Hawaii Trip Report (Honolulu), January 2017

We found ourselves back in Honolulu quickly (we were there 10 weeks ago), and we had the chance have some pretty good eating over 4 days. We didn’t get to do everything we wanted, but we nonetheless ate a good variety in between driving around O’ahu.

First lunch was at Helena’s Hawaiian Foods. Sorry, no pictures, we inhaled this in the car as we had to run a few errands. I still think Helena’s serves the best Hawaiian food in O’ahu! For what it is, it’s good quality comfort food served out of a casual neighborhood institution.

We had: Kalua pig and cabbage, laulau, tripe stew, beef stew, chicken long rice, fried ahi, and pipikaula short ribs. Note: the stews are thinner, lightly tomato based. Chicken long rice is a stew of sorts with ginger and onion vermicelli with bits of chicken - but not much chicken, so I think I’d rather opt for something else next time. But the tripe stew is awesome (very tender pieces of honeycomb tripe), as are their famous pipikaula, which is similar to kalbi.

Dinner was at Vintage Cave Club. Vintage Cave has gone through several incarnations - most recently, it split into Vintage Cave Club (with a ~12 course tasting menu of either French Japonais or Sushi Kaiseki in the main dining room) and Vintage Cave Cafe (a separate Italian cafe). My last dinner there was at Vintage Cave’s Sushi Kazuma, the private, second sushi bar, but since I already had a sushi dinner lined up, I decided to return for the tasting menu. I believe their newest chef has been there for about a year or so; the last tasting menu I had there was under a different chef, whose food was more French-New American. Though this menu was “French Japonais,” it deed seem more “Italian Japanese” than anything.


Caprese, Deconstructed. Gelee of ameera and campari tomatoes with mozzarella snow, balsamic vinegar gelee, and local basil and flowers. This was an absolutely delicious and refreshing start - clean and pure umami with just enough acidity. If I had to nitpick, I didn’t love the texture of the mozzarella snow, but nonetheless the combination was interesting as the caprese really took form after the third bite or so. Hawaiian black lava salt brought out the tomatoes’ exceptional sweetness.

Jamon Iberico puro de bellota (aged 52 months) wrapped in watermelon radish, Oma bluefin otoro wrapped in daikon, both with black Perigord truffle. These are some luxe ingredients for sure, basically best of the best, though the mouthfeel was a bit dry, due to the radish wrapping. Maybe another presentation would’ve showcased these ingredients even better.

An otsukuri and salad of sorts. Sayori (halfbeak “needlefish”) and Oma bluefin with watercress puree; aori ika (cuttlefish) with sea lettuce and squid ink sauce; a salad of micro vegetables in yuzu vinaigrette with a “dirt” of miso and black and white sesame. Ingredients were good themselves, but again we didn’t really see the connection here. We preferred the sashimi wth the yuzu vinaigrette, actually, though the miso and black sesame dirt didn’t complement the delicate squid and needlefish.

Moloka’i spot prawn tartare with golden imperial ossetra caviar, jalapeno vinaigrette, and dill. This was a fantastic bite with some nice finesse - the dill working perfectly with the nuttiness of the caviar and sweetness of the spot prawn. Jalapeno vinaigrette worked beautifully, too. The spot prawn was very creamy, not that bouncy, but perhaps it was aged to bring out the sweetness. The fried head - yep, like shrimp chips.

Lobster bisque with vanilla butter poached lobster. The lobster was expertly cooked, both tender and snappy, and the richness from its head jus worked beautifully with the vanilla.

Seared foie gras with Alba white truffle, berry coulis, and vegetables. I believe the vegetables were cooked “takiawase” as they each had their own intensity and rather crisp texture. Not sure about this pairing.

Kinki (thornyhead rockfish) with ratatouille, fried lotus root, and broccoli rabe. This was good, though I would’ve liked a thicker piece of fish!

Peach and sake sorbet

Baked ise-ebi (spiny lobster) with uni and ise-ebi capellini. Perfectly snappy lobster was fantastic with the creamy, ethereal uni.

A5 sendai wagyu seared on a hot brick. With cucumber and karasumi (cured mullet roe, like bottarga), sato-imo (taro) mash, garlic butter, fresh wasabi, and Hawaiian red lava salt. Great beef, though the accoutrements were a little lost on me.


“Ochazuke” with black Perigord truffle. I forgot what kind of rice this was, perhaps cooked with saffron?
Shizuoka musk melon.

Peaberry coffee.

Vanilla bean sorbet.

Dinner here was quite nice - the tomato gelee, lobster bisque, and spot prawn tartare were our favorites. Ingredients here are basically some of the best around, though some of the preparations were a bit lost on me; in my next visit, I’ll try their a la carte menu. Wines by the glass are relatively inexpensive, which is interesting considering their ultra high-end bottle list. Service was great, and that dishware!

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Next day was a hike at Diamond Head - not really a hike, more of a tourist trail, but a good morning exercise nonetheless.

First stop was the famous pineapple truck - for $4 it was good, though admittedly last time the pineapple was even sweeter!


Right across the street was the KCC Farmer’s Market from where we grabbed some local guava honey, macadamia nuts, fruits, and breakfast - Pig & The Lady’s takeout kiosk has a broad menu, and we got the “Brisket & Tendon” wide noodle soup. It was awesome - their broths tend to be a bit more funky, and the brisket was very tender despite its thickness. I didn’t see any tendon, though…but the thai basil and sawtooth herb were great complements to the strong broth. At a nearby kiosk, we also got a “loco moco” - a common local dish of a hamburger patty and fried egg with gravy over rice.

yes that’s before we added the broth

this was OK.

Then, a quick stop at Kona Abalone for it sashimi, grilled, and steamed. I prefer these as plain as possible - the soy, ponzu, lemon juice, wasabi, etc. just aren’t up to the same quality.


Dinner was at I-Naba, a tempura and noodle house to whose LA branch I’ve visited several times. Not sure if it’s just my memory of LA, but the Honolulu branch seemed to have more delicacies. We had:

Batteira (box pressed mackerel sushi topped with ginger)


Shirako ponzu - steamed cod milt in ponzu sauce with shiso, green onions, and momiji orosshi (spicy grated daikon). Not bad.

Kawahagi nigiri sushi with its liver. The liver makes it taste like foie gras, the translated name here was “unicorn leather jacket,” though I’m used to knowing it more simply as “filefish.” It was ok - knifework and rice were not precise. This isn’t a sushi restaurant, though I was a bit disappointed since their batteira is consistently great!

Mixed tempura - kisu (silago/whiting fish), ebi (shrimp), chicken, squid, and various vegetables. Pretty good, but not as good as Rinka’s a bit later in the trip.

pt 2 - with renkon no hasami age (shrimp-stuffed lotus root sandwich) and anago (saltwater eel)

uni - not very good quality

wakasagi smelts

and soba (no picture), which was probably the best of the bunch. IMO, their tempura is pretty good, but the soba and batteira are better.

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Woke up late the next day for a lunch at Arancino at The Kahala. We each had the 3-course lunch prix-fixe ($39, +$8 for uni pasta). I believe the menu is slightly different from those of Arancino’s other 2 locations.

We both started with ahi and Kona Kampachi tartare. I think this was supposed to resemble the Italian flag. Arancino, by the way, plays “Italian” music that’s kind of a caricature of Italy - slightly amusing or annoying. Anyway, the tartare was nice texturally, and the fish was pretty good, but the avocado seemed to have a bit of garlic, and the tuna was mixed with a tomato sauce, both of which are rather strong for a crudo. With that said, it was still quite tasty with the grilled crostini.

Ika and tobiko spaghetti with garlic olive oil sauce. Good, though a touch plain and slightly dry. Not quite a full itameshi pasta - maybe a touch of soy-butter or something along those lines would’ve worked?

Ricci di mare (uni) was fantastic though. It had a light tomato cream sauce and sweet Hokkaido uni that bound the spaghetti perfectly.

Coconut sorbet and granita with almond panna cotta was very refreshing.

Tiramisu was also good.

Then a nearby stop at Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha for some very natural tasting shave ice. Even though the ice isn’t the finest, the syrups taste very much like the real fruit.

Matcha green tea and pineapple, with fresh mochi

Lilikoi (passion fruit) and guava

After some beaches and site seeing, we had dinner at Sushi Ginza Onodera. Dinner as always was excellent here - I do think they’re one of the top sushiyas in the US and the food and my experiences have been better here than at the LA branch. The rice here was great - they use a red rice vinegar aged 3 years, but it wasn’t overly salted (at the LA branch, the rice was considerably different in taste). Knifework was significantly better, too, and the cutting and proportions were great.

We had:

  • Spinach ohitashi with honshimeji mushrooms
  • Tsubugai (turban shell clam) and hirame sashimi (fantastic, a pillowy bounce in texture because it’s done ike-jime)
  • Kona abalone with liver creme sauce
  • Baked shirako (cod milt) in ponzu and momiji oroshi (awesome - great texture contrast)
  • Chutoro sashimi
  • Tako sakurani (tender broiled octopus in nitsume sauce)
  • Mahata yaki in shuto (grouper grilled in fermented skipjack innards)
  • Kegani chawanmushi (hairy crab egg custard cooked in a tea cup)
  • Nigiri x 12: kinmedai, sumi-ika, sayori, kanburi with karashi, seki-aji, akami zuke, kohada, chutoro zuke, otoro, bafun uni, anago x 2 (with salt and nitsume), tekka maki
  • Kasutera-style tamago (Castella-cake style egg omelet)
  • Akadashi miso (red miso soup with green onions)
  • Kuromitsu sorbet with hoji-cha (brown sugar sorbet with mint and roasted tea)

Some highlights

Tsubugai and hirame sashimi

Baked shirako

Senaka cut akami zuke

Kanburi

Sayori (halfbeak “needlefish”) with ginger, and rice rolled in shiso chiffonade

Seki-aji

A beautiful chawan for the kegani chawanmushi (with a gelee made of crab innards)

Bafun uni - preserved in its own saltwater, no chemicals. Incredible!

Kasutera style tamago

Fantastic meal from start to finish - the hirame sashimi, baked shirako, chutoro sashimi, kanburi, seki-aji, akami zuke, and bafun uni being standouts.

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Last day:

Breakfast saimin at Shiro’s Saimin Haven in Aiea, on the way up to North Shore. Saimin is a casual comfort food noodle soup that’s an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino noodles. Saimin is more of a nostalgia food, not gourmet per se, and it doesn’t really inspire obsessive efforts of say ramen. I wouldn’t have trekked out here to Aiea, which for my tastes is perhaps a bit sleepy, just for saimin, but it was on my route to North Shore so we were happy to eat a local comfort food.

This big bowl is $6!

Later that afternoon, poke at Ahi Assassins. Theirs was the best poke I’ve ever had - if you haven’t had poke before, or your exposure is simply from one of the numerous Chipotle-esque poke shops that opened when the trend hit California circa 2015, this is something very different! Fish is fresh caught, not frozen, and the difference is palpable. I didn’t really get any good pictures - again, we ate in the car (Ahi Assassins is all takeout, and it’s upstairs in a strip mall with no real seating).

We had the “lunatic” - “spicy ahi” without the mayonnaise. Delicious, with a creeping heat and a good balance of marinades - not too heavy on sesame oil. Also had the spicy, with mayonnaise. They have tons of varieties and also offer bones, bellies, collars, heads, etc.

Support local fisherman! This is the real deal, and the best poke I’ve tried.

A necessary stop at Leonard’s malasadas - everybody knows these, these are the best, along there with Agnes’ (sic) Portuguese Bake Shop in Kailua. But Leonard’s is famous for a reason - don’t mind the tourist lines, they go quickly.

Dinner was at Rinka, a good neighborhood izakaya which I’ve reviewed before. It’s a reliable spot for solid Japanese izakaya fare (though they don’t do robata-yaki).

Tsukemono

Sashimi combination - pretty good, though I was hoping for a bit more variety instead of the standard yellowtail, tuna, salmon.

Abalone croquette, with seafood and mushroom bechamel - again, tastes like a very delicious and luxurious chicken nugget (in a good way)

Renkon chips - a bit too thin, tastes of fries, not of lotus root

Renkon manjyu in ankake sauce (lotus root dumpling with shrimp in kudzu-thickened sauce)

Tempura - the shrimp tempura is consistently fantastic. Better than I-Naba’s and most other places!

Chicken karaage - always really juicy

Bluefin toro steak, with onions and garlic chips - really meaty, like beef

Beef filet mignon steak with onion demi-glace, fried zucchini and onion rings

Tsukune nabe (chicken meatball hot pot with mushrooms, cabbage, and watercress) - a very comforting, smokey soup with deep chicken essence

Add ramen at the end (I’d rather have udon, but oh well)

Negitoro maki, kanpyo maki

Salmon ochazuke

Inaniwa udon

We ended up having to cancel our reservations at Senia or La Mer, unfortunately. We also missed Arvo, Lemona, Agnes’ (sic), Pierre Marcolini, and Morning Glass Coffee, due to scheduling conflicts. We’ll have to go next time. Oh, and for the second time now, we walked in and out of Shirokiya’s Japan Village Walk after having found nothing of real interest. Maybe it’s the layout, but it’s exhausting to me and maybe there’s too much choice; but the kiosk for the one thing I wanted to try - wagyu katsu curry - isn’t open yet. Still, we had a pretty good (and packed) 4 days.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

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Aloha Brad!
Awesome pics and report back…
You need to follow my friend, Melissa Chang in the 808…she is a food ‘baller’ like you…
Mahalo

Headed to Honolulu for 7 days in 2 weeks time. I think wife and I are going to check out Vintage Cave Club for our anniversary dinner.

Thanks for sharing @BradFord

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Of course, and have a great time! I think Vintage Cave Club could be a pretty nice choice for an anniversary dinner. It’s a bit dim, but it feels very private, and the service is good. It doesn’t have the romantic views that La Mer does, but it’s a different kind of restaurant. Tip - have your Uber or whoever drop you off right in front of their basement entrance; the path to walk there always smells!

If you and/or your wife are into sweets, there’s Pierre Marcolini now at Ala Moana, which is the shopping mall just above Vintage Cave.

Halekulani, where La Mer is located, has a fairly solid yet very relaxing semi-outdoor breakfast at Orchids, too.

If either of you are at all into Poke, I highly recommend Ahi Assassins (the “Lunatic” in particular, if you are cool with spicy).

In the past couple of months, there’s been some exciting new openings (including yet another very interesting sushi restaurant from Japan!) - I’m already looking to return!

Have a great time there.

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Great, thanks. Now I’m debating on La Mer, didn’t realize VCC was a $300pp experience. I’m not opposed to that amount but it’s gotta be a pretty special experience at that tag before alcohol.

I was born and partially raised in Honolulu but I’ve come to have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the entire state so it’s not my first choice for a vacay but we’ll be doing the family thing. It just happens to land on my wife and I’s anniversary date. I hadn’t done much researching until I came across your post, it’s on a Monday but seems like still plenty of reservation spots open at the moment.

We love us some poke, so we’ll definitely check out the assassins. We usually camp up at the Outrigger Canoe Club which is walking distance to Ono’s but that’s just satisfactory to me. If we find ourselves in the area we will usually swoop through tamashiros but willing to try something different.

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Aloha Brad…
Even just hitting up at the House without a key at Halekulani for mai tais and Aloha music with the views of Diamond Head and the gorgeous Pacific ocean…

Poke is quite good at the Roy’s Waikiki…it is NOT like the Roy’s on the mainland!!
Hamachi rocks it as well and Halekulani is across the street…

Mahalo