NADINE KAM / NKAM@STARBULLETIN.COM
At Hinone Mizunone, you get a lot of food for $14.75, as with this teishoku platter of tempura and ginger pork with a side of kabocha. In the back are separate side orders of wasabi tako and ahi sashimi.
Japanese restaurant misses target
Sometimes there's a big disconnect between the way a critic views a restaurant and the typical diner's perspective. Walking into Hinone Mizunone, I imagine most people would simply take it at face value as a local-style Japanese restaurant where couples and families can be reassured of a decent meal at a decent price.
1345 S. King St. at Keeaumoku / 942-4848
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
Cost: About $35 for two
I see that, too, but the restaurant also reads as a strange little hybrid operation backed by lofty Japanese philosophy and ambition, but having found that too difficult, it's settling for something more accessible. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I mean, given the high cost of living, we probably don't need another tony Japanese restaurant.
From the outside, the restaurant's shoji design stands out on King Street, just before the Keeaumoku Street intersection. I automatically thought, "Ooh, izakaya." I love the variety involved with izakayas. They come in handy when you have to dine with finicky friends.
The inside was a different story. Fast food came to mind -- maybe because the restaurant is built on the site of the former Taco Bell, and the Taco Bell arches remain intact. Hinone Mizunone's exterior is just a shell slipped over the former restaurant, like fondant over a wedding cake. It's kind of cool, and while most people wouldn't notice or care, it struck me as a cost-cutting building solution and made me wonder where else they would try to cut corners. I didn't have to wait long to find out.
There were only three servers in a full house of about 80 people, and Hawaii people being fairly tolerant, most of those waiting long stretches for food seemed OK with staring out into space. I saw only one couple walk out, after making their complaint known. Others would not have been blamed for wanting to walk out.
And this was a first ever for me: After I told our server that there was a mistake with my order, she told me there was no mistake, that what she brought was what I ordered.
Uh, I think I can remember what I ordered, and sure enough, she walked to the kitchen and my order was waiting.
Signs near the kitchen exhort employees to "do the best" and smile, but little of that was in evidence. The problem with the semi-open kitchen is that it's rather obvious that feel-good affirmations don't always lead to results.
THAT SAID, the basic menu represents what most people here like to eat. It's hard to go wrong with a two-entree-choice teishoku dinner for $14.75, with two side dishes that differ daily.
The entree list includes broiled salmon, saba, misoyaki butterfish, chicken and pork tonkatsu, and hamburger steak with demi-glace that tasted like Western barbecue sauce. You usually can't go too far wrong with salmon, but when you put a skinny strip under a broiler, shrinkage is not a good thing.
If you don't have $14.75, you could also choose izakaya portions of many of the same dishes, as well as about six pieces of ahi sashimi for $8.75, chicken katsu ($6) and tempura ($8) with a stiff, eggy batter.
A big deal is made of the rice here, but it seemed no more special or different from the Hinode Calrose most of us grew up with.
Preparations throughout are home-style simple and casual, often little more than salt, pepper, soy sauce and ponzu. A lot of us expect restaurants to come up with their own signature karaage, for instance, whether they use a bit of mochiko, sesame seeds or hot pepper sauce, garlic and green onions. Here, karaage is closer to Southern fried chicken.
I wished I could have stayed for desserts of ice cream ($2.50) or azuki zenzai ($2.50), but having waited all night for the karaage, which I ended up having to take home, waiting for refills of hot tea and tired of the tension coming out of the kitchen, it seemed healthier to leave.