Hale Ohuna’s modern kaiseki

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I didn’t realize that last night’s modern kaiseki at Hale Ohuna was chef Lee Anne Wong’s first. She’s been really jazzed about Japan and been flying there a lot, not just to research for her restaurant, but to work on her menus as a guest chef on Hawaiian Airlines.

A welcome cocktail of Kikusui nigori and Hawaii Island apricots.

A welcome cocktail of Kikusui nigori and Hawaii Island apricots.

If you are unfamiliar to kaiseki, it is a set meal comprised of several courses, using seasonal ingredients. There is a specific order to the dishes that include an appetizer, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed course, in addition to other dishes at the discretion of the chef. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’ll tell you now that I thought Lee Anne knocked her interpretation of kaiseki out of the ballpark.

Some of the salts from Kikusui. Salt brings out the flavors of sake.

Some of the salts from Kikusui. Salt brings out the flavors of sake.

You saw the sakes featured, so now here are the dishes we had.

DSC09327Sakezuke: steamed heart of palm topped with shoyu caviar, macadamia nut butter, citrus and a garnish of kalamungay (moringa). I didn’t expect much from this, but it actually had wonderful flavor. The main taste sensation for many of the dishes was salty — to bring out the sake flavor — but created in different ways to tickle different parts of your tongue. The Kikusui Kuramitsu was one of the best pairings of the night.

DSC09329Hassun: Fried prawn, raw and cooked opihi, warabi salad, bitter melon, and a kalo chip with sour poi dip. There’s not much you can say about most of the items on this plate; they are what they are and were done very nicely. But I really took notice of Lee Anne’s bitter melon … it was really bitter, but the pork filling was very salty not just to go with the sake, but to offset the bitterness. I often compare Lee Anne’s food to things my family makes, and her bitter melon (dare I say it?) is better than my mom’s. This was paired with a seasonal Hiyaoroshi Junmai Ginjo sake, which is now unavailable.

DSC09333Mukozuke: Kona kampachi with a yuzu-shoyu gelee and edible Hawaii Island flowers. Wow, that yuzu gelee was really good! It had strong citrus flavor but wasn’t tart, so there was no puckering. It went very well with the Kikusui Karakuchi sake.

DSC09336“Put your face in it and smell it, Chang!” Lee Anne said the big effect for this Futamono course was the aroma: savory, smoky, and a little citrus. She made a smoked dashi for the Okinawan sweet potato, yama-imo (mountain yam) and sansho, which sounded like it would be strong but was actually quite subtle. This was paired with Sakamai Junmai Daiginjo.

DSC09339Yakimono: Although this featured Ni’ihau lamb belly, it was actually very lean. The gaminess was offset by the chili sauce, which was nice, but we all loved the char siu lamb (you can see it peeking out from under), which was more tender and flavorful. The pumpkin tempura provided some sweetness for contrast, and the chili sauce brought out the spiciness in the can of Funaguchi gold nama sake.

DSC09340Suzakana: Opelu and Maui onion in a tart broth or dressing. This was paired with a can of Funaguchi black nama sake, and we we learned that sake brewers often argue over which of the four cans (green, black, gold, red) are the best. Since one of my favorites is Narutotai Namagenshu, I liked this sake more than the gold.

DSC09344Shiizakana: I always thought my Aunty Helen in Foster City, CA made the best jook, until I met Lee Anne. Her breakfast congee at Koko Head Cafe beat her, and now so has this rice soup bowl with abalone, shiso and local egg. It’s rich, chunky, and comforting, with a light savoriness and that pop of shiso that I love. This was paired with Ginjo Nama, Mukantei (sold only in Japan). Very smooth!

DSC09347Mizumono: Grapefruit and basil jelly with a coconut cream. The tartness of the jelly brought out the sweetness in the Perfect Snow nigori sake, which was a nice end to the meal. It lightly wiped the palate with a clean flavor.

And that was it! I’m looking forward to more seasonal kaiseki pairings from Hale Ohuna, as this was a great start.