Posted | Comments Off
Pau Hana Patrol: Izakaya Gazen has a bi-national vibe
Izakaya Gazen’s food and vibe straddle two nations: Japan and the United States. This is largely a good thing, because it gives the restaurant a dynamism that doesn’t exist at every happy-hour location — a good-natured tension between the casual impulse of Americans and the gracious formalism of Japanese style.
2840 Kapiolani Blvd.
5-6 p.m. daily, 9-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays
» 5-ounce house sake, hot or cold, $3
» pitcher of Kirin draft, $8
» small plates, $3.80
It also means that you have a choice to make when you order: Do you want the greasy bar food of an American bar and grill (hey, maybe you do!) or the delicate flavor of a Japanese izakaya dish?
Both have their appeal, but mixing the two can result in a certain confusion — to the head if not the palate.
I like this place and have already made a personal repeat visit here, out of pure attraction.
Doesn’t hurt that it’s not far from where I live in Kaimuki, but I also relish the Japanese-influenced simplicity and comfort of the interior design, and the obvious enjoyment of the neighborhood crowd that often fills the restaurant right up, as well as the food.
THE RESTAURANT impresses me as a neighborhood attraction, with prices affordable for families and young working people alike. While Gazen has Japanese owners, with a bilingual menu and management, it has a simple, relaxed nature that reflects its stateside location.
You can get big pitchers of Kirin here for just $8 during happy hour — an offering that certainly made me happy. Servings of sake are just $3, though I did not try it.
One of the nice surprises was the happy-hour special offer of Potato “Fritters” with “mentai butter” — a thinly sliced, savory hot treat flavored with a lightest trace of the sea and buttery golden goodness. Just $3.80 during happy hour!
The deep-fried, marinated pork, on the other hand, another happy-hour offer at $3.80, was nothing special, just a crunchy, chewy, salty bite that helped the beer go down better. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
And that’s the dichotomy of Gazen. If you order carefully, taking the recommendations of your server or others who have been there often, you can surely get what you want — whether it’s bar food or something more refined. But order willy-nilly and you will not have a uniform experience.
THE GOOD STUFF is there for the taking, if you know what it is. And of course this will vary by one’s personal taste.
Gazen has dishes with natto, squid, mochi, tofu, raw fish and beef tongue. Not everyone is going to like all of this. But a consensus has emerged on some items, if you ask around (or surf the Web for commentary).
There are some sure things to get, in my book:
Burdock, a crunchy root, is served as Kimpira salad here in a generous portion for $3.80, any time.
Grilled beef tongue, one of Gazen’s specialties, is $12. Don’t be afraid: It’s served with sesame oil and onion, flavorful and only just slightly chewy.
Aku carpaccio with yuzu, onion, sesame and drizzled with oil is a Gazen variation on poke that is luscious and delicious.
A consistent highlight is the Tofu Sampler, served three ways for $12.80, any time. Tofu is made daily on site here, and the sampler is served attractively, with the homemade “Zaru” tofu in a straw bowl, flanked by “Sukui” tofu bathed in silky soy broth and a black sesame tofu. All are delicate and consummately refreshing.
One last suggestion: I didn’t try it, but the Sweet Potato Mochi and Vanilla Ice Cream with Earl Grey Sauce ($5.25) is almost universally recommended.
Gazen can be extremely popular at times, so it is a good idea to get here early if you can. The waiters are friendly, straightforward and helpful, in my experience, and when I needed a recommendation or explanation of a menu item, their feedback was as good and reliable as an online review. I’ll tip a Kirin to that!
– Elizabeth Kieszkowski / firstname.lastname@example.org