Grind Time: Hakone hosts sake dinner
BY JASON GENEGABUS / firstname.lastname@example.org
Most local residents identify Hakone at the Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki and Golf Club as a destination for special occasions with one of best values on Oahu for a buffet-style meal.
But the restaurant — and the Hawaii Prince in general — has worked hard to host a variety of special events in recent years, including tasting dinners and cigar nights, that have attracted decent crowds to the Ala Moana end of Waikiki. Following the success of the Hanami Sake Festival in April, which featured more than 100 different varieties of sake paired with food from a number of Honolulu restaurants, Hakone realized there was enough demand for more sake-centric events.
It definitely helps that Hakone has manager Ikuko Shimizu on staff — she’s the only known Hawaii resident to have been conferred the title of kikisake-shi, or sake sommelier, by the Sake Service Institute and Kikisake Shi Guild in Japan. She also has her hands full helping run the restaurant, so she wisely pulled back on the scope of Hakone’s latest endeavor to maintain the high standard of service expected by customers without completely stressing herself out.
Hakone’s new sake dinner series is an intimate affair, with less than 50 reservations accepted for the first meal on Sept. 9. With a 6 p.m. start time, guests were seated just as the sun began to go down, which provided a quintessential postcard-ready Hawaiian sunset backdrop as we enjoyed a welcome glass of sake. We were given a choice between Tuskasa Botan Reika Nama Special Junmai from Kochi Prefecture in Japan, or Ooyama Nama Special Junmai from Yamagata.
The former, we were told, was a sweeter sake, while the latter was more dry. I went for the Ooyama Nama and was surprised it wasn’t really that dry. It was, however, a good warmup for all the sake that was to come.
While we waited for the first dish to arrive, Hakone servers showed up with another glass. This Sparkling Plum Sake cocktail, made with Choya Shiso Umeshu and sparkling water, was simple yet refreshing. The shiso-infused ume liqueur is sweet with just a touch of sourness, and the fresh shiso leaf added to the drink really accentuated the infused flavors.
Soon after, the first plates arrived. Each was paired with a different sake; brewery locations are noted in parenthesis.
First course: Beef-wrapped asparagus, paired with Takenotsuyu Junmai Ginjo (Yamagata).
Served with side dishes of salmon with ikura and tofu mixed with Shiitake mushrooms, this was a great reminder that I was eating dinner in a true Japanese restaurant. Despite appearing to be a little disjointed, all the flavors went surprisingly well together, helped by the sauce that was smothered over the beef.
While tasty, the full-bodied Takeno Tsuyu seemed to compete against the flavors on the plate instead of complement them. But it didn’t matter, since I still had more of my Sparkling Plum Sake cocktail left to drink!
Second course: Oysters Three Ways, paired with Bon Gold Junmai Daiginjo (Fukui).
Three familiar flavors and a delicious sake helped me quickly forget any adverse thoughts that may have begun to form after the first course. Pick your poison — or pleasure, as was the case here. It was hard to choose which one to eat first, the raw oyster, the deep-fried one or the miso-grilled one. I went with my favorite, the uncooked version in the foreground above.
Still, the deep-fried oyster did not disappoint at all. It also went well with the sweetness of the Born Gold sake, which is not carbon-filtered and gets aged in vessels chilled to 14 degrees Fahrenheit for a full year before bottling.
And here’s a close-up look at the miso-grilled oyster.
Third course: Simmered duck breast with deep-fried eggplant and tofu, paired with Kikusui Sakamai Junmai Daiginjo (Niigata).
I have to admit, this was probably my least favorite dish. Not because it was bad, but because I’m just not a big eggplant fan. The duck, while flavorful, was a little too chewy.
But the Kikusui Sakamai, made with a rare variety of rice celebrated for its qualities when used to make sake, shined. It was smooth on the tongue, but bursts with complexity once it completely envelops your palate. This would be a bottle I’d search out the next time I’m at my favorite liquor purveyor.
Fourth course: Grilled Tai snapper with uni and roast lamb, served with Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai (Iwate).
It’s tough to get me to willingly eat uni. I’ve had so many bad experiences with the stuff. (Kudos to chef Chris Kajioka and the crew at Sushi ii for showing me there’s still hope, however.)
This time around, I gave it a shot and cut up a piece of the Tai snapper with a thick coating of uni on top.
Let’s just say I was a bigger fan of the lamb. It was paired well with the Nanbu Buin Tokubetsu, the flavors of the sake holding up well to the gaminess of the meat.
Fifth course: Nigiri sushi, served with Nanbu Bijin Shinpaku Daiginjo (Iwate).
Despite the best efforts of chef Masami Shimoyama to showcase his many talents in the kitchen at Hakone with this meal, I have to admit I was waiting the entire evening for this course. Four heavenly pieces of ahi were set in front of me with another three pieces of a pickled vegetable maki roll. It was a simple, yet impactful reminder of how much I love coming to Hakone for their sushi.
I was also impressed by the second variety of Nanbu Buin sake poured that evening. Using organic Ginotome rice originally developed specifically for the brewery in Iwate Prefecture, the Shinpaku Daiginjyo boasted a sweet and flowery aroma that tasted as good as it smelled. It was also paired perfectly, each sip helping to elevate the raw fish to an even more enjoyable level.
My only complaint? There were only seven pieces of sushi on my plate. I wanted more!
Dessert: Green tea panna cotta and pineapple cream mochi, served with Iichiko Yuzu Bar Fruits (Ooita).
You can’t go wrong with panna cotta. Or pineapple cream-filled mochi. The Iichiko Yuzu Bar Fruits isn’t actually a sake (it’s shochu liqueur), but with its low alcohol content and sweet yuzu flavor profile I understood why Shimizu decided to include this on the menu.
IF JAPANESE food isn’t your thing, the Hawaii Prince will transport guests to Germany in more ways than one on Saturday when the hotel hosts its second annual Oktoberfest celebration. From 6 to 10 p.m. that night, a variety of traditional beers, wines, liquor and cuisine from Germany will be in the spotlight, with live entertainment by the Zicke Zacke Band and both sausage-eating and stein-hoisting contests.
Tickets to Oktoberfest are $49, tax and service charge included. Alcohol sales will be handled separately at cash-only bars. Call (808) 952-4789 or visit hawaiiprincehotel.com/oktoberfest for reservations.
And on Sept. 27, Fujioka’s Wine Times will host a cigar event from 5:30 to 8 p.m. featuring cigars by My Father, J. Fuego, PDR, Alec Bradley, Torano, Drew Estate and more. Cigars and drinks will be available for purchase; call (808) 739-9463 to reserve a seat.
“Grind Time” is always looking for the latest places to get your grub on. Email Jason Genegabus with restaurant, bar or any other food/drink-related item at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter and Google+.