Food & Drink / The dim little foyer is silent and unpopulated, but the sign says “Open.” Following the arrow, we slide open a wooden door and here are the people, in a room splashed with sun through the big front window. Walls encrusted with tchotchkes, from red devil masks to a big black fish to jolly tip-jar Buddhas, lend a flea market, Mad Hatter air, but the dining space, though not large, feels spacious, airy and uncluttered.
Smells of ginger and garlic, steam and hot oil, waft from the kitchen at the back. A long-haired waitress greets us a gentle wave of her arm and a mellow smile. “Sit anywhere you like.” How many times has that ever happened in your life? It’s not crowded, so we take the table we want, the one by the window that could easily sit eight. On our second visit, at a later hour, the room is quite full, but we are again offered our pick of the two small free tables. Nice.
Both times, we arrive starving. We are happy to follow the directions on the menu: “Shut up and eat!” Others, however, are loudly and animatedly talking throughout their meals. An appetizer of cold tofu with onion, fresh ginger, nori and bonito quickly takes the edge off. The gyoza filled with tofu and cream cheese are perfectly hot, sticky and satisfying. But it’s with the main dishes that Irifune comes into its own: The food has a freshness and sense of play, but the tastes of every ingredient are strictly distinct and balanced on the plate.
My first time at Irifune I resisted ordering the much-acclaimed garlic ahi; having been raised Korean, I know from garlic and doubted their version could improve on my mom’s. Instead, after the rather Spartan cold tofu, I joined my companion in ordering the shrimp tempura special ($12), even though I almost never eat deep-fried food (I have sampled friends’ portions at Japanese restaurants over the years.) I was rewarded by the lightest, crispiest, freshest tempura I’ve ever enjoyed, with not a trace of ammonia in the shrimp and a nice selection of battered orange and green vegetables, including broccoli.
One advantage of Irifune lunchtime is the bento box with hot garlic ahi, ahi sashimi, steamed vegetable chunks and some shrimp and vegetable tempura, which I tried on the second visit ($11.95). The sashimi was fresh; the cooked ahi, a little more fishy than I like. The succulent garlic crab, however, more than made up for it. Lunches and dinners include a small salad and what two people have told me is “the best miso soup I’ve ever had,” ($2).
Do save room for dessert, either the fried banana with house haupia ice cream ($4.95) or the ice cream “crepe,” really a puff-fried profiterole ($4.50). Both come drizzled with chocolate sauce. If you like, ask your server to combine the two in one big bowl.
Irifune opened in 1974, and local pals have consistently recommended its food, so why did it take me so long to visit? Chalk it up to Kapahulu traffic and parking problems, but it’s worth paying the modest fee in the pay lot across the street.
After two incognito visits, we asked to speak with the chef, Toshi Ishizawa, who explained the evolution of his cuisine. “I was cooking for a hotel in Japan, then I worked in Honolulu, then I went to San Francisco, came back here and was at Halekulani before I started Irifune in 1974. I used to do European style cooking, so the food coming all mixed up. It’s not Japanese. This is a local people food,” Ishizawa said.
True Grits–Pacific Soul
Get up and grind! You want to start your holiday activities, not too early of course, with a hearty breakfast, that’s got that something extra special and festive about it, and Soul is just the place. Chef Sean Priester grew up in Germany but went to college in North Carolina, where he also has family and learned true southern cooking. Inclined towards health and fitness (just look at him!) He also learned how to lighten it up, so that his fried chicken and waffles (~$12, a dish said to have originated with Sylvie’s in Harlem) are a true celebration of golden crispness and crunch that will not weigh you down.
“Better than Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach,” one of my companions declared. A side of cheesy grits almost belie the name; far from the shuddering glutinous mess of yesteryear ladled up by Dixie-singing inlaws in their cups, Priester’s grits are fluffy as a runny souffle, and his coleslaw is fresh and tangy instead of its mayo-messy counterpart found in other restaurants.
Not surprising from the accomplished, creative chef who brought new life, fun and flavor to the restaurant at the Richards St. YWCA and jolted the Top of Waikiki out of senescence and back into vogue before leading the Honolulu lunch wagon revival with his Soul Patrol truck, which fed the homeless in Waianae and the hungry in downtown Honolulu.
Now, having come to rest in early 2011 in this bright, warm little bungalow in the Kaimuki restaurant square at St. Louis Drive and Waialae, the chef, a new father and a welcoming host, is usually on hand to hang around and chat, showing a genuine interest in his patrons, local and visitor, and making recommendations as requested. Today he advises the jambalaya ($20) rather than the gumbo ($18) for brunch, and the spicy seafood, chicken and sausage dish ($14) is just the ticket with a side of local organic collard greens, followed by sweet potato pie ($5). Also recommended for brunch, besides the buttermilk fried chicken and waffles that my two companions scarf down, are buttermilk biscuits (~$5), cornbread ($6), pecan pie ($5) and banana pudding with chocolate-infused whipped cream ($6). Seriously. It’s the holidays, right? You can always come back later for the ribs.