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Yuzen takes sushi to the heights


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POSTED: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Yuzen is one of those restaurants where the exterior gives no clue as to what's inside. The door is covered with a dark film, so peeking inside means putting your nose up to the glass. It's funny to see how many people do this. Well, I've done the reconnaissance, so fear not. You can walk right in and experience something close to sushi nirvana.

I overheard one diner at Yuzen proclaim the sushi better than that of Sasabune. I haven't been to the latter in a while so can't vouch for that, but I do know Yuzen is one of those rare gems made all the more delightful by its low-key, unassuming demeanor.

Half the story is its presentation. It's hard enough for a small restaurant to keep up with the demands of its patrons, so no one asks for extra effort, but it's there in the form of those unexpected visuals that are the culinary equivalent of ikebana.

Assume that there will come a time in the course of a meal here that someone will feel compelled to whip out cell phone or camera to preserve the moment when baskets and platters bearing their colorful seafood arrangements arrive—each element so well placed that it's almost a shame to think it will be devoured in a few minutes.

This place is so authentically Japanese that many will be surprised its owners hail from the Philippines.

That is not to say that someone outside a culture can't master its cuisine, but the Japanese have a culinary aesthetic that's unique. Where most people will pummel food—until it no longer resembles its original form—to meet their vision and expectation, the Japanese have a reverence that allows ingredients to simply be.

As it turns out, chef-owner Edgar San Juan spent a decade working in kaiseki restaurants in Kamakura, Japan, before arriving here, and co-owner Ramon Aguirre recognized his skill immediately.

“;I saw his style, his talent, and I told myself I want to work with this guy,”; said Aguirre, who left a managerial job at the Waikiki Parc to follow the chef in his endeavors.

               

     

 

YUZEN

        1519 Makaloa St. (across from Walgreen's) » 943-0131
       

Food: ;*;*;*;*

       

Service: ;*;*;*1/2

       

Ambience: ;*;*;*1/2

       

Value: ;*;*;*;*

       

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; late-night service Fridays and Saturdays runs to 2 a.m. Cost: Dinner for two about $30 to $50 without drinks

       

Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.

       

YUZEN OFFERS a little bit of everything, so the first matter of business is trying to figure out what you came here for, whether nigiri sushi, teppanyaki, prix fixe kaiseki or teishoku dinners. It's perfect for grazers who hang out with gluttons and vice versa.

The menu lists several izakaya-style dishes, and narrowing it down can be overwhelming. It's easier to take it by categories that divide into fried, creamy baked or marinated dishes.

In the first category, there is the popular scallop isobeage ($8) wrapped in crisp nori. Its counterpart in a Chinese restaurant would be the seafood roll. Here, a trio of the pupu-portioned morsels are presented in a bamboo basket with an accompanying dish of fine, pale green salt for adding a pinch of green tea flavor.

Asari clams sakamushi ($8) is a real treat in its simplicity, the clams steamed in a delicate broth flavored with dried fish and sake. San Juan imports ingredients such as the angel hair seaweed of mozuku zu ($4) from Japan, and pays attention to season. He'll prepare ankimo (fish liver), for instance, only in winter when he can get it fresh, rather than frozen.

A dish of ringoyaki ($8) is San Juan's creation, a cored Fuji apple stuffed with seafood, shiitake and cream sauce and baked. I didn't get to order this one, but I'll have to try it one day.

Those with a taste for the stinky and sticky can try the maguro natto ($7). In the baked portion of the menu, there is seafood dynamite ($10), butterfish misoyaki ($12), two oysters masagoyaki ($6) and hamachi kama ($18).

Salads do not escape a touch of seafood. Yuzen's Harumaki basket ($8) features greens topped with shrimp and sashimi, with shredded carrot, a sprinkling of blueberries and black sesame seeds.

One of the seasonal specialties here is the moi sugata zukuri platter ($16), Big Island moi served in another basket arrangement featuring head and tail. After the sashimi is gone, the head, bones and tail are deep-fried for a second round of tasting. Moi is one of those rare fish exquisite both ways. Served raw, it comes close to the richness of yellowtail. Its white meat also holds up well to deep-frying, with no seasoning required, though most would feel comfortable with a pinch of salt.

Steak comes into play with teppanyaki combinations featuring scallops ($28), tiger shrimp ($28), Maine lobster ($30) and king crab legs ($32).

Teishoku-style dinner options feature sashimi paired with butterfish misoyaki ($22), salmon misoyaki ($20) and beautiful shrimp and vegetable tempura ($24).

For the ultimate dinner experience, there are two reasonably priced kaiseki menus, at $55 for the Yuzen kaiseki with its assortment of the chef's selection of four appetizers, plus sashimi, snapper sakamushi, king crab or Maine lobster, and the basics of miso soup, sunomono and rice.

Those in search of comfort cuisine will find nabemono ($28 per person) served to 9 p.m., with a minimum of two orders required.

Desserts are a refreshing selection, including ube ice cream and a version of warabimochi cream anmitsu, fresh fruit served with red azuki beans, agar cubes and a scoop of ice cream.

This is one of those restaurants that has me rushing for a meal before my review appears, with the subsequent crowd.

 


Nadine Kam's restaurant review appears every Wednesday in the Star-Bulletin. Restaurants are reviewed anonymously. Meals are paid by the Star-Bulletin.