Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, October 20, 1999

By Dennis Oda
Our new-wave geisha wishes to remain anonymous, but
agreed to help illustrate the idea of contemporary Japanese
cuisine by standing in with two chefs who are at the
forefront of the trend -- D.K. Kodama of Sansei
Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar, center, and
Hiroshi Fukui of L'Uraku. The umbrellas,
hand-painted by Kiyoshi, sushi chef at
Furusato Japanese Restaurant, hang from
the ceiling at L'Uraku.The geisha's
make-up is by Christopher
"Skeeter" Stanback.

New wave
Japanese cuisine

Recipes:How to make L'Uraku's Moi Carpaccio and Sansei's Panko-Crusted Ahi.

Also doing the twist:Other Oahu restaurants that put a contemporary spin on Japanese cuisine.

Story by Betty Shimabukuro


Take a perfect cut of fish, slice it raw and serve it on a bed of shredded daikon. Sashimi, obviously; pure Japanese. Take the same fish, slice it ultra-thin, carpaccio-style, and serve it with sizzling oils of peanut and sesame. That's new wave.

Ahi, rolled in seasoned rice and nori: sushi; Japanese. Ahi, rolled in rice with arugula, dipped in panko and fried crisp, served with a wine-butter-wasabi sauce: new wave.

This is the story of two local guys who are doing wild and wonderful things with Japanese cuisine.

Out of the well-worn vocabulary of sushi, sashimi and tempura, they are speaking the contemporary language of fusion. And they've been doing it for three years on two islands, in very different ways, proving this concept has staying power.

The names Hiroshi Fukui of L'Uraku in Honolulu and D.K. Kodama of Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Kapalua, Maui, make just about everyone's list of Hawaii's rising-star chefs. Their restaurants regularly pull in local awards and have gone national in mainland food magazines. Sansei has topped the Zagat survey for Hawaii restaurants two years straight.

The fusion of Asian flavors with European techniques is nothing new -- it's so trendy, in fact, that many food critics complain it has become too confused and too fussy. The correcting force could well lie in the Japanese respect for simple flavors and clean design.

"They're coming from much more of a minimalist place," says Janice Wald Henderson, a veteran food writer and organizer of Hawaii's premier food event, the annual Cuisines of the Sun. "They're not looking to overwhelm your senses by crowding your plate."

This new wave style is also worth note because Japanese cuisine was once a closed world, as was French cooking years ago. "There are no greater purists in the world than Japanese and French chefs," Wald Henderson says.

Contemporary Japanese cuisine is a growing presence on the mainland -- the guru of it all being Nobuyuki Matsuhisa with his international collection of restaurants. As standard-bearers Wald Henderson also counts off Terra in Napa Valley, Jozu and Shiro in Los Angeles, and Testuya's, with it's six-week waiting list, in Australia, of all places.

"Fusion is not going away, but one of the best ways for it to work is to put some reins on it," she says. "The nature of what Japanese food is -- restrained -- just immediately puts the reins on it."

In Hawaii, this cuisine is elusive. To find chefs devoted to an updated Japanese style -- and doing it well -- is a challenge.

But there are at least these two, Fukui and Kodama, who are making it work.

Both chefs learned their skills on the job, without benefit of culinary schools. Their roots are unquestionably Japanese: 16 years in the kitchen of a strict Japanese chef for one, several years in a sushi bar in Aspen, Colo., for the other.

They appear at many of the same food events and are founding members of the new Hawaiian Island Chefs organization. Both have reputations for hard work and long hours; Kodama especially packs his calendar tight as he prepares to open a second Sansei in the old Black Orchid space in Restaurant Row.

Here, the similarities end. Consider first their food:

Fukui's dishes are delicate, elegant, finely crafted, with every element in balance. "Japanese food is based on layers of freshness," he says. "Each flavor is light and subtle, but because they have such fresh ingredients they don't have to flavor so strongly."

Kodama's dishes are bold and playful, full of color and lively flavors. "My food's casual," he says. "We have a lot of variety; it's fun. We promote sharing. Everyone should have four, five, six, 10 dishes, and then share."

Of the two restaurants, L'Uraku's menu is more recognizably Japanese. Sansei begins with a base of sushi, tempura and Japanese flavors, but its non-sushi menu draws heavily on other ethnic stylings as well. What the chefs share is a respect for balanced flavors in the Japanese tradition -- soy, miso, wasabi, mirin, ponzu, sesame, shiso, ginger, umeboshi ...

Wald Henderson, a well-traveled diner with a sophisticated base of comparison, has made a visit to Sansei a top priority on her next visit to Maui. She is already a great admirer of Fukui.

"He may restrain himself to the use of just a few ingredients, but the way he uses them, the techniques and the flavor blends he achieves -- the food is definitely complex, very sophisticated, very refined. There is enormous finesse to his dishes," she says.

"He's pretty brilliant."

Their divergent backgrounds, in condensed version:

Fukui was born in Yokohama, Japan. His mother was Japanese; his father, a shipboard cook from Maui. At age 12, in 1977, he moved to Hawaii with his father, after losing his mother to stomach cancer. He remains fluent in Japanese; English was learned in an American school in Japan. His Hawaii school experience ended early when he dropped out of Kaimuki High School in favor of a night dishwashing job.

Kodama grew up among six children in Aiea, graduating from Aiea High School in 1975 and from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a civil engineering degree in 1979. He abandoned that field to manage restaurants and nightclubs on the mainland, spending more than a decade away from home.

Kodama works in half-sleeved chef coats and shorts, or on special occasions in bright blue pants covered with fish, his attire a match for his easy-going, quick-to-laugh personality. The more reserved Fukui is always meticulously turned out in long-sleeved chef's whites and dark pants.

Their personal styles are perhaps a reflection of how they came to be chefs.

Fukui underwent intensely structured training at Furusato Japanese Restaurant: two to three years at various stations -- pantry, tempura, grill, up to the ultimate position of handling sashimi -- all at the hands of Shuji Abe, a strict and critical traditional chef.

"Any little mistake and he's on it," Fukui says. "He makes sure you don't make the same mistake again. At times you get so much scolding you cannot learn anything. You just want to walk out."

But it was Abe's skill at balancing flavors, his finesse with clean, fresh tastes, that launched Fukui's interest in cooking. This even though he started out so far down the pecking order that he rarely got to sample the dishes. "What you do is stand by the dishwasher and just when they're about to throw out the food, that's when you get your taste." His training in European techniques came strictly from books.

(Few things came easily to this guy. His is a menu heavy with seafood, yet he is allergic to shellfish and can't eat 24 percent of what he serves. When creating a new dish, he takes a small taste to test the flavor and texture. "The mouth comes itchy and I spit it out. Pau. Can't help it. That's my job, I guess.")

Kodama, on the other hand, seems to have honed his craft in the best of circumstances. He was managing a nightclub in Aspen when during the off-season he was invited behind the scenes at the sushi bar he patronized every day. "I'd be back there drinking and making rolls and all my friends would come in. It would be a big party."

He expanded beyond sushi working for an innovative food-service company, Creative Catering, and absorbed other cooking styles in summer travels throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. It is the hallmark of Aspen resort life, Kodama says, that you work desperately hard during the skiing season, then get summers pretty much to yourself.

After 10 years of this, he returned to Hawaii, settling in to make sushi at Haili'imaile General Store on Maui until he finally got the chance to open his own place.

A chance to work with the great Matsuhisa on Maui in 1993 was his inspiration to fuse, with his first experiment being a torqued-up California roll with cilantro, green onions and Thai chile sauce. The Sansei Special Roll is a signature dish on Kodama's menu.

When you start with sushi, it's an easy transition to carpaccios, ceviches and beyond, Kodama says. "It was so natural because we have all the freshest ingredients because we have the sushi bar. We can even sear the fish and it will taste awesome because it's so fresh."

Fukui's first departure from traditional Japanese was a baked oyster with lemon juice, soy sauce, crab and avocado. "Nothing Japanese about it, but we got really good oysters at the restaurant and I don't like them raw."

The dish was created at Furusato and made the move to the appetizer menu when the Furusato parent company opened L'Uraku.

Whatever name eventually falls to this cuisine -- new wave, neo-Japanese, Japanese-with-a-twist -- it is a limitless source of challenge and opportunity.

"If you think about it, the variations of Japanese and European flavors, there's no end to it," Fukui says. "You can keep creating."


Chef Hiroshi Fukui

Bullet Restaurant: L'Uraku, Honolulu, opened 1996; 68 seats
Bullet Vital statistics: Age 34; attended Kaimuki High. Trained at Furusato, taking over as chef at age 29.
Bullet First restaurant job: Dishwasher, Furusato
Bullet Dish that most captures his style: Marinated papio with caper soy butter sauce

Chef D.K. Kodama

Bullet Restaurant: Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar, Kapalua, Maui, opened 1996; 120 seats
Bullet Vital statistics: Age 42; graduate of Aiea High and University of Hawaii. Trained in Aspen, Colo., in a sushi bar and with a catering company.
Bullet First restaurant job: Bus boy, Horatio's
Bullet Dish that most captures his style: Foie gras nigiri sushi with unagi demi-glaze
Bullet Coming up: An Oahu Sansei, next spring

Translation, please

Bullet Uraku is Japanese for "heavenly place." It is also the name of the building that houses the restaurant, Uraku Tower. The L' was added to provide a European flavor, in light of the Euro-Japanese menu.

Bullet Sansei means "third generation," describing both the chef and his new-generation food.

new wave meals

Star-Bulletin staff


These specialty restaurant dishes were selected by the chefs as easy enough to do at home. This assumes that you have the patience to skin a fillet of moi, which is no small trick. Chef's hint: Very fresh fish; very sharp knife.


By Dennis Oda
L'Uraku's Moi Carpaccio

Sizzlin' Moi Carpaccio

Hiroshi Fukui, L'Uraku

1 whole moi, about 12 ounces, fileted and skinned
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cracked pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons finely diced soft tofu
2 tablespoons finely julienned ginger
2 tablespoons finely diced tomato, skin only
2 tablespoons onion chive or green onion in 1/2-inch lengths
4 tablespoons peanut oil
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons thinly sliced nori kizami
8 tablespoons prepared ponzu sauce

Slice moi into paper-thin slices and divide among four plates, fanning the pieces in a circle. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; brush with garlic.

Divide the next four ingredients among the plates, layering them as follows: tofu, ginger, tomato, chives.

Combine oils in a saucepan and heat until smoking. Pour over fish as it sizzles.

Top each serving with nori and drizzle 2 tablespoons of ponzu around each plate. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 270 calories, 20 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 950 mg sodium.*


By Dennis Oda
Sansei's Panko-Crusted Ahi.

Panko-Crusted Ahi

D.K. Kodama, Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar

1 sheet nori
2 tablespoons cooked rice
1 cup fresh arugula or spinach
5 ounces fresh sashimi-grade ahi
Salt to taste
1/8 cup prepared tempura batter
1/4 cup panko
Vegetable oil for frying

Bullet Soy Wasabi Butter Sauce
1 teaspoon chopped shallots
6 tablespoons white wine
4 tablespoons cream
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 teaspoon wasabi paste
6 tablespoons soy sauce

To make sauce: Saute shallots in wine and reduce by half. Add cream and reduce by half. Whip in butter and strain. Combine wasabi and soy sauce and whip into butter sauce.

To assemble ahi roll: Place nori on a sushi mat and on the top inch, spread the rice about 2 grains high. Lay arugula on the bottom third of the nori. Place ahi on top of arugula. Season with salt. Roll tightly.

Dip in tempura batter, then in panko flakes. Fry in hot oil until coating is light golden brown. Slice into 7 rounds and serve on a platter with sauce. Makes 7 sliced rounds.

Approximate nutritional information, per round (without added salt): 230 calories, 18 g total fat, 10 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 850 mg sodium.*

Also doing the twist

Working from the assumption that there've got to be more than two restaurants out there putting a contemporary twist on Japanese cuisine, we went restaurant hopping recently, taking along as experts our two new wave chefs.

We were looking for creative Japanese food, but not so creative as to be weird. The pickings were slim, but here are two places worth a try, and a sampling of what you'll find there:

Wine Tei

2238 Lauula St.

Bullet Calamari with Cheddar: Grilled squid is very traditional, but cheese is rarely used in Japanese cooking. An unusual, interesting blend.
Bullet Ahi Carpaccio: Sashimi served with Korean hot bean paste.
Bullet Hokkaido Croquette: The traditional style would be beef and potato with katsu sauce; this is made with salmon and has a curry sauce.
Bullet Fried Mountain Yam: The nori-wrapped deep-fried technique is traditional, but the use of yam gives it a twist.


1684 Kalakaua Ave.

Bullet Bomb Lettuce Surprise: A hard-boiled egg centered in a ground-meat mixture of chicken, pork and beef, wrapped in lettuce and served with tomato cream sauce. A play on the cabbage roll, very popular in Japan.
Bullet Special House Salad: Cabbage slaw is topped with kurage (jellyfish), hokkigai, pork, tasaka seaweed and wakame. Comes with a Japanese soy-sesame dressing.
Bullet American Eggplant Au Gratin: A deep-fried eggplant is filled with seafood, but the usual cheese-breadcrumb topping is replaced with a miso sauce.

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