I just recently came back from a mini vacation to beautiful Hawaii. I love Hawaii for many reasons, many of which come from their delicious eats! If anything is a reflection of Hawaii's diverse culture, it is the food. In recent years, a strong Japanese influence has brought in a wave of izakayas -- Japanese food taverns -- that serve up a wide range of small plates. In case you haven't noticed, I love the style of small plates (dim sum, mezze, tapas...) because I enjoy the whole communal feel and it gives the opportunity to try a little bit of everything! Each izakaya has its own character and everyone seems to have their favorite.
I've only had the opportunity to try a few of the izakayas and my favorite at the moment is Sushi Izakaya Gaku. This restaurant was suggested to me last year by multiple people. It is one of the newest izakayas in the Honolulu scene and strays a bit away from the "traditional." The chef/owner (who was behind the sushi bar when we were here!), Manabu Kikuchi, was a chef for 10 years at the popular izakaya, Imanas Tei -- enlisting his close friends, he opened up Gaku bringing his fresh flavors and fresh take on the izakayas.
Honestly, Gaku is one of the best restaurants I've been to in a long time -- in and outside of Hawaii. The food is simple, yet creative and memorable. So, I was thinking of just giving my favorite food highlights, but it is just so hard to choose! So here is a whirlwind tour of our meal :)
Hamachi Tartare with Nori Wrappers: This will forever be one of my go-tos. I had it the first time I came to Gaku and had to have it again. The slightly spicy flavor of the hamachi tartare with its soft texture matches perfectly with the crunchy thin sheets of seaweed wrappers.
O-Toro and Uni Sashimi: The o-toro here (fatty tuna) is simply melt in your mouth fresh (top). The uni (sea urchin) sashimi is my mom's favorite dish -- creamy and slightly sweet -- presented in a shell.
Kumamoto Oysters: Our wonderful waiter suggested this special to us. Each day, Gaku has a lengthy list of specials to choose from (hurrah for more selection!). These were delicious -- topped with scallions and ponzu sauce, they were briny, savory, and umami-licious.
Beef Croquettes: These were also on the "specials" menu. These croquettes are a mix of mashed potatoes and beef, coated in panko, and deep fried. At first, I found the croquettes to be fairly bland... but then, I tried the sauces that they accompanied them and they were TRANSFORMED. I know, it sounds crazy. But the use of that miso based sauce just woke up all my taste buds and brought out all the different flavors in the croquette. Drooling now thinking about that sauce...
Salmon Skin Hand Roll: This was my dad's salmon skin hand roll. This is one of his favorite items to get at any Japanese restaurant -- and he wasn't disappointed here. He said that the skin was incredibly crisp and did not have too much salmon meat hanging on the skin that often makes the skin soggy in other rolls.
Grilled Whole Moi: OMG. This dish was FANTASTIC. We had originally ordered the miso butterfish, but as it turned out, they were out of butterfish that day (which in retrospect was a blessing in disguise), so our waiter suggested the moi to us. Once the fish of Hawaiian kings, moi is a popular Hawaiian fish -- moist, white, and flaky -- and I don't recall another preparation of moi that was this delicious. The skin was crispy and had that deep flavor that comes from grilling. The meat was light and flaky, yet flavorful. Definitely would get this again in a heartbeat.
Sushi!: Of course, we had to get sushi while we were here. Here we have the seared gold eye snapper, tuna, and scallops. We got the gold eye snapper on a whim, and it was my favorite. The slight searing brought out the best flavors in the fish.
Monkfish Liver: As they say, the "foie gras of the sea." This was definitely a highlight of the dinner for my mom. She devoured the little dish -- and agreed, it tasted just like foie gras. Very smooth and flavorful.
Azuki Beans with Mochi Balls: Here is the first of our two desserts -- the lightly sweet azuki (red) beans surrounding chewy, soft mochi balls. We got this every time we've been to Gaku and love the light flavors.
Vanilla Ice Cream with Pomegranate Jelly: Originally, the special of the day was vanilla ice cream with blueberry... I was intrigued. But sadly, they had already ran out of this special! Our waiter though said he could have them whip up the same dish but with POMEGRANATE. I immediately perked up and actually told him that that would be even better. (How I heart pomegranate...). And this was the perfect refreshing dish to end the meal. I didn't realize that the pomegranate-ness would be coming in jelly form, but the jelly with the vanilla ice cream was a delectable mixture of creamy and fruity.
Outside of the food, the standout for me is the service. The service is beyond friendly and helpful (the aloha spirit is alive and well!). And although this may have been just happenstance, our waiter actually remembered my family even though we hadn't been back in months. The feel when you walk in is immediately one of ... home. They go out of their way to make you feel at home in this small restaurant and there's a feeling of comraderie from the staff, the regulars, and even new diners like my family.
I definitely recommend Gaku to anyone visiting Oahu. It's a place that really has something for every set of taste buds. Be sure to make reservations though. The restaurant is pretty small, and although they try to accommodate walk-ins, sometimes it just isn't possible. (And on a sidenote tip, there is a small (i.e. approx 6 car) parking lot behind the restaurant where you can park -- spots disappear quickly and they are quite tight, but a great option as opposed to busy King Street.) And if you do go, let me know what you thought and what you had! With the ever revolving door of specials, I wish I could go back all the time, just to see and taste the chef's newest creations!
Sushi Izakaya Gaku
1329 S. King Street
Honolulu, HI 96814