CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Nozomi Asai offers plates of kanpachi tataki and gobo chips at Ojiya Restaurant.
Casual Japanese restaurant a delight
Whenever people ask me where I like to eat, the list must include a handful of Japanese restaurants, old standbys and always the newest. It never fails to amaze me how these imports continue to surprise, while getting more right than wrong.
I get bored really easily, so sometimes the thought of yet another Japanese restaurant -- brace yourself, there are many new ones out there -- is more tiring than exciting. I approached Ojiya with blase resignation. Ho hum, more sushi. What haven't I seen before?
I stand humbly corrected. The izakaya-style restaurant that defines itself simply as "kuidokoro," a "casual place to eat," is just that, but when the presentation is sincere, there's no reason "casual" can't also be "wonderful."
From the outside, the restaurant, across the street from the Hawai'i Convention Center, and next door to Quiksilver, can look dark and intimidating. Inside, they've gone for a Hawaiian luau sort of ambience, with a mix of lauhala pattern and bamboo curtains, and a hodgepodge of tables of various sizes and makes. Retro-style Hawaiian fabrics form room dividers and table dressing.
Get comfortable, because you'll be studying the menu for a long time. There are so many dishes to choose from.
You don't have to commit to a big, orgiastic meal here. You can have that, but during summer months, when extra pounds have a tendency to raise body temperatures, it's an ideal place for pau hana or late-night grazing on little dishes costing $4 to $10 each, to be accompanied by a variety of sake and shochu. At $4, there's cold spicy tofu, and lightly salted deep-fried gobo, or burdock chips, which I haven't seen on other menus.
On the higher end, there is pork belly simmered in a sweet soy sauce ($8) and clams simmered in white wine ($10). Before ordering, check the daily appetizer specials for other specialties such as tsukune ($6), a twin-size ground chicken meatball, served with a side of raw quail egg for dipping. The egg doesn't do much flavorwise, but it adds an element of smooth, drippy, slimy texture that appeals to hedonists.
Having developed a taste for white fish and jalapeno, Ojiya offered its own take on the combo, starting with thin slices of scallop ($10) drizzled with tart, citrusy yuzu and topped with a small piece of the chile.
If dining on my own, I would likely stick to the daily special menu, as it's most likely to reflect what's new and exciting, as well as the chef's inspiration for the day. But for review purposes, spot checking was in order.
A TOUR of the main menu started with the kani, or crab salad ($9) which was the weakest dish I encountered. The minimalist mound of crab seemed to have come out of a can, so what you had was just lettuce.
As casual as the menu may appear, they do take food very seriously, so you don't see much fusion or playing around with ingredients. Those by now accustomed to dramatic, layered sushi rolls will find just the basics here, in the form of tuna ($5), kanpachi ($5), salmon ($4), urchin ($8) and salmon roe ($6) nigiri. Rolls feature natto, pickles or cucumber ($4), as well as spicy tuna ($7).
If it's just fish you want, there is tuna ($10), kanpachi or salmon ($9) sashimi, or to dress it up, kanpachi tataki ($9), nicely seared and served in a delicate ponzu sauce.
Those who require meat can sample one of Ojiya's hot plates featuring chicken, pork or slices of beef with potato wedges sizzling in a tangy, yakitori-style sauce atop a bed of bean sprouts and sauteed onions.
If you're a tempura fan, I recommend a twofer, the cold soba served with shrimp and vegetable tempura ($13). (Tempura alone is $10.) The buckwheat noodles are imported from Niigata, Japan, noted for its mineral content due to its use of seaweed paste in the flour mix. The time it takes to ship the noodles here does take a toll, so its chewy consistency can't match the tender fresh noodles made at Matsugen, but it's still good comfort food and I enjoyed every bite. The tempura also was excellent, more shrimp than batter.
For dessert, all good things are piled in a bowl of cream anmitsu ($5), a dollop of toothsome azuki beans served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, with some canned fruit over clear kanten. So refreshing.
I'll definitely return to sample more of Ojiya's multitude of delightful little treats.