I'm going to guess that most readers will initially see this blog post and shrug, as I did, when I first heard about Yamada Chikara opening. And that's okay. Like many things in Japanese culture, the restaurant and the owner/chef are subdued, letting the food and experience speak for itself without the fanfare of publicity.
In fact, you have to dig to find out that the restaurant's namesake is an esteemed chef, having trained at the famous three-star Michelin restaurant elBulli in Spain after a six-year stint around Europe. Born in Shizuoka, Japan, Yamada brings a unique fusion perpective on culture and food, creating a kaiseki menu that is his riff on the traditional tea ceremony (as you'll see, below) that's not just East meeting West, but modern takes on ancient concepts. And since most of us never had the chance to experience elBulli, you get a taste of the creativity and playfulness the famous restaurant was known for. This Honolulu spot is his third, with the first two in Tokyo and New York.
I found out about it from my friend Yumi Ozaki, who had gone with a friend. The restaurant opened quietly on June 5, and its grand opening is tonight, possibly equally as quiet. We decided to try it before word got out and the prospect of not being able to get a reservation. Dinner is a set course menu with a number of choices, so the photos I'm showing you will not all be from my dinner, but from my friends' dinners as well. And for those of you who are simply looking for your instagram moment: we all agreed that the food is exquisite and presented well, but most dishes aren't easily translated into photos. If I knew what to expect, I would have done a video of the meal to show you, since the highlights are really more interactive. But I guess that's the beauty of this meal, you don't know what to expect.
The set menu was $80 for each of us, with supplemental charges for premium items. I'm not sure if the price will go up after the grand opening, but it seems to be in line with the pricing for his Tokyo restaurant, so check with Chikara Yamada first before you blame me for listing the wrong price.
The dinner starts with oshinogi, or rice, with miso soup and sesame tofu, and the "mukosuke" or appetizer of the day. On this day, we had fresh, silky blanched oysters in a light ponzu sauce. This was followed by a cocktail of watermelon gazpacho and "homemade olive," which is a creation in molecular gastronomy.
You get to choose two appetizers from a selection of six items. You actually can't go wrong with any of them, so just go with your instinct.
SPOILER ALERT: Don't read this if you want to be surprised. The "hot and cold surprising appetizer" of quinoa isn't actually quinoa at all! It's frozen foie gras and miso with liquid nitrogen, grated to look like grains. The savory warm consomme provides a beautiful contrast in both temperature and flavor.
You can choose one main dish from five items. I'm not showing Brandon Suyeoka's wagyu because, although it tasted as divine as it always does, it looked like a brown blob on a plate. You know what wagyu looks like, you don't need me.
You also choose one secondary dish from four items. I won't show Yumi's bolognese udon, but trust me, it looked and tasted much better in person than in photos.
The tiramisu and creme brulee were also unphotogenic, but beautifully unique in flavor. When I ordered my melon soda and ice cream, I wondered how they would present such a casual cafe dessert in such a restaurant. Lo and behold, like everything else, it was a whimsical take on a familiar favorite, with melon soda granita topping the vanilla ice cream in a pretty glass.
In a traditional kaiseki, these small dishes are intended to feed the spirit, eye and stomach in preparation for the tea ceremony. When you're done with your meal, you have to move to the tea bar, where you enjoy hot or cold tea from Yamada's family farm. If you order matcha, they prepare it in the traditional way with the bowl and wisk.
Yamada himself is not the chef at this Honolulu restaurant and it's not known if he will be on hand for the grand opening tonight. The staff thinks he may be in the restaurant later this summer.
The menu will change every three months, with the seasons. If you're making reservations to eat at Chikara Yamada and can't get in touch by phone, you may have to go through the website. That may be your best bet anyway as a gaijin, because at the moment the manager this server, Kaede Kunihiro, are the only ones who speak English. And Kunihiro is only here to help open Chikara Yamada in Honolulu ... so communicating with the staff will be a challenge. Parking is on-street or any one of the five stalls on the side of the restaurant.
Good luck getting a reservation!
514 Piikoi St.