More Than Meets the ii
Aside from Sushi ii (pronounced “ee-ee,” Japanese for good), there’s probably no other restaurant in the world that has both sushi and pai‘ai on the menu. Not only that, but it’s impeccably fresh sushi–buttery uni, rich hamachi, even aku, the flavor cut with grated ginger and garlic and a touch of green onions. The pai‘ai holds its own: pan-fried and topped with pulled pork, sea asparagus and lomi tomatoes, sprinkled with Maldon salt and inamona, all of it on a bed of fine, crisp limu.
From the name to the sushi counter down to the printed menu, Sushi ii’s small, bright orange space appears to be just another (excellent) sushi bar, but look to the dry erase board propped up in the corner for the chef’s choice, market-driven prix fixe menu. The sushi is definitely worth having here, but it’s not the only thing.
Sushi ii was a happy discovery borne out of cynicism. This week’s column was to be the third installment of the Weekly’s Eat Local series, focusing on some of the restaurants participating in the Eat Local Challenge. Upon finding Sushi ii listed as one of Kanu Hawaii’s partners in the challenge, I paid a visit, partly to question their commitment. In a sushi bar, what could possibly be local other than a shiso leaf and perhaps some bigeye ahi, if that? Well, it turns out, a lot: the kitchen turns out beautiful, delicious dishes inspired by weekly market trips. There might be purslane, okra, zebra tomatoes, goat cheese, heart of palm and hand-pounded pai‘ai.
The prix fixe menu is Sabrina Saiki-Mita’s, while the sushi is Garrett Wong’s. When they started, Saiki-Mita told Wong “‘you do your sushi thing’ and I think it’s really important at the same time–because I’m a health nut–to make everything clean, fresh, organic as possible.”
She is as meticulous with the hot food as Wong is with the fish. After the last orders, she comes out of the kitchen as stylish as if she were in Neiman Marcus: dressed all in black with black leggings and long, straight side-parted hair that partly obscures her perfectly made up face. She does not look like a chef. This is her side job borne out of a lifetime of reading cookbooks and food magazines and dabbling in the kitchen; she is a Punahou flute teacher and flute professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She’s part-time with the Royal Hawaiian Band and takes on symphony and theater jobs here and there. Saiki-Mita has a master’s in music performance, but admits “I have literally no culinary training.
“We have people coming in and apprenticing, and they say ‘I want to learn from you.’ Learn what? I actually learn from some of them!” she adds.
Her market menu–which changes at least weekly and most recently included abalone confit; Wagyu steak with curried kabocha chips and a tart lilikoi dressing (including the lilikoi seeds); fried pai‘ai (described above); and grilled stone fruit with lehua honey, mascarpone and lemon balm–is the current expression of a dream. She says, “I would love to have a place where there is no menu…those Italian taverns, those long tables where you come in and there’s either a flat fee or you donate, eat whatever the mama is cooking that night.” She’s not in the position to realize this dream at the moment, so in the meantime, she makes do at Sushi ii. The more time she spends in the kitchen and at the markets, “the more ideas I have,” she says. She makes a weekly trek to Haleiwa Farmers’ market because the majority of produce is organic, and “I have a really good relationship with some of the farmers… When I didn’t know anything, they helped me.”
The prixe fixe menu ends with dessert, which quite possibly outshines anything on an already excellent menu. There’s a banana dream pie (bananas layered with cream, chocolate, and delicate puff pastry); a vanilla bean panna cotta with matcha sauce or kumquat marmalade; and a pineapple kulfi with macadamia nut lace cookies.
You could do worse than visit Sushi ii during the Eat Local Challenge, but if you’re like me, you’ll return even when the challenge is over.