SUSHI GETS HIP
After making a splash in Florida, Kevin Aoki opened Doraku Sushi at Royal Hawaiian Center, where he adds a spicy Latin accent to traditional Japanese cuisine
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A self-proclaimed artist by nature, 40-year-old Kevin Aoki has worked in the restaurant industry all his life. Born and raised in New York and California and as the oldest son of seven children,Aoki took what he knew best and worked his way to the top of the ever-evolving “restaurant couture.”
His father, Rocky Aoki, owns the popular teppanyaki-style Benihana restaurant chain, and for Kevin, with his father as his prime role model, it’s not surprising that he is coming into his own with Doraku Sushi, a boutique sushi bar combining traditional Japanese cuisine with a spicy Latin flair that is contemporary and chic.
“I definitely look up to my father,“says Aoki with much admiration of all that his father has accomplished with Benihana Inc. “I try to emulate some of the things that he’s doing. I have definitely tried my best to live up to his name. It’s difficult and probably impossible - so, at this point, I’m just doing what I know how to do and trying my best at it.”
Doraku Sushi originally opened its doors eight years ago in South Beach, Fla., and has since achieved much success. Then, about a year and a half ago, Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki approached Aoki and asked if he was interested in opening another Doraku location there.
“They (Royal Hawaiian Center) were looking for a Japanese restaurant that would target the Westbound crowd,” recalls Aoki. “I thought it was an amazing space, and they claimed there were 50,000 people walking by every day. I thought this was a good spot to put a landmark restaurant. So we put all our energy and resources together and cranked this restaurant out.”
Sure enough, in mid-January, Doraku Sushi made its Hawaii debut with a grand opening. And despite the admitted challenges of opening a restaurant in Waikiki - from the permit process, to coming up with the design concept and obtaining the adequate materials needed - it is obvious that Aoki is happy to have Doraku open today and is pleased with the end result.
Located on the third floor of Royal Hawaiian Center, Building B,and open daily for lunch and dinner, Doraku has received positive praise from both tourists and locals. As for right now, however, Aoki says a good majority of his customers are local.
“What we do in South Beach and what we do here is we focus on the locals, and we hope that it will trickle down to the concierge, and people will talk about it and bring the tourists in. We want to be a part of the community, and locals are very important to us.”
At Doraku, the ambiance is comfortable, whether hanging out with friends or enjoying an evening with that special someone. There’s a great energy throughout the restaurant while remaining intimate and cozy. Euro-Latin grooves set the vibe to what Aoki describes as an atmosphere that is very “Bohemian-chic.”
“It’s a little dim and moody in here, there are a lot of candles going on at night,” he explains. “Mainly the whole ambiance is put together for your Western crowd.”
Attention to detail, whether it is in food presentation or interior design, is most important to Aoki. He and a team of designers from Hawaii and New York set out to Indonesia, Thailand and China to turn a vision into reality.
“We went on a shopping spree and bought all the little details in the restaurant,” he says, referring to the cushions and throw pillows made with Indonesian fabrics of orange, yellow, gold and red.
“We like to deliver a total package experience,” Aoki explains. “Food quality is very important to us, but we also want to make sure the ambiance is right on. It’s about giving the Doraku experience to the customer - that’s what we focus on.
“Doraku means ‘the road to happiness,‘“he says, adding,“Our goal is to bring happiness to our customers through their experience at Doraku.”
And, of course, a surefire way to achieve happiness is through the stomach.
“The menu today, compared to the menu at the very beginning, is completely different,“Aoki says.“It
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