Catcher in the rice
Hinone Mizunone / Those of us living in Hawai’i incorporate Japanese food into our eating culture, the way Midwesterners grow up with Weenie Surprise casserole and Wonder Bread. The presence of yet another izakaya–a chain to boot, on an already Japanese-restaurant-laden island–is not unusual. Hinone Mizunone is of a breed straight from the motherland, gracing Hawai’i with its presence just a couple of months ago. The space’s transformation from faux-Mexican fast-food joint to bright, clean Japanese eatery appears to be about 85 percent complete–the remaining Spanish tiled roof and placement of the open kitchen may bring back drunken memories for some.
The soft white lighting of the Hinone Mizunone sign beckons warmly above the flow of traffic along King Street. Thick, contemporary cartoonish black brushstrokes denote the name of the restaurant in English and Japanese.
The restaurant feels friendly and clean, mostly due to the newness of the furniture–smooth cherry wood tables and chairs with backs reminiscent of Japanese temple beams. Red and white paint on the walls and booths echo typical eatery motifs in Japan; perhaps a reference to the red fox in Shintoism, the messenger of the deity of food, farmers and the rice harvest. Black and white paintings of cherry blossoms and a black and white photo of a fisherman and his son adorn the walls. The music is contemporary classic Japanese–the kind you hear at Uta Matsuri festivals, laden with happy strings and mellow female vocals.
On a Thursday night, the restaurant was about a third full, with one visible server. When no one came to greet us, we borrowed the oversized, laminated single-sheet menus off the next table. Pork ginger, tonkatsu in a ponzu sauce, ‘ahi sashimi and broiled mackerel were among the choices for the combo meal, accompanied by miso soup, two side dishes (on this day, two chunks of cooked yam and a small dish of seaweed with shredded bits of carrot and dried bean curd) and a personal pot of the restaurant’s supposedly famous Tamaki Gold rice. Appetizers included a choice of cold tofu to wasabi tako,–a party could order a la carte entrees to share pupu style. Sides and a la carte items range from $1.50 to about $10.50.
Companion One received a steaming bowl of kitsune udon ($6.50), topped with a few rectangles of firm, deep fried tofu and a few surprise taro chips sprinkled in the broth. It’s rare for a restaurant to serve bad udon, but unless you visit a noodle house that boasts fresh handmade noodles, you’re likely to get packaged ones. This was the case at Hinone Mizunone. The density of the noodles was slightly weighed down by a sogginess gained by its pre-packaged origins, as opposed to a lightness from air being pulled through the dough during the hand-made process. The dashi-based broth had the mildly salty, slightly fishy taste typical of a hot bowl of udon, and the tofu held its own texture against the hot broth.
Companion Two ordered the teishoku with maguro sashimi and tonkatsu with house-made sauce. Adding a shiny glaze to the strips of panko-crusted pork laid out on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, the Hinone original sauce was tart and not as sweet or thick as the typical katsu sauce. While Companion Two, son of a Japanese restaurant cook, said his tonkatsu was “just the way [he] like[d] it,” the piece I bit into had a layer of yellow fat thicker than the meat–an unpleasant experience. The panko was just thick enough to yield a good crispness, though fried a bit too dark for my liking. The few slices of maguro sashimi were the champions of the table–fresh, healthily dark pink with a slight shine, a mild taste and hardly a smell.
I had the teishoku with misoyaki butterfish and tempura. The tempura serving was substantial, with two pieces each of shrimp, squid, eggplant and asparagus–its batter retained its crunch throughout the meal. However, the crunch was born out of a batter thicker than was necessary, leaving me with a heavy feeling after consuming just half of the plate. The theme of slightly excessive thickness was present in the slices of eggplant and squid, as well. Our eggplant was mushy, and the big pieces of squid came out of the tempura coating too easily–difficult to bite. Thick cuts did make for a filling part of the meal, a balance to the miso butterfish, which is usually on the small size in teishoku combinations. The fish, with its naturally high fat content, made for a moist dish, though increasing flakiness near the center of the piece indicated a slight overcooking. Misoyaki added savory notes without being overpowering–no pasty coating hid the appearance or oily firmness of the flesh.
After dinner, our server offered us hot tea, served in small cups filled with a soothing dark Hoji-cha (or Gen-mai cha on other nights). The server’s attention to re-filling both water and tea almost erased the irritation of her early inattentiveness. Those who weren’t full could move on to dessert, ice cream or bean delights for $2.50 each.
Hinone Mizunone makes a quiet entrance to the moderately-priced Japanese restaurant scene. The interior is welcoming, but not overly sleek. The staff is nice, but not the most experienced. The food is satisfying, filling and reasonably priced, if not at all outstanding.
Hinone Mizunone joins the ranks of family-oriented Japanese restaurants that offer a fair amount of food for a fair price in an atmosphere that can accommodate larger parties. If you’re hankering for Japanese comfort food in a convenient location, it’s worth a visit.
1345 S. King St. 942-4848 Mon.–Sat. 11am–9pm Entrees: $5.50–$14.75 Payment: AmEx, Disc, JCB, MC, V Free parking