CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSEL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Diners check out the newly open Tsukiji Fish Market & Restaurant at Ala Moana Center.
Fish a minimal part of Tsukiji’s buffet
The news about Tsukiji Fish Market opening at Ala Moana Center's Ho'okipa Terrace generated a lot of buzz when it was announced two years ago because its namesake complex in Japan is renowned for its bustling wholesale fish market and attendant retail grocery and food outlets.
It was enough to set one's mind spinning about its potential, before one stopped to realize that logistically, so far from the water's edge, and realistically, within the confines of a glitzy mall, it was not likely to come close to mimicking the famed market. Even so, it might have been enough to offer a bounty of superb seafood.
In the time it took Tsukiji Fish Market to open, however, a lot has happened on the restaurant scene. The Japanese field seems a lot more crowded with Nobu's arrival in Waikiki, and closer to Tsukiji, Kyoto Ohsho across the terrace.
Having gotten the head start, Kyoto Ohsho remains busy in spite of the time constraints it places on diners, and higher cost. Dinner is close to $40 per person versus about $30 at Tsukiji (note that soft drinks cost extra at both), but presentation is better at Kyoto Ohsho, where bite-size morsels are beautifully displayed on individual plates.
Tsukiji's owner had promised something Honolulu has never seen, so it's disappointing to discover we've waited two years for an average buffet. Come on! Who do they think they're dealing with? Between the islands and Las Vegas, we've seen just about every buffet imaginable.
I believe the desire here was to create a lively marketplace vibe with people able to walk up to stations and order tempura, teppan-style rib-eye and desserts to order. That would have been great -- and it's not too late to try -- if they could have matched the flavor and sizzle of street fare, but instead, offerings are mostly bland.
Given the fishmarket name, you would think the bulk of their effort would be put into offering fabulous fish, but their sushi is skimpy. A friend who visited on a separate occasion summed it up by saying, "Genki Sushi is better."
It's too bad because Tsukiji is capable of offering very good sushi, which I discovered after placing a couple of a la carte orders for hotate and hamachi from the bar. When you walk into the room, you are given the option of heading to the buffet or sitting at the sushi bar where you can order pieces a la carte. Prices at the sushi bar run a fair $4 for selections of salmon and unagi; $5 for options like hamachi, scallop, tai, maguro and ebi; and $8 for uni.
Just as in investing, greed might getcha, but I don't blame you. Given the promise of steak, salads, desserts, tempura AND sushi, or sushi alone, the buffet will seem like a fantasy come true when you're hungry. Realistically though, you'll pay only for what you eat at the sushi bar, while at the buffet you'll pay closer to $100 than $60 for dinner for two once you factor in the cost of soft drinks, tea, tax and tip.
It looks like there's a lot of buffet food, but upon close inspection, you may find you can write off half of it. Given the prospect of overeating, that would probably be OK, but that's not the point. Everything should look tempting so people leave wishing they could have sampled more if only their tiny opus had not failed them.
What caught my eye here were the sushi, rib-eye and tempura. I also liked the tsukune, or ground chicken meatballs mixed with onions and ginger. Snow crab legs were sweet instead of being over salted and waterlogged as typically presented at local buffets. Tempura could have been hotter, but a good display necessitates making up a batch of the shrimp and veggies, which is left sitting.
I skipped over the Korean and Chinese offerings, which without signs were mostly unidentifiable. I didn't think I would be missing much because opening a dim sum bamboo steamer basket revealed pale freezer-style shumai. Without signs, the tsukune also looked a lot like fried chicken, so diners may experience a few surprises.
I was happy with shave ice for dessert. Others will be drawn to colorful, Japanese-style light minicakes and pastries. There's an additional cost if you want ice cream.
A robata bar is the works and I hope it helps to inject more life into the room.
THE THIRD PART of the Tsukiji experience is the minifishmarket to the right of the restaurant entrance. Here, you can pick up assorted poke and whole fish at market prices comparable to or better than most grocery stores. Again, given the fishmarket name, the selection seems meager. Fish "counter" would be a better description. Because fish is so perishable, I understand why they wouldn't want to overstock, but in this case, appearances matter.
The limited selection includes ahi poke made to order, a great idea. It gives you the benefit of eyeing the fish, checking its color and glistening firmness, before it's doused with soy sauce, onions, inamona, sesame seeds, ogo, whatever you want in your custom mix.
I'm craving their spicy farmed salmon poke (recently $6.95 per pound) right now, and would be most likely to return for the market offerings. I just wonder how much of the mall crowd knows what to do with a whole fish.