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Japan’s alleyway dining tradition comes to Waikiki

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Wakiko Ashida offers an assortment of musubi from Shichimusubi in the new Waikiki Yokocho.

The latest to join Honolulu’s wide and varied culinary landscape is Waikiki Yokocho, 16 venues housed in the 23,000-square-food basement of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza. The beautifully designed space, set to open Thursday, offers Hawaii’s first encounter with the yokocho concept, or alleyway cluster of casual restaurants, that exist throughout Japan.

In Waikiki, however, the selection of venues is decidedly more upscale. Though curry, ramen, okonomiyaki and kushi­katsu offerings may seem rather humble fare, consider that one ramen restaurant has earned a place in the Michelin Guide.

And while most of the restaurants are operating outside their home country for the first time, some offer both authentic Japanese food and carefully conceived “flairs” of fusion expression.

At Beniya, a restaurant that serves sushi and more, there is the “authentic taste of Kyoto cuisine, with the added flair of the farm-to-table concept,” said Harold Watanabe, yokocho general manager.

Not only that, the restaurant has brought in Japanese chefs to train a local staff, including chef Matt Fujiwara, whom Watanabe says has a “creative mind.” Fujiwara’s job is to create refined fusion dishes that preserve the Kyoto style of food while incorporating contemporary Western aesthetics.

“In Japan, food is all about taste and the beauty of the plate itself. New fusion dishes are beautiful and colorful,” Watanabe said, referring to a chirashi dish that bears the vibrance and textures of local microgreens, orange tobiko, fish and more topping a disc of rice.

Meanwhile, at Nomu bar, the main draw is Japanese whiskey. The bar’s inventory is dominated by the Suntory brand and runs the gamut from everyday to fine quality. Operators say that together with craft cocktails (plus wine and beer), their bar will not just garner broad appeal but will provide opportunities to taste new things.

Cocktails such as the Matcha Old Fashioned and the Ume Shiso Mojito have elements familiar to both Japanese and Western visitors, and allow for new cultural flavor experiences.

The bar hopes to be a place of respite for Japanese travelers who are subject to airline schedules that have them arriving well before check-in time at hotels. As for visitors from other parts of the world, manager Shane Tsubaki said he hopes Nomu can serve as a segue to the restaurants.

“We’re a bar that anyone can identify with. Someone might recognize the Mondavi wine or Johnny Walker scotch. While they’re here, we hope we can educate them about the rest of the yoko­cho,” he said.

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