An Intimate, Casual Izakaya

Jo McGarry
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Friday - December 09, 2005
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Aki and Lisa Ito, owners of the Japanese izakaya Aki-no-No
Aki and Lisa Ito, owners of the Japanese izakaya

Izakaya dining is my new favorite way to eat. To say that these small, intimate and casual diners are new to Honolulu would be ridiculous, as many of them have been operating in neighborhoods for years. Izakaya Nonbei, for example, off Kapahulu Avenue, has been around for more than 25 years, but Izakayas have, in recent years, taken on a more “mainstream” approach with their food. Nowadays they are no longer just a place to drink and enjoy some sushi and soybeans. They’re for anyone who loves good food and the chance to chow down way past midnight.

An izakaya is a Japanese pub - a place to go when you want to drink good sake or inexpensive beer - and eat. Traditionally, dishes are made to accompany drinks, but in recent years a couple of these Japanese-style pubs have upped the quality of their menus while keeping the prices low. The result? Late-night bars with a focus on excellent food - and usually with a chef/owner at the helm.

The recently opened Aki-noNo is a great example of an izakaya at its best. The menu is huge and features everything from freshly made sushi - made to order at a small counter in the heart of the restaurant - to daily fish specials and a host of noodle dishes and complete meals.

Aki-no-No is owned and operated by chef Aki Ito and his wife Lisa, both longtime residents of Honolulu, who until recently owned Itochan Sushi. Ito is a trained sushi chef (and trained in the particularly skillful art of preparing fugu), who wanted to expand his menu and show diners the kind of creative dishes he loves to eat.

Ahi katsu is an example of one of the restaurant’s specialty dishes. Chef Ito uses ahi and shiso leaf and then flash fries the roll leaving a crisp outer coating with almost rare ahi on the inside. The unique flavor of shiso shines through, and the appetizer is light and incredibly tasty despite the deep-frying technique.

Toro steak is another popular dish - here the fleshy, highly prized part of the ahi belly is grilled and served on a sizzling hot platter. It’s an incredibly tasty dish and one of those rare Aki-no-No specials that you won’t find anywhere else.

If you’re a student or just watching your dining budget, then you’ll love the prices here. Combination dinners start at around $16 and they include a choice of sashimi, miso butter-fish, toro steak, teriyaki chicken, ginger pork, boneless kalbi and grilled buri kama - to name but a few items - and come with rice, miso soup, tsukemono salad and a daily appetizer that varies.

Aki-no-No is truly a homestyle restaurant. It was renovated by Aki, and has a warm and welcoming appeal. Tables are close together and make for great conversations between groups who converge long after most restaurants on South King Street have closed. The tatami room (where large groups can dine at no extra charge) was built by Ito from scratch. “My contractor didn’t turn up so I just had to do the job myself,” he says in typically modest style.

If you’re looking for a late-night stop with very fine food, inexpensive beer and sake with a lively and convivial atmosphere, then Aki-no-No fits the bill.

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