A Taste Of Japan In Kaimuki

Jo McGarry
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Friday - April 29, 2005
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Tomiko and Teruaki Mori offer traditional Japanese
cuisine at Izakaya Nonbei in Kaimuki

With a bunch of new restaurants opening recently, I feel I’ve been doing nothing but trying new dishes and observing chefs as they reach out to strike the culinary cutting edge. Sometimes I run for cover and comfort in restaurants that have been around a while. One that’s been around for more than a quarter of a century has a menu that is still written in Japanese, a chef/owner who hasn’t given so much as a nod toward Pacific Rim or Hawaii Regional cuisine in the 25 years he has been in the kitchen, and a sense of tradition that’s rarely found in the heart of Honolulu. Izakaya Nonbei is just my kind of place.

Not that owner Teruaki Mori and his wife, Tomiko, have deliberately bucked culinary trends; they’ve just been too busy doing what they do well to find the time to change.

The izakaya is more than charming. It’s like a little piece of Japan in Kaimuki. Blink and you’ll miss it as you drive along Olu Street, but stop and venture inside and you’re in for a really different experience.

At night, it does a roaring trade in bar business, serving regular customers from a menu that features beer, sake and more than 80 pupu.

The idea of an izakaya is to serve quality drinks with food as an accompaniment. And the food, one suspects, is a way of staving off inevitable inebriation brought on by too many shots of excellent sake.

Here sashimi is exquisitely fresh, bought at auction by Teruaki who shops each day in Chinatown and buys what looks best that morning. Resulting specials for lunch and dinner are merely a reflection of his trips to market.

The Nonbei Special Steak ($16.75) is deliciously tender and is a “must try,” as is the flounder (Karei Karaage, $11.75) and the sashimi platter. Or try the excellent Ahi Poke Donburi. But it’s at lunchtime that the best values can be found in a slightly less hectic atmosphere. Sit at the tiny bar and enjoy a selection of plate lunch-style dishes for just $5.50.

The Shake Ikura Don is lightly flaked salmon over thin strips of egg atop rice and served with salmon roe. Ten Don is a selection of tempura vegetables and shrimp, and the Katsu Curry is an tender dish of lightly breaded and fried pork strips over a dark, spicy curry sauce and rice. The Oyako Don features chicken, shiitake mushrooms and egg in a highly seasoned broth over rice and is one of the restaurant’s specialty dishes. Kal-Bi Don is popular, as is the Curry Rice, and there’s a daily special that changes depending on what the chef buys.

For the most part, the furnishings, including antique furniture in the tatami room and straw snowshoes and raincoats on the walls, come from Mori’s home near Nagano.

He calls his food “just home cooking,” but he spent years training in restaurants in Japan before bringing his favorite dishes to Hawaii. There’s a level of sophistication that ranges from the very simple — in the Katsu Curry ($5.50) for example — to the sublime: The Sashimi Moriawas ($30) is an artful presentation of the day’s freshest sashimi.

For $5.50 I’m not sure there’s anywhere that gives you such a unique lunchtime experience.

For those who like their culinary travels around Oahu to lead them off the beaten track, this is the place to go. Snowshoes, slippers and all.

Izakaya Nonbei
3108 Olu St.

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