Posts Tagged ‘ponzu’

Kona Kai Sushi – The Izakaya for Locals

October 1, 2012

Call me Jiro because I always dream of sushi. And in those dreams, I typically envision a small, dark, packed-to-the-brim hole-in-the-wall with a certain “je ne sais quoi” aura. Behind the sushi bar stands a stoic, elder sushi master who earned that title of “master” by working his way up the sushi making ranks for decades. With an air of arrogance, he’ll take his time with your order, giving off the impression that he’s doing you a favor by serving his food.

Local sushi chef James Matsukawa takes that visual and completely flips it on its head. Barely 30, he is the energetic owner of Kona Kai Sushi, a somewhat undiscovered sushi restaurant on Coyne Street, that just celebrated its 1 year anniversary in July. And although Kona Kai does give off that appealing, hole-in-the-wall vibe, Matsukawa is anything but old and stoic.

A look inside Kona Kai Sushi
A look inside Kona Kai Sushi

Matsukawa grew up in Kealakekua on the Big Island where his love for fishing began early when, at the ripe old age of 10, he started hanging out with the old timers, regularly fishing for menpachi, akule and papio.

Years after moving to Oahu, he worked as a line cook at Kabuki Restaurant before moving behind the sushi bar under master chef Yoshio Kazama. He continued his practice at countless other Japanese restaurants like Kohnotori, Jimbo’s, 808 Kapahulu, Shigezo, and Sushi Izakaya Shinn until a stint at Sushi Sasabune changed his life forever.

“It was like sushi boot camp.” describes Matsukawa. “I think it was the hardest place to work, both mentally and physically. Long hours at a frantic pace. I basically lived there, but it has been the most influential experience to this day by far.”

Under master chef Seiji Kumagawa’s careful tutelage, Matsukawa was taught to be extremely disciplined and to respect the fish. It was not about how to do things, but why.

He then moved on to the popular izakaya Tokkuri Tei, which influenced him in an entirely different way.

“Tokkuri Tei showed me a more casual way of doing sushi. The clientele atmosphere had a lively, easy going energy typical of an izakaya (in Japan).”

After Tokkuri Tei, he felt that he was ready to open his own restaurant in the form of Umi no Sachi on 11th Ave in Kaimuki. Unfortunately, due to inexperience and poor business relationships, it closed after only three months. Matsukawa then took an 8 month hiatus, regrouped and was ready to sushi again.

James Matsukawa
James Matsukawa

Enter Kona Kai. Named after his roots (Kona) and his love for the ocean (Kai), Kona Kai brings the best of Matsukawa’s experiences and serves it to his highly targeted clientele.

“We don’t advertise and we really don’t want to. Sasabune taught me that word of mouth (advertising) is the most important.”

On a recent trip with the boys from Lawai`a (the Fishing magazine I write for), we went omakase style and here is what we were served:

Seared Canadian Tombo (albacore tuna) with ponzu
Seared Canadian Tombo (albacore tuna) with ponzu

Baby Calamari stuffed with Blue Crab
Baby Calamari stuffed with Blue Crab

2 types of Washington Oysters: 1 baked & 1 fresh with Alaskan King Salmon Caviar
2 types of Washington Oysters: 1 baked & 1 fresh with Alaskan King Salmon Caviar

Spanish Bluefin Sushi
Spanish Bluefin Sushi

Red Snapper from Southern Japan (Kyushu) with Canadian Rainbow Trout Caviar with reduced shoyu
Red Snapper from Southern Japan (Kyushu) with Canadian Rainbow Trout Caviar with reduced shoyu

Shimaaji from Shikoku (background) & Golden Eye Snapper with Shiokara on top (foreground)
Shimaaji from Shikoku (background) & Golden Eye Snapper with Shiokara on top (foreground)

Hokkaido Tako, simmered with shoyu, massaged by hand with daikon for 45 minutes (background) & Aji (Japanese Akule) with ginger and green onions (foreground)
Hokkaido Tako, simmered with shoyu, massaged by hand with daikon for 45 minutes (background) & Aji (Japanese Akule) with ginger and green onions (foreground)

Russian King Crab with Kani Miso (background) & Prawn from New Caledonia with black Flying Fish Caviar (foreground)
Russian King Crab with Kani Miso (background) & Prawn from New Caledonia with black Flying Fish Caviar (foreground)

South African Rock Lobster tail from the Tristan da Cunha islands
South African Rock Lobster tail from the Tristan da Cunha islands

Matsukawa wants to create an atmosphere where his clients become his friends. His main goal is to continually top his customers’ last visit.

Many of the dishes from our night were brok’ da mout’ amazing. Creative, yet fundamentally sound. If he is planning on topping that the next time around, sign me up!

(Previously published in Lawai`a Magazine)

Kona Kai Sushi
2535 Coyne Street
Honolulu, HI 96822
Tue-Sat: 6pm-12am
Sun: 5pm-10pm
(808) 594-7687

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Yajima-Ya Lunch Wagon Revisited

August 1, 2012
Yatai in Hawaii (Part I) |  Yajima-Ya Revisited (Part II) 

The last time I covered the Yajima-Ya Lunch Wagon (located off of Sheridan Street near Keeaumoku), the majority of their menu items consisted of the noodle (soba or udon) and don (rice bowls) variety. Since then, they’ve expanded their menu to include well received plate lunch style items like teriyaki or mushroom chicken, steak, and a Japanese style beef stew called Hayashi Rice. I figgah now’s a good time as any to pay chef Tomoki Ito a (re)visit to see what’s new… with a little food p0rn/eye candy of course!

One of my favorite (and incidentally one of their most popular) dishes here is the mushroom chicken. Made with egg and tempura flour, the breaded crispiness of the chicken is offset nicely with the rich “graviness” of the rue. With a side of spinach and Japanese style mac salad, this one is fo’ real kine brok’ da mout’!

Mushroom Chicken Plate ($8.50)
Mushroom Chicken Plate ($8.50)

Prepared in a similar way sans the gravy, is their Teriyaki Chicken plate. Love the touch with the Furikake over the rice!

Teriyaki Chicken Plate ($8) (Photo Credit: Tomoki Ito)
Teriyaki Chicken Plate ($8) (Photo Credit: Tomoki Ito)

Another favorite of mine is the Hayashi Rice Plate (the Japanese style beef stew). Here’s a shot of that gem.

Hayashi Rice plate ($8)
Hayashi Rice plate ($8)

Wifey likes their Buta Shougayaki (Pork Ginger) plate, which is strange because she’s not a fan of ginger. In fact, neither am I, but we both can sure whack this buggah like that. Here’s a shot of Yajima-Ya’s combination plate with Pork Ginger and Wafu style New York Steak w/ponzu.

Pork Ginger and Wafu w/ponzu Steak combination plate ($9)
Pork Ginger and Wafu w/ponzu Steak combination plate ($9)

It’s hard to tell, but there’s a stack of steak underneath all that onion and ginger.

One of the great things about a combination plate at a place like Yajima-Ya, is that your options are practically endless. Some days you might be in the mood for Japanese style fair, while on other days, you might want full on local kine grindz. And then, there are those days when you just can’t make up your mind. This is when you combine the flava of the East with that of the options from way out west.

Here are a couple of combination plates, blending Hawaii and Japan.

Tempura and Teri Chicken combination plate ($8.50)
Tempura and Teri Chicken combination plate ($8.50)

Samurai Donburi & Mushroom Chicken combo ($8.50)
Samurai Donburi & Mushroom Chicken combo ($8.50)

And of course, they still have their tried and true donburi, udon and soba items like their Samurai Donburi…

Samurai Donburi ($7.50)
Samurai Donburi ($7.50)

… the Bukkake Sanuki Udon…

Bukkake Sanuki Udon ($8)
Bukkake Sanuki Udon ($8)

… and their Sansai (Vegetable Tempura) Soba.

Sansai Soba ($6.50)
Sansai Soba ($6.50)

Other interesting menu items include the Kara Soba (Spicy Cold Soba) for $8.25, the $4 Breakfast Special (Rice with 1 scrambled egg, 2 slices of bacon & 3 slices of Portuguese Sausage), and a couple of Salad options (with a choice of Udon or Soba) for $8 each. A far cry from the humble beginnings when their main clientele was employees from the neighboring Yajima-Ya (Cosmo) service station.

A few things to note since my last article… Although they’ve expanded their menu options to include the local style favorites mentioned above, they’ve also streamlined operations, choosing to shorten their hours of operation, and do away with extraneous things that take time to prepare like their Belgian Waffles, specialty drinks, and their Daily Specials menu altogether.

Yajima-Ya Hours of operation
Yajima-Ya Hours of operation

Kudos to chef Ito-san and the rest of the Yajima-Ya family for constantly evolving and finding ways to please our palate. I just hope my food p0rn/eye candy did the food justice.

Check them out the next time you’re in the area (or even if you’re not!). Trust… You won’t be disappointed.

Yajima-Ya
@yajimayahawaii
Sheridan Street (Behind Hinone Mizunone, between South King & Liona)
Honolulu, HI. 96814 (Street View)
808-497-7991
Mon-Fri: 7am-5pm
Sat: 7:30am-4:30pm

Yatai in Hawaii (Part I) |  Yajima-Ya Revisited (Part II) 

 

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