I put writing this blog off for a while. Some of you may have read an earlier article about a secret yakitori restaurant in Honolulu, which actually got some foodies in a huff and demanding to know its exact location. I was still editing my photos and debating on whether to post this or not, when I started getting inquiries from friends on my phone and demands from strangers on social media.
In a nutshell, Toridokoro Matsumoto is a secret yakitori restaurant. Don’t ask me for the address, since it’s hidden in a fairly unexpected spot. The menu is in Japanese, they only speak Japanese, and you can only dine there if someone who has already been there invites you. If you’re a picky eater, stop reading this blog now as you don’t ask for substitutions.
Secret restaurants are not uncommon in Japan; these aren’t gigantic chains looking to cater to the masses. This is why some restaurants, like Sushi Sho, decline to have Michelin award them a star. Artisanal Japanese restaurants are all about bringing the best of their ingredients and talents to their base of loyal customers, who fill their seats every day. Once such a restaurant gets a Michelin star or is featured in mainstream Western media, tourists and wannabes flock in and squeeze the regulars out for their one instagram moment. And then business dries up after the rush dies and the regulars have found a new place to hang out.
The other part of the equation is being able to have some control over who gets to dine there. You can’t just walk in and demand a table. Since your ability to get a reservation is dependent on being invited by someone who has already dined there, there is the trust of referral.
And I guess for many of my fellow Chinese friends, there is the magic of being exclusive. When my niece Cymri took me to the hidden bar People 7 in Shanghai, you had to know the secret phone number to make the reservation with a password, then find the unmarked establishment set back in a dark hallway, then know the special combination of holes in the wall AND the secret password to get though the knobless door (both of which change daily).
After that long introduction, if you’re still reading, here’s an equally long string of photos to show you what I ate in case you don’t get to go. The prix fixe menu is about $70, not including tax and tip. I have been there twice, and the menu was slightly different each time, so I’m mixing the photos (most of which are from the second dinner).
Dinner starts with a shot of chilled soup. The first time we went, it was a rich, earthy edamame soup; the second time, it was this lovely onion vichyssoise that coated our mouths with its savory essence.
The second course is a trio of little dishes. This is from the second dinner, which featured (from left) chicken that they had made into ham; a sweet tomato with Parmesan in dashi with olive oil (be sure to drink the dashi); and yamaimo, or mountain yam, that they made into tofu and served with ankake sauce. That yamaimo tofu was creative and magical.
This is a delicate and super fine chicken liver pate with toast points, and a bell pepper stuffed with minced chicken and mustard. You can eat both items with your hands.
Chicken sashimi! That’s right, raw chicken, lightly seared and sliced sashimi style on onions and shiso. I wish they gave us two shiso leaves, since that really adds to the dish. If you’re wondering, it tastes like sashimi, only cleaner. And yes, they get their chicken super fresh from a secret farm on Hawaii island, which is why they can serve it, just like they do in Japan. If the thought of eating this makes you squeamish, don’t embarrass me and DON’T GO.
Then the grilled pieces started to appear. This is the part called “sasami,” which is an area just below the chicken breast. The bit of wasabi gives it a slight kick.
Before the next course, you are given a dish with a special miso salt and truffle salt. On the table, you can also use yuzu kosho, szechuan pepper and/or their special togarashi. (Hint: the truffle salt is amazing on everything.)
The thighs are perfectly grilled so the meat is moist and the skin is perfectly, delicately crisp. Most people were eating the meat off the skewer, but if you’re a delicate blossom like me, they can provide special forks that help slide the pieces off.
Who would have thought these plain vegetables could be so delicious? Grilled yamaimo and negi (Japanese green onion) are perfectly seasoned so you almost don’t have to put anything else on them.
At our first dinner, we had an intermezzo of beef with shredded gobo. At our second dinner, we had this fishcake with pickled wasabi from Shizuoka. Both items were just okay on their own, but were beautiful together — the combination brought out the salty sweetness in the fishcake.
If you like gizzards, you will love their preparation. Again, the meat is perfectly seasoned, and the end result is a soft, crunch-ewy bite. I’ve never had gizzards this easy to eat.
The heart doesn’t need any additional yuzu kosho or spices as it is brushed with a special teriyaki-style sauce. Since it’s sliced thin, it’s very tender.
Chicken breast is pretty neutral in flavor, so we had fun with different combinations of salt and spice with each bite.
Grilled quail eggs? They warned us to be careful as the yolks are still soft, but due to the grill, made the centers like molten lava. Dip these in the truffle salt, of course, and let these eggy little bites do the talking in your mouth.
No yakitori experience is complete without some tsukune (chicken sausage), and Matsumoto’s left us hoping for more. Our waiter smiled and said, “one each,” seemingly knowing that we might “accidentally” eat our neighbor’s one.
The end of the savory dishes: Their special mushroom fried rice, cooked with veggies to give it extra flavor. The chicken broth on the side is warm and comforting,
For dessert, a small cup of house-made custard made with Japanese sensibility — not too sweet, not too rich, but just enough to make you instantly crave more. It’s paired with a special tea from Fukuoka, where they’re from, and the combination helps to intensify the flavor of each. I looked forward to this the second time I had dinner, but also was sad since that signaled the end of a truly great meal.
They’re getting ready to open a lounge in the same building, and we assume it will be a speakeasy as well.
By the way, if you read this blog and are trying to text me, I’ve turned off my phone for a few days.