Gaku Sushi Izakaya
Manabu Kikuchi
Image: napua leong

Serious sushi in a casually festive izakaya setting

Gaku Sushi Izakaya / My first clue-aside from its name that Gaku Sushi Izakaya wasn’t a conservative, hushed temple to sushi was auditory: upon entering the door one evening, the place was so boisterous with laughter and chatter that the standard irashaimase bellowed from a trio of chefs got muffled to background noise. The sushi bar at first glance looked more like a cocktail bar; several patrons casually stood around those seated, talking and sharing cups of sake. Gaku means happy, and here you can get stellar sushi in a casually inviting, and unpretentious izakaya setting.

The 14 table restaurant has been two years in the making, and it’s the personal vision of sushi master Manabu Kikuchi. Kikuchi began studying the art of sushi at 16; he has more than 20 years of experience behind the sushi bar including nearly a decade at Imanas Tei. Kikuchi chose the name Gaku because it’s a synonym for his first name, and his joy and festivity is evident in the smallest details of both the atmosphere and cuisine. The servers wear electric green (Kikuchi’s favorite color) T-shirts and headscarves, and even the classically perfect bricks of tamago are whimsically stamped with the Japanese character for Gaku, which is also burned onto the back of the wooden menu covers. A server explained that he and another employee made them. Five employees pitched in to build the restaurant, from carpentry to paint to the rustic dÈcor.

This high level of involvement means that the staff is exceptionally knowledgeable about the menu, even though a good portion of it changes daily. Izakaya style specialties include baked king crab ($12), ribeye steak with garlic or ponzu ($13) and asari clams either sautÈed in garlic butter or steeped in sake ($9.50). If you like natto, the omatsuri natto presents natto, uni, ikura, ‘ahi, yamaimo, okura and quail egg that you wrap with the accompanying nori ($12.50). Taraba no kyurimaki su is a kind of king crab sushi rolled in sheets of cucumber instead of rice and served in vinegar with a tangle of seaweed and the thinnest of ginger threads. It was refreshingly light. A few dishes are quirky experiments: tako marine basil fumi is sliced tako with basil and special garlic dressing ($7.50). Some earn menu space simply because Kikuchi likes them, as in the case of the sliced fresh tomato and mozzarella cheese ($7.50) and jaga butter mentaiko, a halved baked potato with butter and a top layer of mentaiko ($4.50).

A hand-lettered and photocopied menu insert of the day’s specials showcases what Kikuchi picked out that morning at the fish market. (He goes every day at 8:30am.) Live Australian lobster sashimi ($40), live abalone ($25 sashimi, $10 sushi) were standouts one night. Rock fish, which Kikuchi presented raw ($12, $6) cooked in miso soup ($5) or as a grilled collar ($9.50), was offered. On another there was opakapaka, sea bass (unadorned or marinated), and peacock seabass, whose pale flesh at certain angles had the color and luster of an opal. Among the cooked specials, there was beef tongue wrapped in shiitake mushroom ($9.50) and grilled green mussels ($8.50). TNT is the cheeky name for an exceptional version of seafood dynamite that showcases a daily mix of seafood. On my visit, squid, scallops and shiitake came mixed with homemade mayonnaise, masago and white miso from Kyoto beneath a baked brown top.

There are more traditional dishes with a personal flair. I particularly loved (and hogged) the yokubari chazuke ($7.50), topped with raw salmon, spicy seasoned mentaiko, bright and tangy ume and a dab of fresh wasabi. One spoonful was a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures. Oden, the traditional fishcake stew, gets its own menu page, and you can order a combination ($19.50) or individual components, such as mochikincya, a very soft and loose mochi wrapped in inari skin ($3), butakushi, skewered pork ($3) or several types of fishcake ($2-$4).

My advice is to sit at the sushi bar; there are only 11 seats so you’ll need reservations unless you plan to go late. This way you can be the front row recipient of Kikuchi’s esteemed talents. He placed a piece of toro sushi before me, and as I popped it in my mouth, it left a wake of perfect richness and lushness ($10 sushi, $25 sashimi). It was followed by a collar of nori enclosing a mixture of half negitoro and half spicy ‘ahi. Next came a jumbo scallop from Alaska ($14.50 sashimi, $7.50 sushi), flash seared just long enough to leave a lattice of grill marks and an initial innuendo of smokiness that coyly coaxed the essential creaminess from the scallop’s flesh. Topped with a perfect and unexpected garlic and sweet onion ponzu sauce, this bite announced I was at the hands of an original master.

Gaku Sushi Izakaya
1329 S. King St. (589-1329)
Hours: Daily 5pm-11pm
Price range: $2-40, omakase from $30
Payment: Disc, JCB, MC, V
Recommended: Catch of the day sashimi and sushi, TNT, Ribeye steak, Yokubari chazuke, Taraba no kyurimaki su, Chef’s Omakase

Honolulu Weekly restaurant reviewers dine anonymously, editorial integrity being our first priority. Reviewers may visit the establishment more than once, and any interviews with restaurant staff are conducted after the visits. We do not run photos of the reviewers, and the Weekly pays the tab. The reviews are not influenced by the purchase of advertising or other incentives.