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Critics’ Choice: Best Restaurant

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  • Appetizers at Nanzan GiroGiro, from top: eggplant with tomato vinegar, uni and green pepper; green soybean egg tofu with trout roe; and tuna sashimi in seaweed soy sauce with pine nuts.


    Chef Yoshihiro Matsumoto, who trained in Kyoto, oversees the menu at Nanzan GiroGiro.

A meal at Nanzan GiroGiro, says chef Yoshihiro Matsumoto, is about more than just delicious food. It’s a cultural experience.

And, most would add, an aesthetic one.

Beyond the beautifully plated Kyoto cuisine, each piece of dishware at GiroGiro is a work of art. One of the restaurant owners is Kyoto ceramist Nanzan Ito, and Matsumoto uses his vibrant ceramic dishes, alongside beautiful lacquer and glassware, as canvases to present the restaurant’s fare.

Nanzan GiroGiro was selected by Honolulu Star-Advertiser food writers as the Critics’ Choice Best Restaurant.

Kyoto cuisine, as characterized by Matsumoto, is seasonal, experiential and visually appealing. The restaurant presents its food in six courses in a set menu that changes monthly. A meal is $58, with an additional $8 for green tea and dessert.

“The many small dishes tell a story — an autumn story, a summer story,” he said.

The first part of the equation is gathering ingredients. Since Hawaii doesn’t really have seasons to speak of, Matsumoto sources key items from Japan. He estimates that he imports 30 percent of his ingredients and uses 70 percent fresh, local fare.

Hamo eel, for instance, is a popular food in Kyoto and Osaka served during summer, and it has appeared on the GiroGiro menu this summer in various preparations including soup and tempura.

“In Tokyo, nobody knows it, but it’s a cultural food in Kyoto,” said Matsumoto.

Another step in presenting the menus is figuring out the sequence of the dishes. The goal is to achieve proper balance through the meal.

Last month’s soup course, for instance, made with white Kyoto miso, steamed monchong, foie gras and shimeji puree, had a strong flavor, so it was followed by a palate-cleansing cold somen noodle dish with hamo tempura, heart of palm, hamo broth jelly, shiso and gobo-sesame puree.

“There is a light course, a strong course, a heavy course, a cold course. There are many experiences,” said Matsumoto. “There is a nice balance between the dishes. In total, you can feel the season.”

The late-summer menu also included a starter of edamame egg tofu garnished with trout roe and black shichimi pepper, local ahi in a nori soy sauce with lotus vinegar, and shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) puree with California uni and eggplant-tomato pickle; a main course of grilled black cod with corn and sesame tofu tempura, and radish sprout, ginger, yuba (tofu skin), ankake sauce and wasabi; and a final course of roast duck breast served with sweet potato puree, cucumber, wasabi and a garnish of smoked crystal salt from England.

Seasonal references extend beyond the cuisine. Last month’s roast duck course, plated on a black lacquer dish bearing the image of a gold crescent moon, reflected late summer perfectly: The food itself was rooted in summer, while the lacquer dish represented autumn, Matsumoto explained.

Honolulu’s GiroGiro restaurant is one of three internationally; the original is in Kyoto and another is in Paris. A Tokyo location is in the works.

Each GiroGiro restaurant is set up the same way, with counter seating surrounding a kitchen that sits at the center of the space. Diners can watch the chef and his staff as they chop, cook and assemble each intricate dish. The Hawaii restaurant also offers a few tables for larger parties, set off in a spacious nook.

Matsumoto, 41, is a Kyoto native who trained for 13 years at the original GiroGiro under its other owner, Eiichi Edakuni. He worked his way up, starting as a server, becoming a cook and then a sous chef before being named a head chef. Matsumoto opened the Hawaii restaurant in April 2011 and has been here ever since.

“I wanted to live in Hawaii my whole life,” he said. “There’s very good weather here.”

Delivering Kyoto cuisine so far from that city isn’t a stretch for Matsumoto, who says it takes just a couple of days to import whatever he needs from Japan.

“It’s not like Paris, all the way in Europe,” he said, adding that adapting the cuisine to local tastes is much easier in Hawaii.

“What I serve here is similar to what they serve in Kyoto: vegetables, fish, dashi broth. In Paris, there’s more dairy, meat and cheese.”

If adaptation seems at odds with such a traditional cuisine, Matsumoto said that GiroGiro chefs are encouraged to flex their creative muscles.

“Kyoto is a very traditional, aggressive city, and the training was very strict,” he said. “But we have some autonomy. They want us to get expressive.”

The formula works. Matsumoto changes his menu on the last Thursday of each month, and he now has a following of regulars who return to enjoy every new menu — an intersection of tradition, culture, creativity and art.


560 Pensacola St. (at Hopaka Street); 524-0141; Dinner. Closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays. $$$

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