Asahi Grill is hybrid of old and new
These days, everyone seems to be caught up in image and appearance. At the most inane level, just check out the Apple Store at Ala Moana Center, where would-be buyers have trouble getting past the teens and 20-somethings gawking at themselves on monitors with built-in cameras, posing this way and that, all bug eyes and smiles.
The story of Narcissus and Echo might have seemed far-fetched when you were young, but here it is, played out in iPhoto and iVideo. It's all about the "i." I don't know why they bother to venture out when they can stay home with their best friends, whether mirrors, cell phone cams, cam cams or video cams.
In the restaurant world, this image thing translates into a following for shiny new restaurants pushing into ever-smaller neighborhoods, each new entry eating into territory formerly occupied by humble, if a little dingy by comparison, mom-and-pop eateries and coffee shops.
So Asahi Grill comes as a surprise. It's the equivalent of an old-fashioned coffee shop in the somewhat updated venue of a spotless and spare cafe, a hybrid of old and new, and diners appear to be open to it.
The name is a misnomer in that it's not entirely a Japanese restaurant and there is no true grill to speak of. On opening, there was a wonderful rib eye served with slivered onions on a sizzling platter on the menu. Unfortunately, at $16.95 it was at the high end of a menu in which dishes -- and patrons -- have stayed in a more comfortable $8.95-to-$12.95 range, so alas it's gone, and with it, any vestige of a grill.
One thing diners will spot right away is Kapiolani Coffee Shop's famous oxtail soup ($7.95). That's because there are only two degrees of separation between people and restaurants in Hawaii, and Asahi Grill is KCS's hipper younger sibling, owned by Gary Mijo.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
The oxtail soup served at Kapiolani Coffee Shop is re-created for diners at Asahi Grill and is the top-selling dish.
The restaurant's Japanese menu is the work of chef Masato "Masa" Hatakeyama, but the assurance and insurance that people will actually stop their cars along Ward Avenue before reaching the Victoria Ward complex comes in the form of seven of KCS's top-selling specialties, of which the oxtail soup is No. 1, followed by KCS fried rice, kim chee fried rice, hamburger steak, loco moco, chicken cutlet and pork cutlet, at prices from $4.75 to $7.95 day or night.
Teishoku combinations at lunch and dinner time will likely become new favorites. By day you can select two dishes (excluding specialties, local specialties and favorites) for $10.95, served with konbu or miso soup, rice, macaroni salad and tsukemono. It's great for those who like variety or are just indecisive.
By night the two choices are limited to eight teishoku entrees, for $13.95. But just like the list of KCS specialties, local favorites are well represented (prices are $2 less at lunch): silky miso butterfish ($12.95, Hollywood's hottest dish, though celebs recognize it only as black cod), salted salmon ($9.95), saba ($8.95), kalbi ($12.95), chicken teriyaki ($8.95), doughy shrimp tempura ($11.95), tonkatsu ($9.95) and chicken katsu ($8.95).
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Fried rice, another dish off the Kapiolani Coffee Shop menu, is the No. 2 seller at Asahi.
OUR RECENT soup weather has been good for ramen ($5.95) and saimin ($4.95) sales. Others might seek comfort in donburi dishes.
Salads are big enough to feed up to four if ordering other entrees. The Asahi salad ($7.95) is a stack of romaine topped with shrimp, cucumbers and slices of avocado and tofu served with a light soy dressing. The romaine will be rather rough for those raised on 'Nalo greens, but it's all fresh and wholesome.
If it's sushi you want, you'll find an array of "inside-out" rolls. The rice is loosely packed, so they have a way of coming undone when you pick up the pieces, but they deliver on flavor and freshness. Again, the menu looks like a list of local popularity contest winners. There's the California, with real crab meat ($7.95), and spider roll ($8.95) sitting in a pool of hot sauce that's sure to be a hit with fans of spicy tuna (also on the menu at $7.95). If you can't make up your mind, you can create your own combo with two sushi selections.
Desserts are on their way, and they're bound to be on your hit list, too. Mijo has an accountant's knack for numbers and efficiency, monitoring orders and knowing just what people want. In this contest, there's only room for the top six finishers and Miss Popularity. No Miss Congeniality. No Miss Photogenic. So let your order be your vote while you still have a voice in the matter.