A stylish affair
For a while, we were inundated with new Mexican restaurants. More recently, it seems Japanese restaurants are on a roll. From Shokudo to Toraji, Hakkei and Tsukeneya, each has its specialty, and most seem to be testing the waters in Hawaii en route to new and bigger markets on the mainland.
The latest is Rokkaku, at Ala Moana Center, next to Panya. Keep an eye open for the unassuming curtained entryway that opens to reveal a masterpiece of modern design in a cavernous space that's all clean angles, with a tidy arrangement of white banquettes and chairs.
While most of the center's restaurants to date have been mass-oriented, Rokkaku is the first, besides NM's in-house Mariposa, to offer a stylish, pristine setting for a growing circle of luxury clientele. At Rokkaku, Louis Vuitton shoppers can expect to rub elbows with Gucci or Chanel customers. These are just the sort who would not bat an eye at paying $38 for a 6-ounce serving of grilled, well-marbled Wagyu sirloin.
Happily, that's the top price on a menu on which several appetizer, sushi, nimono and salad selections can be had for $7 to $16. Sushi rolls such as spicy salmon ($8), spicy tuna ($9) or California ($10) are no more costly than elsewhere, but as with all Japanese menus, the little things add up fast, especially if you're also ordering off an accompanying sake menu with daiginjo, ginjo and junmai selections.
Reservations are a must for this restaurant, packed from the start with Japan transplants who expressed thanks to assistant dining manager Ken Kawasaki as he made his way from table to table.
By day, five lunch sets are offered. Even with this limited selection, you'll find local favorites of tempura and grilled eel ($22), steak donburi ($18), six kinds of sushi with soba ($21), miso gindara (butterfish, $16.80) or teriyaki salmon ($14.80). You won't go wrong with any of these, but pray that butterfish is in stock. It's flown in fresh, lightly dressed and given the briefest stint on the grill, resulting in what might be the best you'll taste on Oahu. Most of the bones have also been painstakingly removed, so each bite is pure buttery pleasure. Even so, keep on guard for those few small stealth bones.
Each lunch set is served with rice, pickled vegetables, miso soup, salad and chawanmushi, with shrimp, shiitake and pieces of chicken suspended in the delicate, pale-yellow custard and waiting for release.
In the evening, you're on your own with myriad selections available a la carte. Where to start? Sometimes it helps to check what your neighbors have ordered.
To the left was a vast pot of kaisen nabe, or seafood stew of king crab legs, prawns, clams, vegetables and tofu. At $38 it will feed two without need to order much else. A salad would round out the meal.
To the right was a small selection of glistening sashimi of the day ($24 for a small portion of three kinds of fish), an appetizer of steamed duck and spongy eringi mushrooms ($9), spider roll sushi of soft-shell crab ($6.80) and the house specialty of kamameshi, or rice casserole.
You can order your rice with nothing more than ginger and nori ($8.90) or get it with crab ($14), salmon roe ($17), unagi ($18.80) or uni ($30). We opted for the unagi, placed on the steamed rice and stirred into it until the rice glistened with teriyaki sauce and bits of eel.
We also tried the nabe, but given the array of selections, I prefer to see more of the chef's handiwork rather than be content with a boil-at-the-table pot of soup, no matter how extravagant. But that's just me. Given the recent spate of bad weather, anyone else might appreciate nabe as the dish for keeping warm.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Server Rita Chin-Howard holds a tray with a kamameshi pot (a rice casserole) and sides of pickled vegetables.
Once you place your order, dishes are timed to maximize your appreciation. The last thing you need is a war of conflicting flavors on your tongue.
One of my table neighbors, on her second visit in two weeks, said she appreciated Rokkaku's subdued Kyoto-style cuisine, even though she's from Tokyo, where she said she's accustomed to more assertive and salty flavors.
She suggested trying the grilled silver cod collar ($16.80), which I imagined to be like the butterfish ($9), but alas, it was sold out.
If you can't swing $38 for the massaged Wagyu beef, the rib eye ($18) option is nothing to sneer at.
We also ordered the Rokkaku salad ($14), said to feature king prawns and green peas. Slivers of prawn were as sweet and slippery as raw scallops or lobster, but there were no peas, just cubes of avocado. My first thought was that they had delivered the wrong dish, but I wasn't about to reject anything with avocado in it.
At dessert time, just about everyone in the room settles in with an order of macha shiratama zenzai. Like seers peering into a clear orb, each diner is entranced by the glass bubble bearing bitter green-tea ice cream, sweet red beans and mochi ($6.80).
Rokkaku makes a great addition to the center with its un-rushed ambience and nuanced menu. Just when I was beginning to think we're saturated with Japanese restaurants, Rokkaku, Hakkei and Tsukeneya have shown that the diversity of Japan and its city and country cuisines still offer much for us to discover. Keep 'em coming.