You’re going to have to work to find Gaan Sushi, but for sushi purists, it’s worth the expedition.
The small restaurant is tucked away in the back of the boutiquey Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel. Following directions to the end of the bar seems to lead to a dead end, but just go down the steps that seem to lead to the property’s pool, and to your left you’ll find a nondescript black door. Behind it, you’ll find a glimmer of sushi made in the traditional Edo way.
It’s not so different from what we all recognize as sushi, but where the past 20 years have seen the rise of creative sushi rolls comprising layers of sliced shellfish, fish, vegetables, sauces and seasonings, Gaan’s focus is on old-school sushi showcasing a single main ingredient on vinegared rice.
Edo, of course, is no more. It was a fishing village that became a center of power and renamed Tokyo in the late 1800s when the emperor took up residence there. Edo was the birthplace of sushi due to its bountiful waterfront and the need for expediency in dispersing the catch.
Prior to someone sticking fish and rice together, sushi was the name for vinegared meat or fish alone. While nigiri sushi is perceived as a luxury today, in those days, combining the two staples proved to be a convenient street and finger food. And, of course, vinegar and soy sauce were means of preservation that also happened to complement the fish.
Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
GAAN IS A small restaurant with only four tables and the sushi bar, so it’s not a place for the claustrophobic. Last week, I wrote about a restaurant where you have to be self-sufficient in service. Here, you can’t escape from servers hovering over you. There’s just not much room for them to lurk while surveying the room. That’s fine for those who want and demand constant attention, but for me it’s a little uncomfortable. Every time we finished a dish, there was somebody waiting to swoop down and grab the empty plate. It was like being part of an assembly line. Maybe that’s a problem with the multicourse omakase, in that both chef and waiters must watch constantly to keep the meal moving along in succession.
The fish, imported from Japan, isn’t as luxurious as many would expect, but for sushi enthusiasts seeking something different, you’ll find it in the Edo-style red vinegar and salt that gives the rice its red tinge and stronger, rustic flavor.
For the full experience, I opted for the Gaan omakase ($80), which offers a lot of food for one person, especially by the time you get to the seven-piece nigiri platter. It would work out well if your dining partner ordered the smaller tasting menu ($38.50) or a handful of sushi and sashimi dishes and helped you out with the nigiri. Otherwise, sashimi selections include tuna ($9.50), fatty tuna ($15.95), octopus ($8.50), marinated mackerel ($11.50) and amberjack ($13.50).
The omakase starts with three types of appetizers, everything the chef’s selection of the day. On my visit these were a savory fish meatball in a chicken broth-based gelee with stewed carrot and bell pepper, a mussel in a strong garlic-butter sauce, and asparagus tofu that had the custardy texture of chilled chawanmushi.
After this came two types of sashimi, ahi and flounder. With only one dish on the table, you are forced to contemplate the morsels you are about to eat, relishing the essence of their beauty and flavor in a way you might not with sushi rolls to go.
Next came the real chawanmushi, thick with shredded fish and shellfish, followed by mackerel sushi with the sting of ginger.
I was looking forward to the surprise dish of the day — of course they were all surprises, but we knew when to expect sashimi, a warm dish and sushi, etc. It turned out to be a wonderful warm dish of scallop baked in a thick butter cream sauce.
Throughout the experience, there had been a thoughtful mix of warm and cool, cooked and raw dishes. Following the relatively heavy scallop selection came a wonderful, palate-cleansing and refreshing sunomono. The pickled okra and small dice of araimo, or mountain yam, was served in a small glass, ready to be gulped down instead of picked at with chopsticks.
By now we were nearing the end of the meal, with the nigiri platter comprising tuna, white fish (sea bream), shellfish (abalone), shiny fish (Spanish mackerel), caviar (ikura), squid and eel, plus a Gaan sushi special, a handroll with a mixture of ahi and a type of fine green onion.
The meal would end here with a stomach-soothing plain broth. (With the tasting menu, you’d get the appetizers, sashimi, and five nigiri pieces, plus egg omelet and soup.) But if you’re wedded to Western tradition, there is a dessert that’s over the top. Just as with the omakase, the chocolate cake platter has a little of everything. The flourless cake was nice and chocolatey, even if dry and crumbly, and it was served with a scoop of green tea ice cream and a neatly sliced selection of red and green grapes, strawberries and kiwi. The disparate ingredients had little in common, but were a joy to look at and feast on in turns.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.