The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Sushi Kai welcome
in Kailua

Last week I wrote about moving from my old stomping grounds, Kailua, to the heart of old Honolulu in Liliha, and in so doing, getting reacquainted with culinary diversity.

Choices are plentiful, if somewhat redundant in Kailua, I said, where there are choke pasta and breakfast spots. If you took all the Kailua restaurants and did a pie chart, there would be just one tiny sliver remaining for "everything else."

So what happens? Three weeks after moving out, I returned for a visit with my massage therapist, and what did I see -- a new restaurant. "Hey! Why now?"

Not only that; the restaurant turned out to be very good. Double "Hey!"

Owners of Sushi Kai Sushi and Sake Bar didn't just bring in a few tables and throw the doors open, unlike many a small restaurateur. They actually put some thought and feng shui principles into the decor, with its pleasant balancing act: water element, artwork, warm colors and earthen tableware.

An equal amount of thought went into the huge menu, with an abundance of izakaya-style offerings, a first for Kailua.

Sushi Kai is at the entrance to the town, in a spot that hadn't seen a good restaurant since L'Auberge moved out many moons before I crossed through the tunnel from the Leeward side.

By day, lunch plates run from $5.95 to $7.95. At night, there's a lengthy list of izakaya-style appetizers and sushi rolls. It would take weeks to exhaust that list, but there's a lot more when you turn the page to find dinner entrees for those with large appetites.

Many families in the house were starting with simple orders of agedashi tofu ($4.50) and mochiko chicken ($5.95) with its sweet, crunchy coating. All the local favorites are represented, such as three pieces of shrimp tempura and assorted vegetables ($6.95), 6 ounces of charbroiled New York steak ($7.95) and ahi tartare ($8.95).

The staff here appears to be in tune with demographics. Kailua's the kind of place where there is a mix of young families and a lot of seniors on a fixed income, and prices seem to reflect an understanding of budget constraints. You can spend as little or much as you want.

Chefs Scott Okazaki and Jason Roldan serve up lunch for patrons at Sushi Kai Sushi and Sake Bar in Kailua.

On the low end, choose a few appetizers and sushi selections, or the early bird (5 to 6 p.m.) teishoku special for $9.95 with an entree selection of chicken teriyaki; grilled salmon, mahimahi or mackerel; tonkatsu; or New York Steak. On the high end, splurge on two-and-a-half pounds of Alaskan King Crab legs for $39.95. Most entrees top out at $13.95.

The kids will probably enjoy looking at the special sushi rolls, such as the dragon ($9.95) of broiled unagi, shrimp tempura, radish sprouts and avocado; and the avocado-green caterpillar ($9.95) with its layers of eel, tamago and cucumber.

I tried the New Jersey roll ($9.95), a spiced-up variation of the California roll, with a stalk of crisp asparagus in the center and slices of yellowtail on top. Beef 'n reef ($11.95) is also kin to the California roll, but blanketed with rare peppercorn-crusted beef tataki. The beef may turn out to be a suitable replacement for those who fear raw fish. Beef just takes a little more effort to chew.

On the rolls and sushi, the slivers of fish are on the skimpy side, so the best pay-off may come with the Rainbow roll ($10.95), with its colorful assortment of tuna, yellowtail and salmon, plus avocado. You get a lot of fish by type, if not by portion.

I guess I was in the mood for fish, because we continued on to the plain broiled hamachi served with ponzu sauce, and steamed moi ($16.95).

I'd grown so accustomed to seeing small filets of moi served elsewhere, that I was pleasantly surprised to see the whole fish, drizzled with black sesame furikake and layered with sliced garlic and onions and lemon. Both fish were excellent, but for the price, and to avoid the trouble of picking through the moi's many bones, I'd stick with the hamachi next time.

Because this place is run by locals -- the chef has a history with Aaron's -- this is one of the rare Japanese restaurants that knows there's more to dessert than green tea ice cream. Unleash the evil of Pandora's Purse ($5.95), a phyllo bundle featuring a chocolate surprise inside.

Sushi Kai Sushi and Sake Bar

20 Kainehe St. / 262-5661

Food Star Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star Star Half-star

Value Star Star Star Half-star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, and 5 5 to 10 p.m. daily

Cost: About $25 to $50 for two without drinks

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com

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