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The Weekly Eater

By Nadine Kam

Thursday, May 18, 2000


Sansei challenges
the senses

IN the early '80s I was a student writing about music, with a rep as the reviewer who hated everything. This was justified. Pop was foul then, save for the Clash and U2.

Then The Police sent along their single, "Message in a Bottle," with its tinny, low-fi instrumentation, syncopated rhythms and Sting's whiny, nasal vocals. I couldn't take it. I dumped that 45 into the trash without writing a word. Of course, The Police went on to become THE band of that era and by the time "Message" became a hit about six to eight months later, I saw the light.



Sansei Seafood Restaurant

Food STARSTAR1/2
Atmosphere STARSTARSTAR
Service STARSTARSTAR1/2
Value STARSTARSTAR1/2

Bullet Address: Restaurant Row
Bullet Hours: 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Bullet Prices: Dinner for two about $40 to $60 without drinks. Food half price 5 to 5:30 p.m. and after 10:30 p.m., with 17 percent gratuity calculated at non-discount rate.
Bullet Call: 536-6286



Sansei Restaurant reminds me of that experience. It's a creature so new and different, it defies facile description and snap judgment. Dining here is neither the gourmand experience suggested by such courses as foie gras nigiri ($16.95) nor the barroom experience suggested by a late-night karaoke crowd and such beer-compatible pupu as the sweet-sour Japanese Calamari Salad ($9.95) with its ko chu jang vinaigrette. It's instead a hybrid -- part sushi bar, part local hangout, part restaurant -- with food as the glue.

If the typical dining experience is comparable to drama like "A Streetcar Named Desire," Sansei is "CATS!" -- showy, explosive and colorful.

Like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, touching each part of Sansei will form a different impression, making a star rating difficult. The experience can be overwhelming. It feels as if the chef were tossed into a lab and told to go nuts. Familiar ingredients are slammed about with impact as subtle as the crash of cymbals at the hands of a metal drummer.

Yet, a week after my first visit, I was still haunted by the foie gras and trying to determine the next time I could savor the silky, lustrous texture of this supremely wicked dish, drenched in port-unagi demiglace. It should be devoured last. Anything afterward pales.

YOU could play it safe at the sushi bar. But if you don't take risks, you'll miss Sansei's creativity. Then again, there aren't too many ways to improve on basic sushi. Tempura Shrimp Roll ($6.95) is crispy, but the shrimp's flavor barely registers. The Kapalua Butterfry ($11.95) -- snapper, smoked salmon, crab and veggies in a panko batter roll -- also failed to impress. Spicy Hamachi ($4.95) was buried in a sambal sauce.

Appetizers are where you can have the most fun. Sansei's Rock Shrimp Dynamite ($8.95), enveloped in tempura batter, creamy garlic mayo and a sweet unagi sauce, is well-suited to sweet-loving local tastebuds.

Mango Crab Salad Roll ($6.95), almost pure snow crab meat rolled in a thin, green soybean wrapper, is served with a sweet thai chili vinaigrette. The same wrapper comes in pink when you order the Pink Cadillac ($7.95), a sushi roll featuring freshwater eel, shrimp, egg and veggies.

The restaurant is weakest in the entree department. Japanese Jerk Chicken ($17.95) was about as exciting as a supermarket bird. A Chili-Porcini Crusted Filet of Beef Tenderloin ($21.95) was too dry to enjoy.

Serious foodies probably will find this all a bit too frivolous, but those who like a little fun with their dinner should check out Sansei firsthand.



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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

-- excellent;
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- average;
-- below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to features@starbulletin.com



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