If not for a shoulder injury many moons ago, we might be watching Masaharu Morimoto swinging a baseball bat instead of deftly slicing sashimi. As a foodie, I’m thankful that he took the path of sushi and sashimi instead of besuboru. Morimoto opened his Hawai‘i outpost, Morimoto Waikiki (1775 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu, HI 96815; (808) 943-5900; morimotowaikiki.com) about 17 months ago and our first visit was about a month after the grand opening. I originally planned on writing a column after that initial visit, but decided to pay another visit to sample more of his delicacies. Life just got in the way and the second visit was delayed by more than a year. I guess I never embraced Nike’s “Just do it” slogan.
You probably know the story of Masaharu Morimoto and how he ended up as a Food Network icon. He starting with his own restaurant in Hiroshima in 1980 (and selling five years later to tour the U.S.) and then had a stint as the executive chef at the Sony Club, before he landed the head chef position at Nobu, where he was scouted to be the third Japanese Iron Chef in the original series. After the series ended, he left Nobu to start his own venture in Philadelphia, and has since expanded to New Delhi and Mumbai, India, New York, Tokyo, Boca Raton, Fla., Napa Valley, Calif. and Honolulu.
The initial visit
At our first visit, I wanted to sample traditional Japanese fare (I mean if a Japanese chef can’t hit the target with traditional foods, there’s no sense in trying the avante garde) so we selected the $35 sushi sampler along with the Wasabi Fries (for the Mrs.) and the Lamb Carpaccio (for me). As expected, the sushi was very good, though most of the “secret” is simply procuring the freshest seafood that’s in season. The fries were a pleasant surprise, with just enough wasabi to notice, but not so heavy as to clear the sinuses, and they remained crisp throughout our meal. The Lamb Carpaccio was beautifully plated, though if I didn’t know any better, I would have assumed it was simply beef carpaccio, since it didn’t have that characteristic lamb flavor. (It is no longer on the current menu.)
I also sampled Morimoto’s Sake Moriawase sampler, which included a junmai, a ginjo, a daiginjo and a 10-year-old aged sake from the chef’s own label. They were all good, but for the $30 cost (for four 2 ounce servings), I probably would have experienced the same pleasure with a full bottle of Prosecco or off-dry Riesling with my meal for about the same price.
We then moved on to our entrees, including a Tempura and Green Tea Soba Combo platter for the Mrs. and the pork kakuni (10-hour shoyu braised pork belly) lunch set for me. The tempura was light and crisp and remained so throughout our meal, and as a testament to the chef, the Mrs. consumed the whole thing (she usually peels off the battered parts). My pork kakuni was so good that it motivated me to create my own (aka as Okinawan Rafute or shoyu pork belly in the 50th).
We also sampled two desserts starting with the Peanut Butter Fondant, which was like eating peanut butter air with a chocolate cremeaux (the hit of the dish) and peanut butter ice cream. The salt from the peanut butter helped break the creaminess of the dessert on the palate so as not to overwhelm the palate. We then moved on to the Tofu Cheesecake with a consistency between sponge cake and cheesecake served with kuromitsu ice cream or molasses-flavored ice cream.
Our recent visit
On our recent visit, we decided to sample some of the Iron Chef’s unusual creations, including his Toro Tartare, which consisted of minced otoro (like negitoro without the negi) plated on a clear tray and served with soy reduction, sour cream, fresh grated wasabi, minced Maui onion, guacamole and mini rice cracker pearls. Eating the otoro with all of the accoutrements provided a symphony of flavor sensations, but it did detract from the fine flavor of otoro. I still prefer plain otoro nigiri sushi, sashimi or negitoro. We also sampled pineapple tempura with Iberico Jamon on wasabi tzatziki. This dish really emphasized the chef’s “wild” side, since it combined fresh fruit batter fried Japanese-style with Spanish ham on a Greek-inspired sauce. This really sounded like something from Kitchen Stadium, but it worked! It was sweet and sour from the pineapple, with a crisp exterior, then salty savoriness from the Iberico ham and finally herbal creaminess from the tzatziki sauce. We ordered a few sushi, including two of my favorites — salmon skin roll (as close to bacon without any pork products) and negihamachi, which was the same as negitoro using fatty yellowtail in place of fatty tuna. However the crème de la crème was the kanimiso sushi. I’m sure you all know what the “miso” is in a crab. It’s that yellowish-brown semi-solid mass that ends up in the shell of a crab after you split the top from the bottom. It is also called crab fat or crab tomalley (roe) but it’s actually the equivalent of crab foie gras (crab organs are a little different than ours so they don’t have a distinct liver). This kanimiso sushi wasn’t the most attractive sushi, being a pale shade of greenish-gray (like oxidized guacamole) but the flavor was out of this world! In fact, the Mrs. suggested just ordering a plateful on any future visit!
For our main course, the Mrs. selected the Chef’s Loco Moto, which is a take on the Loco Moco served at plate lunch establishments throughout the islands. A hamburger patty is placed on white rice covered in brown gravy and topped with a sunny side egg. Morimoto’s version used sliced wagyu beef instead of a hamburger patty and this was served with Hayashi rice. The “gravy” in Hayashi rice is a step above your simple brown gravy, as it’s enriched with demi-glace. Therefore, the star of the dish is simply the gravy and rice leaving the beef just a supporting role. The Mrs. had an ear-to-ear grin while enjoying her lunch! The lunch set was also served with a green salad, miso soup and assorted sushi.
I selected the Morimoto Special Mini Burgers — three wagyu sliders served with cabbage and pork kakuni along with a green salad, house made pickles and wasabi fries. While the slider were cooked a perfect medium rare and were still juicy, they didn’t have a pronounced beefy flavor which you usually find in wagyu beef — even the hapa wagyu beef from Snake River or Australia.
We ended the meal with the Vanilla Roasted Pineapple with grilled Castella sponge cake on a pineapple crème and lemongrass ice cream. It was very refreshing after several rich dishes and the perfect palate cleanser to end the meal.
After two visits to Morimoto, I invariably had to compare it to something or someone else. How ‘bout his former boss, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who also set up shop in Waikiki? After comparing the establishments of the two biggest celebrity Japanese chefs in the United States with foodie friends, more seemed to prefer Nobu. Having dined at both of their restaurants, the Mrs. and I both prefer the Iron Chef’s cuisine. There are many similarities — both obviously serve Japanese cuisine based dishes with Western touches and the costs are similar ($$$$) and both chefs garnish certain dishes with the mountain peach, a raspberry-looking sweet-sour miniature red stone fruit. However while Nobu primarily adds a South American influence to his Japanese cuisine, Morimoto travels the globe with Hawaiian, Spanish, Greek and Italian flavors to his nouveau Japanese cuisine. And while Nobu’s restaurant is a little more elegant (it’s right across the street from the Grande Dame of Waikiki hotels, the Halekulani), Morimoto is located in the trendy The Modern Honolulu hotel (formerly known as the Ilikai) and occasionally hosts Sunday DJ events for the young and hip (NOT me). So while I enjoyed meals at both establishments, the winner of Kitchen Stadium Battle Gochiso Gourmet’s Palate is Iron Chef Japanese, Masaharu Morimoto. And though you may not have a visit planned to the 50th in your immediate future, there also is a Morimoto Napa (610 Main St., Napa, CA 94559; (707) 252-1600; morimotonapa.com) in the heart of Napa town just 90 or so minutes from San Francisco.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.