Kaiseki represents the highest form of Japanese cuisine – a sequence of artful dishes displaying the precise skills and techniques a chef has perfected over the course of a career. It is often cited as the inspiration for haute cuisine tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. Kaiseki meals feature seasonal and local ingredients served in a progression from raw to steamed, simmered and fried, culminating with a sweet or a dessert. Not only a meal for your stomach, kaiseki engages your senses with artistic plating, aromas and nuanced textures.
In the case of Akira Japanese Restaurant, chef Taiki Kawai brings a lot to the table both figuratively and literally, with $48 kaiseki and $85 omakase tasting menus along with a full izakaya spread. His pedigree ranges from the Prince Hotel Kiocho private club to New Otani Hotel properties in Tokyo and Waikiki. From 2012 until July, Kawai was executive chef of the now shuttered Izakaya Shinn on Beretania Street. Akira is one of the new restaurants in the unlikely setting of the eleven50 building (1150 S. King St.); Morio's Sushi Bistro is also there, as is a Palama Express convenience store.
The allure of a nine-course $48 kaiseki dinner drew me in, since meals of this nature can easily top $100. It comes with a small catch: The Akira Tasting kaiseki is limited to just 10 orders per day and only offered from 5 to 5:30 p.m.. Not a problem since I'm a 74 year-old stuck in a 28 year-old's body. You won't find a specific sake pairing on offer, but you can conjure up your own with Akira's affordable nihonshu. Frolic editor Mari Taketa and I ordered four 5-ounce carafes that averaged $9.50 each. If shochu is your spirit of choice, you'll be glad to know that Iichiko is not your only option.
On the day of the autumnal equinox, the menu danced on the cusp of summer and fall. First up was a cool palate teaser of tamago dofu or egg tofu. I had seen tamago dofu featured on an episode of "Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories" and was excited to try the delicate square finished with the tiniest dot of freshly grated wasabi – whose heat is far sweeter and quicker to dissipate than the colored horseradish we're used to. Made entirely from egg and dashi, tamago dofu is custardy with a texture similar to firm tofu but without soy. The chilled bite was a nice beginning on a warm evening.
A dose of freshness arrived in our second course: a summery tomato poke with juicy romas and wakame seaweed dressed with light shoyu, pops of bright ume, shiso leaf, shaved onion and a dash of togarashi spice. This is available as a larger cold appetizer on the izakaya menu for $6.50.
Next was a simmered eggplant with grated daikon in ponzu. The overall flavor, which included green onion garnishes and shaved strands of umami-rich katsuobushi, brought out the sweetness in our Suigei Junmai Ginjo ($7.50 for a 5-ounce carafe). The eggplant is available as a larger ala carte dish for $6.50.
Accented with just a lime wedge, Kauai shrimp butterflied and grilled was simple in execution, but its layers of flavor ranged from the creamy meat that pulled away from the crisp shell to the rich and sweet shrimp brains that I dredged with the accompanying tamago yaki egg roll.
A chawanmushi egg custard pot (notice the egg trend) arrived on a kawaii wooden coaster. The comforting, chicken-forward preparation contained bits of shiitake and seafood hidden in its silky depths. It was much looser than the tamago dofu in the first course and easily slurped with the wooden spoon. At any other restaurant, chawanmushi is my least favorite dish. Kawai's version has me craving it. It can be had ala carte for $6.50 or topped with uni for $9.50.
Our sashimi course with was a duo of luscious shima-aji (striped horse mackerel) and fresh local tako with a generous dab of nama wasabi. The textures, which ranged from crunchy to soft and unctuous, were key and would have been difficult to improve upon. I dropped a blob of wasabi into the remants of my chawanmushi for a sinus-clearing last bite.
Butterfish is often tired and overdone, but in Kawai's version, the rich black cod was fried in a soft, jelly-like potato starch coating before receiving a generous lacquering in a sweetened sauce. It's similar to agedashi tofu and a departure from the grilled miso treatment we're used to.
From sweet and simmered, we went to salty and fried with soft shell crab covered in bubu arare. It delivered a unique crunch – not crispy, but not soggy either. The tiny rice cracker bubu arare balls were a nice contrast to the tender crab meat. With a spritz of lime, these are hard to forget. Find them on the izakaya menu for $10.50.
My favorite bite of the meal was beef tataki wrapped around a lobe of Hokkaido uni and shiso with a dab of nama wasabi. Any hint of wasabi spice was balanced by the fat in the marbled ribeye; the briny sea urchin finished with a sweet, custardy note. These are exclusive to the Akira tasting menu, but a beef tataki is available (sans uni) for $10.50.
The meal rounded out with nigiri sushi of maguro, onaga, chutoro and aji (horse mackerel) and a prawn head red miso soup. The nigiri were on the smaller side, but balanced with a smaller rice portion. We paired our sushi with a crisp and dry Kikusui jumnai ginjo ($7 for a 5-ounce carafe) – our second one of the night.
Dessert came in the form of a scoop of Meadow Gold vanilla ice cream. Not the most inspired way to end an otherwise fantastic meal. Would it be so difficult to offer some kakigori here? I was still a bit hungry, so I ordered one last dish: the deep-fried pork and potato balls ($7.50).
The rustic dish had crisp pork strips mingling with okra, gnocchi-like potato dumplings and mochi balls in a sweet, gingery sauce. I wished I had started the meal with this beaut! It would have been just what I wanted to whet my appetite. With a frosty glass of nama biiru, this would be heaven for someone fresh from a long week.
My subsequent attempts to visit were futile because Akira was full, including after 9 p.m. on a Monday, so I strongly urge you to make a reservation if you wish to snag a table at this hidden gem.
Akira Japanese Restaurant
1150 S. King St, #101-B
Parking entrance on Young Street between Pensacola and Piikoi
Mon-Sat 5:30 - 10 p.m.