all heard of Superstar Chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, of Morimoto's and Nobu's fame, as the two collectively own ritzy properties from Budapest and Moscow to Cape Town and Dubai. However, there's a whole line of similiarly-skilled Japanese chefs who have not gone the glamorized Hollywood/food channel route, those such as Chefs Hiroshi Shimada, Seiya Masahara, Seiji Kumagawa, and Manabu Kikuchi. Chances are, only the most die-hard of foodies around town are familiar with these names, yet the well-respected Executive Chefs from Rokkaku, Hakkei, Sasabune, and Gaku, respectively, are extreme talents with huge credentials and vast repertoires amongst them.
These days, I think it's safe to say that there's another big gun in town who can also be added to that short list. Foodies, remember the name, because Hiro Yokoyama-san is destined for greatness in the islands, so long as he stays around for a while! A veteran chef from Kyushu, his new dig Shinn has opened with very little fanfare and very little notice from the local press, but I have every confidence that, in time, this waaay-cool spot will be revered and mentioned right alongside the very best Japanese restaurants in Honolulu, and I don't say that lightly! He's also a very friendly and jovial guy, not at all like your prototypical Nazi Sushi Chef, and happily took the time to joke and banter-about with customers.
Sushi Izakaya Shinn is located on S. Beretania St., just Diamond Head of McCully, in the same non-descript building housing Watanabe Bakery and Mini Garden Chinese restaurant. You might also be very happy to know that, unlike many of the top Japanese restaurants here, there is a relatively roomy parking lot located immediately after the building!
You'd never think it by judging from the humble entrance and modest demeanor outside, but from the moment you step in, the ambience is quite the bold contrast, and something similiar to what you might expect from a chic Waikiki restaurant or exclusive Waikiki lounge!
A small counter is immediately there to greet you, while on the right is a separate room housing a robata bar, a name used for a chef grilling items directly fronting customers. The squarish-shaped robata counter looked very much like a sushi bar, with a single perimeter of chairs surrounding the chef. On all our visits, this area filled much quicker than the main dining room, and even though we got there only a few minutes after their opening at 5pm every time, it was always so full I didn't wanna bother customers by asking them all to say cheeez! The kind manager, Yuki Yamamoto-san, was gracious enough to allow us camera freedom, so I didn't want to take advantage of the honor, especially not in this kind of place where you can really feel the orderly, culturally-sensitive Japanese mindset permeating the room!
But no worries, as it's the main dining area and sushi bar that are the most impressive to behold, anyway!
Why, this room could pass for a smaller Nobu's or Morimoto's, no? It's pretty darn swank all the way, from the clean, razor-sharp lines, bright cheerfulness, and lightly-toned woods of the sushi side to the cherry-stained tables, modern, white leather-clad chairs, and stylish string curtains sitting across the aisle, and even down to the hyper-chic restroom, complete with available mouthwash and some cleansing bidet action! The first and only time I ever tried one, I almost hit my head on the ceiling afterwards!
Deep in the back, at the very end of the dining room, sits a cool-little VIP table area elevated a good 4-5 feet up in the air! Despite many obviously well-to-do Japanese diners in-house, I've never seen anyone sitting there, even as the restaurant was completely packed and with a line forming outside! Here's a slightly better shot of the section, standing alongside a small stairway entrance and blocked by a pair of stanchions and red rope:
VIP section. No, I was not allowed access...
While service was generally good, the server on our last trip, Mayumi, was absolutely fabulous! She changed our small, individual plates after each course, attended dutifully to drinks without us waving her down, did everything with a cheerful smile, and basically, spoiled us rotten! Thanks Mayumi-chan! You need a raise!
Before finally speaking of ryori, tabemono, what the heck - da grindz, let me first complement Sushi Izakaya Shinn's diverse menu. Not only is the sushi outstanding; not only is the robata grill top-knotch; not only are the izakaya-like dishes fantastic (a whole lot of diversity already!), but the real topper, for me, is the wide variety of obviously upper-crust, very sophisticated dishes that, dare I say, even remind me of kaiseki fare?! Of course, I'm not talking about the lengthy and elaborate processes of an entire, properly-administered kaiseki meal, but when certain dishes were presented before us, the level of such fine presentations and general excellence over-all kinda surprised me! I mean, here I am thinking along the lines of typical sushi and izakaya, and all of a sudden, plates that look like individual courses from a genuine kaiseki meal are staring me in the face! What to do?
That being said, however, I still believe you could possibly walk in, walk out, and find the food here not radically distinguishable from many other great izakayas around town! Whaaat? Didn't you just say...? Please, allow me to explain. Robata-grilled items are by nature seasoned and executed very simply - a sprinking of natural salt or some type of teri sauce, for example, along with the taste of fire on various items is the basic sequence of DNA found anywhere. Of course, you will notice plenty of good or bad depending on the restaurant, and having a great robata like Shinn still requires a definite skill set, only, c'mon now - it's a street-type food variety, not a torchon of foie gras or rack of lamb with port demi-glaze and red wine foam! And when it comes to great sushi, which you'll undoubtedly find at Shinn, you'll also have to ascede to the fact that there are a number of other excellent sushi houses in Honolulu, as well. The same, in fact, goes for great izakaya's. Therefore... in my opinion, if you pay a visit to Shinn and only order such staple but relatively simple items like boiled edamame, chicken karaage, maguro-zushi, hamachi, negima, tebasaki, bacon aspara - all great, though, don't get me wrong - you really won't be taking advantage of the full genius of Chef Hiro Yokoyama and his finest creations! I mean, yeah, go ahead and order some of them, as they are all delicious, but also make sure you at least try some of their more exotic fare, too, as in fancier items not found at every other Joe Izakaya on the island!
You'll see exactly what I'm talking about later in the page, but for now, let's take it slow and first check out some of their simpler, or more commonly-found items (as described above!):
Robata goodies, hot off the grill!
A trio of grilled treats - oyster perfectly done ($4.50); a super-giant, very meaty, U-9 shrimp ($4.50); and my personal favorite on this plate, a crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside beef intestine stick ($3). All of them were executed extremely well, with a nicely-done char-sealing - simple, traditional, and delicious!
Our only other robata items were a set of negi and Shiitake mushroom (each $2), both seasoned with salt and a dash of shichimi togarashi for a little spice. I would have preferred some type of sauce and a douse of EVOO for tenderness, as they were pretty dry, but that's not really the Japanese robata way.
Don't forget your veggies!
Leaving the subject of grills and sticks behind, let's check out their sushi! And by the way, nigiri are sold per piece, so when you see aji, hottate, ikura, salmon, and other such items for as low as $2 and rarely over $5, there's why!
Here's a trio of invertebrates, all as fresh as can be, from left to right, hottate (scallop-$3), mirugai (geoduck clam-$7), and ama-ebi (sweet shrimp-$4):
Hottate, mirugai, and ama-ebi
And finally (for sushi!), left to right again, shima aji (yellow jack-$5), kohada (relatively young gizzard shad-$4), and ikura (salmon roe-$4):
Shima aji, kohada, and ikura
Shima aji is one of my favorite pieces of nigiri. Its flesh is pinkish and fatty like a hamachi, but not quite as soft and creamy, being more on the crisp, firm side. Seeing that it belongs to the jack family like our own local papio, restaurants will sometimes serve papio and label it as shima aji. This one, however, was imported from Japan, which explains the higher price tag of $5 and also the much fattier, much sweeter flesh, as cold-water fish are naturally fattier than their warm-water brethren in Hawaii, even when they happen to be of the same species!
As for kohada, I don't normally care for cured, vinegared fish like Kohada often is, but this piece was marinated ever so slightly, flushing the mildly fishy taste out while preserving the natural flavors within. I remember catching truck-loads of this particular fish, only in larger, 1-2 lb. sizes, on the Columbia River in Oregon. We used them only as bait, however, as most locals outside of recent Asian implants wouldn't touch them for anything else!
I was also very glad, relieved, even, that the ikura didn't consist of your typical salty roe, which is so often simply spooned out of a container and into your gunkan pit. Judging by color and taste, it was obviously rinsed of excess salt and flavored in a lighter fashion with some type of shoyu or ponzu-based sauce. Few restaurants here on the island will take the extra time, but for the best of 'em, it's a golden rule!
Robata, down. Sushi, down. As for izakaya-like dishes, we already know that the term is simply a Japanese bar/tavern also serving food, so it could basically mean anything, including all of the above! Let's just say, then, that the immediately-following dishes of oden, udon, kama, omelet, and korokke are "other" commonly-found izakaya dishes not falling into any other category mentioned today! Wakarimasu? All are classic, very traditional comfort foods, the first being an inexpensive type of meal found in any neighborhood 7-Eleven or Lawson's (the other 7-Eleven there!):
Japanese comfort food!
Oden is the name for any number of different ingredients simmering in a soy-dashi-flavored broth. Name your meat or vegetable, and it's likely been tried! You can actually specify what types you want individually, or try a variety set like the one above ($8), which included fishcake, a gobo-wrapped fishcake, konnyaku, daikon, whole egg, and a single baby squid. That ominous-looking blob in the foreground is beef tendon, or gyu-suji ($2.50), which Kumi added to the set. I usually see these in small pieces, so it was a bit imposing trying this giant, knotted mass of gelatinous tissue, roughly three-quarters the size of a tennis ball! After a few tiny nibbles, I left the rest for her!
The udon was very interesting, as it came kicked-up with a few slices of duck breast! Definitely showing flashes of brilliance even in such a humble food type, not only were they some of the softest, tenderest duck anywhere, but you could also taste some essence of waterfowl in the broth, as well, meaning, it wasn't just a normal bowl of udon with a few pieces of duck placed on-top afterwards. Excellent.
Not your grandmother's udon, for sure!
Though I had high hopes for our next particular dish, it was probably the weakest item we experienced while dining at Sushi Izakaya Shinn. Seeing that I love a good hamachi kama every once in a while, I could only speculate that their special offering of onaga kama would also be a winner, and at six bucks, how could I go wrong?
Turns out, I realized on this fine evening that onaga kama is head-and-shoulders inferior to hamachi kama, as the pockets of flesh were nowhere as large, nowhere as fatty, and nowhere as tasty! There was absolutely nothing wrong with the grilling nor of the seasoning, but unfortunately, onaga is just not the ideal fish for grilled kama!
No kama works like a hamachi kama!
Our very kind waitress Mayumi recommended two dishes that are extremely popular here at Shinn, and we're glad to have tried both! First, a toro-toro omelet ($6), which is basically a super-soft egg:
Trust me, you'll need a spoon!
So soft, in fact, that they also give you a spoon! I didn't think I'd need it, but the insides are so runny that, believe me, you will be using it! Outside, a deliciously rich demi-glace with mixed mushrooms added an almost beefy punch to the delicate egg.
And here's the other recommended dish:
Another kicked-up comfort food!
Korokke, the Japanese way of saying croquettes, are another staple comfort food imported from another country, this time France, a long time ago and adopted as their own. These two fried balls of luv are crispy on the outside and lusciously soft on the inside, with a potato crab mix that is simply divine! A light but perfectly-matched ume plum sauce is applied to finish, and works well even for folks like myself who don't particularly care for ume!
By now, you can already tell this place is pretty darn good, but from here on out, you'll see some of the fancier, more exotic fare spoken of earlier, all dishes that I'd be confident enough to order with even the most couture and haute friends from Downtown Tokyo, if only I knew any!
First off, a beef tataki ($12) that was relatively inexpensive, generously portioned, and, as you can see, beautifully adorned:
That deserves another shot!
Next, a trio of sashimi pieces, including mirugai, orange clam, and scallop ($15). Sorry - not the best of pictures, but trust me when I say each slice on this beautiful set was spot-on excellent, both in taste and presentation! The mirugai and orange clam were crunchy-firm without being rubbery, while the scallop came butter-soft and uber-fresh! I love the little details inherent, such as scallop pieces sandwiching lemon rounds, fresh-grated wasabi mound on radish, and various garnishes of ogo, daikon, scallion, and more, not to mention the bed of ice underneath. On this and several other dishes, you'll notice a tiny half-lime called kabosu, but which looks to me like the more locally-familiar calamansi lime of Filipino descent. I'm sure they could use either without skipping a beat!
Chilled sashimi a la bivalve!
I've seen different types of genkijirushi before, but Shinn's version ($11) is the most elaborate, best put-together I've seen anywhere! It must have been a labor-intensive operation assembling the 13 (for good luck!) different items together, including minced ahi, wakame, takuan, okra, tako, natto, yama-imo, ogo, shiso leaf, quail egg, sea asparagus, and sesame seeds. Actually, it's really 14, since sheets of crisp nori are also presented and meant to be used as a kind of Japanese tortilla! Our directions were to mix everything together, spoon it onto a sheet of nori, wrap it like a burrito, and eat! I must admit, this local boy carried no small sense of trepidation here, as natto happens to be one of the few commonly-found foods I won't touch with a 10-foot pole! Turns out, however, I couldn't sense even the slightest bit of the nasty in this dish, and it was, in fact, so good I ended-up downing several pouches worth!
Mixed together, the different sensations in the mouth were like a celebration of exotic Japanese flavors, with no one element overpowering the other, as well as a great contrast of varying textures, from slimy and tender to crunchy and firm. It was lively, colorful, and fun while also embodying a seemless harmony at the same time, not to mention the obvious health benefits, which you could literally feel nourishing both your body and soul!
Here's a shot of the excellent mix, mixed!
Japanese chop suey?
I understand that this type of dish may not appeal to everyone, but if Japanese foods hold any sort of appeal to you, I highly recommend you try it!
One of the more popular of these fancier dishes is the botan ebi with yuzu gelee ($13.50). A single shrimp head is placed alongside four sweet, totally raw tails and covered with a delicate gelee that was so light (and perfectly so, since there was so much of it given!), I had to taste several small spoonfuls alone to decipher the slightly tangy citrus flavoring. Underneath, a bed of many of the same vegetable types as the genkijirushi lay in picturesqe coordination. Given, I'm not a big raw shrimp fan like Kumi, but I could defnitely appreciate the artistry!
Botan ebi w/yuzu gelee
And to close, quite ironically, we'll end with the very first dish of our very first visit. To state once again, Kumi and I first came expecting a typical sushi and izakaya experience, but right off the bat, this gorgeously-done platter instantly raised the bar and told us that this was no ordinary Japanese nightspot! Their zensai, a term that simply means a starter dish, consisted of a gorgeous trio of seafoods ($12), shown in the next shot. In the foreground are a few slices of kazunoko, or herring roe, sliced cross-wise and still showing lines of konbu leaf that adult herring attach their eggs to. Like our ikura earlier, these pieces were flushed of excess salt and instead marinated in a shoyu or ponzu-based dashi broth, which makes a hugely positive difference. The center dish was a simple and classically-done whole shrimp, while in the background sat a couple of Big Island abalone, cooked to a tender, yet crisp perfection and flavored oh-so-subtly to highlight the naturally sweet, naturally luxuriant taste of this outstanding local product. Garnishes of ginna (ginko nut), hasu (lotus root), sansai no aimono (mix of mountain vegetables), baby carrot, kabosu, and green onion tips completed the set.
A trio of fanciful seafoods
It was a breath of fresh air seeing such tastefully-presented dishes, all fashioned together in a manner reminiscent of the few kaiseki meals I've been lucky enough to partake of in my lifetime (including a prominent one in Tokyo!), at least when it comes to the last several dishes shown. The classic Japanese elements of fresh, natural, harmonious, and simple yet exquisite and micro-detailed at the same time are well-represented here, and it is this more sophisticated facet of the restaurant that, to me, elevates it above others around town. While entire establishments can be devoted to a sushi bar alone, a robata bar alone, an izakaya alone, or a kaiseki in entirety, it's not often that you can do it all as well as Shinn does!
Surprisingly, the only other restaurant affiliation Sushi Izakaya Shinn has on the island is a bento store called Kokoro-tei, located just up the street! Granted, their bento is really good, but who'da thought?
I gotta hand it to chef Yokoyama-san and his excellent crew - they've got a really good thing going here. It hasn't even reached the big newspaper articles yet, but the place is still mostly packed! No doubt, however, the Japanese media has been giving it a fair share of attention, as the dining room is mostly filled with Nihon-jin right now, which is another good indication that you're sure to find authentic Japanese cuisine of a very high caliber! In short - this place rocks!!!
Hey, hope you're all having a great and wonderful month!
Take care, and Aloha till next time!