Last Saturday, Laura and I were incredibly fortunate to have a good friend of ours offer to take care of Jack so that we could go have a night out. We hadn’t been out in quite a while for a date night, not since Laura’s 2nd trimester. Probably the Signal Corps Ball, actually. So, I took my friend up on her offer.
There is a Japanese restaurant down near Chinatown that we have been wanting to check out pretty much since we got to Hawaii. From what I could tell, it wasn’t like any other Japanese restaurant we’d ever been too. We have been fortunate in Hawaii because there is an abundance of authentic Asian food, including Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean. Not so much Chinese, though. When I say Japanese, I mean more than just hibachi, sushi, and Japanese steak houses. There are noodle houses everywhere, yakitori restaurants where you grill your own prepared food, and restaurants specializing in ononomiyaki. And then there is the restaurant we went to.Tsukuneya Robata Grill serves Japanese food like I’ve never seen it. They have an abundant menu of entrees, pupus, noodles, and even homemade tofu. The focus, of course, is their selection of tsukune. Before my experience here, I had absolutely no idea what tsukune even was. I’m still not really sure what it is, all I know is that it is absolutely delicious. Their menu offers informative tidbits, and let the customer know that tsukune is chicken “blended with grated yam and more than ten other ingredients [and] will be kneaded for exactly 30 minutes.” They offer 20 different preparations of tsukune, in addition to all the other items on the menu.
The entrees that were featured were few. Although it all looked good, few of the items were anything that I couldn’t get in another restaurant. The menu actually seemed to be more focused on small bites and appetizers, sort of like Japanese tapas. There was also a decent sake list that included two different flights at separate price points. First thing I ordered was the better flight of the two.
Laura and I weren’t sure exactly what we were going to be ordering when the server came over, so we hastily asked for two varieties of tsukune, an order of their fresh grilled tofu, and a daikon radish salad to share and informed him we would order more when we’ve further delved into the menu.
My sake flight seemed to arrive at the table within seconds of our server walking away. Pleased and excited, I starting sipping my delectable clear beverages. I love sake.
Not a few minutes later, our daikon radish salad came. As one would expect, it was a salad mostly of daikon radish with shredded nori on top and a jellied miso dressing. Laura seemed a little disappointed at first that I ordered this salad, but she devoured half of it in no time. It was incredibly simple, well presented, and very pleasing. It was gone so quick, I couldn’t even get a picture of it.
Soon after, our first tsukune order came. Each order came with two individual pieces. First up was “cheese fondue” tsukune. This item clearly appeals to Western (and Laura’s) tastes. It came in a little pot over a tiny burner that was lit tableside. I was so excited for my first taste of tsukune, that I tried to relish the experience. I grabbed a piece with my chopsticks and rolled it around in the bubbling cheese. I swung the dribbly piece of meat up to my mouth and took a bite. Wow. Just. Wow. It was the most flavorful, balanced, and intense piece of chicken I had ever put in my mouth. Salty and mildly sweet flavors were soon left behind by the intense umami that slowly coated my mouth. It was incredibly moist and tender, slightly garlicky, and left a subtle smoky bitter aftertaste after I swallowed. It was one of the tastiest morsels I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. I couldn’t wait for the rest to arrive.
Next to our table came the “Tofu Dengaku” with sweet miso sauce. It was skewered slices of tofu grilled with a dark glaze that was caramelized on the edges. I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed a skewered tofu and took a bite. Tofu is typically regarded as a tasteless substance that takes on the flavors of the ingredients around it. Not this tofu. This house made curd had a delicious earthy quality to it that was refreshing and complimented the sweet and salty miso glaze. Once again, devoured.
Our next tsukune order arrived. By this time, Laura and I were thoroughly enjoying the food and the company. It’s an exciting experience for us to try new foods, especially when it exceeds our expectations. This was called “Misonaisse” tsukune. It came plated with a spicy miso dressing and a drizzle of mayonnaise. This one ended up being a nice transition into the upcoming tsukune. It was just a little more complex in flavor than the previous, but wasn’t overly sharp or intense. I think the creamy, mouth coating mayo overshadowed the spicy miso a little, but it was still an incredible bite.
The next iteration of tsukune, called “Bainiku Tsukune”, takes that bold umami chicken skewer thingy and grills it with an ume paste, ume being Japanese pickled plum. Ume has an incredibly unique flavor that is fruity, salty, sour, and slightly sweet. Throw that on grilled tsukune, and you have yet an intensely flavored bite that is balanced and impressing. A little chiffonade shiso leaf added a nice herbal bite. This was Laura’s favorite.
We ordered another round, adding two more tsukune to the mix as well as ordering a few specials. “Goma” tsukune was brought to our table next, and is infused with almonds and covered in toasted sesame seeds. Not quite as intense as the previous bites, but just as tasty. The nuttiness from the almond and sesame was a really nice and subtle addition to the smoky grilled nibble.
Our first special came next. Laura ordered a baby shrimp plate. This was really nothing more than tempura shrimp. Not nearly as impressive as the rest of our meal so far but still delicious in its own right. I mean, tempura shrimp is pretty basic, but there was still a quality to this appetizer. It was perfectly cooked and well seasoned. One thing is certain; every plate this restaurant puts out is done to the highest of quality.
Next up was tsukune stuffed shitake mushroom. This one was a little more unique than the other tsukune, as it wasn’t in that now familiar oval shape. This was just as impressive as the other tsukune, but I lack adjectives to remain original. Simply put, the unique flavors of the shitake + smoky intense chicken = a win.
Last to our table was another special that was called “puffy fish cake”. Not like any crab or fish cake I’ve ever had, I would imagine the fish was prepared in a similar manner to the tsukene, where the meat is pulverized, seasoned, and kneaded. The flavor was delicate, surprisingly sweet, and not fishy at all. It had the texture similar to mochi and was a nice transition to bring us into dessert.
We finished our meal by sharing a dessert with two fried apple bananas with ice cream, chocolate sauce, and what appeared to be a fried rice paper garnish. Not bad. Since my sake flight was long gone, I ordered a glass of barley shochu. Laura drove home.
We will definitely be going back. Hopefully soon.