YuZu is the sort of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone: a couple of Harajuku Barbies iPhoning their food, rail-thin vegans in yoga pants nibbling vegetarian sushi, a tableful of locals slurping udon and beer.
It has a peaceful yet playful vibe, reflecting the personalities of its charming owners, Isamu “Sam” and Motoko “Moco” Kubota, whose past endeavors were equally edgy for relatively staid Honolulu: Kai (okonomiyaki omelette-pancakes), Hale (macrobiotic), Kaiwa (contemporary Japanese).
Finding YuZu can be a puzzler. On the Ala Moana Hotel first floor, follow the panko crumbs until you’re as far makai and ‘ewa as you can go without leaving the building. (Or, park in the ground floor Ala Moana shopping center lot, and an anonymous set of stairs to the hotel side door off Mahukona Street will take you right to YuZu.)
The name derives from the aromatic, slightly orangey Japanese citrus that is a chief ingredient in ponzu, along with dashi and shoyu.
Like the fruit, YuZu is refreshing, palate awakening, delightful to several senses at once, with pastel walls graced with gentle aphorisms, waiters in green and yellow T-shirts, izakaya-style (tavern-style) wooden tables and a spare, sophisticated menu, as well as a full bar.
Every meal begins with a simply dressed watercress and greens salad in a bamboo cup and a tiny little dish of edamame for each person. (This, and table service, makes the $9.95 and above plates well worth it.) Although the restaurant motto is “Not your grandmother’s Japanese cuisine,” there are some combinations you’d find at any local Japanese restaurant, such as a recent special, shrimp tempura curry with rice ($9.95). But then there’s the signature house pupu, which you won’t find anywhere else: lotus root “pizza” ($8.95). This is definitely NOT your nona’s pizza. It’s simple slices of lotus root, with a melange of several melted cheeses bursting from the holes in the crunchy flesh.
In between, find exceptionally good yakitori (grilled, skewered chicken chunks; $3.95 for two pieces/$9.95 for six); you definitely want the yuzu pepper sauce, but you can get the more traditional teriyaki, too. There is veggie sushi: tender, high-quality rice topped with tomato, carrot, shiitake or eryngii mushrooms, eggplant, lotus root or yuba soy milk skin ($4.95 for two pieces or $12.95 for a seven-piece sampler). More conventional sushi include the “temari 5-0”–choose a fish and you get five little rounded sushi cakes, each with a different sauce or garnish ($10.95–$13.95; see sidebar).
And then there is the udon, in my mind the centerpiece of the menu. Oishi desu! The noodles are made in house daily, cut to order.
As we ate, a friend and I reminisced about the bad old days when grizzled newspersons and their friends would eat away incipient hangovers, late nights at the Kapiolani Columbia Inn, next to the old News Building. Our headache-staving-off meal of choice then was oxtail soup.
But if I could still stay up past 9 o’clock, I’d be heading to YuZu for the spicy sukiyaki beef udon ($9.95). The hot shoyu-ko chu jang-sesame broth, vaguely Korean/pan-Asian, embraces the paper-thin chewy beef and is topped with shreds of salty crisp nori. I made the waiter find a way for me to take home my leftovers. They do not, thankfully, stock Styrofoam bowls. (Speaking of service . . . it was a bit uneven. We had one really knowledgable server on the first visit and a positively clueless guy on the second, who was actually talking on a cordless phone as he took our drink orders! As Dave Barry would say, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)
But back to the food, which is thoroughly idiot-proof. Among the specials when we visited late last month was decadent lobster udon–coils of thick wheat noodles flecked with lobster in a silky blush-colored bisque that was to the palate what sinking into a hot furo is to the skin: Aaaaaaaaaaah! If you like lobster, help convince them to make this a regular dish. If YuZu’s not offering it when you go there, look very, very sad and maybe they’ll bring it back.
The Kubotas are nothing if not accommodating. When my friend admitted gluten intolerance, Moco-san dipped into her stock of pappardelle-like rice noodles and made a special vegetarian cold “udon” ($9.95) that pleased both of us. No fear if the words “vegan” and “macrobiotic” make you nervous: YuZu would be the place to give them a chance. Even at her most macrobiotic, Moco-san is kind to meat-eaters (at Hale, she made gluten into something that was a dead ringer for tempura shrimp).
Desserts here are dairy- and refined sugar-free; we loved our kiwi ice cream with strawberry sauce and green tea sorbet with beans ($3.95 each).
Domo arigato gozaimasu, Moco-sama!