One of Honolulu's newest restaurants seemingly popped up out of nowhere. But the buzz quickly grew around the eatery, as its chef/owner has an incredible pedigree; he trained at the legendary El Bulli. So, of course, the Mrs. and I had to check out Yamada Chikara Honolulu.
Yamada Chikara Honolulu is on the corner of Piikoi and Hopaka Streets across the street from Ala Moana Center. That puts the restaurant at an easy walking distance from the State's largest mall, could be an important detail.
You see, the restaurant has only four parking stalls on the side facing Hopaka Street. And if those are full, you'll need to find street parking in the area, or park in the mall and walk across. Of course, parking in the mall is at your own risk, as the mall does have the right to tow you.
Aside from parking, though, there isn't much to say about the exterior of the building. The Google Maps images above show the restaurant that used to occupy this space, Kohnotori. But today, the restaurant is just a non-descript black building with a tiny sign out front. The short, maze-like entryway leads you directly into the tea ceremony bar, which then opens up into the main dining room.
Service + Ambiance
As its name suggests, Yamada Chikara is a Japan-based restaurant, and the staff is primarily Japanese. This means that you'll get the prompt, ultra courteous service style you'd expect in Japan, but also means you may run into a bit of a language barrier. Luckily, though, this wasn't an issue for us. The only time we had any difficulties was when we were asking our server about one of the menu items. But we understood him well enough to make a decision, which ended up being a great one too. Menus, I should add, are presented on an iPad. And once you make your selection, the iPads will be cleared from your table to make room for the service.
While service during our visit was perfect, it's worth noting that the restaurant was quite empty too. There were never more than two or three other parties dining throughout our experience, so it's difficult to say how things would be with a full house. Needless to say, there aren't enough parking stall outside for this either, so I'm grateful things were on the slower side that night. That being said, the restaurant itself is very sleek with lots of dark tones and woods, making it a very elegant space.
The beverage list at Yamada Chikara isn't all that extensive. You'll find a concise list of wines by the glass, a longer list of bottles, a selection of spirits, and a tiny soft drink menu. Not wanting juice, the Mrs. and I both opted for chilled tea, which was served in wine glasses (pictured above). I went with hojicha, which is a roasted Japanese green tea, while the Mrs. chose the green tea. Both were of high quality and aided in cutting through some of the richer dishes.
Yamada Chikara's menu is a kaiseki-style menu that gives you choices. So, when you order, everyone gets the same $80 set menu. However, specific courses have options, many of which come with a surcharge. As a result, we ended up pay well over $80 per person; it was more like $130 per person.
The first course is a set course consisting of rice, miso soup, and day's Mukouzuke. There is an option, however, to upgrade the rice to caviar rice for $15. And if you're like me and don't like eating plain rice, you're going to want to do this.
On our visit, the Mukouzuke was two lightly cooked oysters in a tangy ponzu with shredded veggies. It was a light, refreshing dish, with high-quality oysters. And the miso soup was sublime. The sesame tofu that came in the soup was a unique, nutty, rich delight that I couldn't get enough of.
The second course is another set one, this time with no options. Instead, all guests receive a "homemade olive" and watermelon gazpacho. Undoubtedly, this course is an homage to El Bulli.
The gazpacho is a nice little shot of sweet savor chilled soup. But the homemade olive, on the other hand, was not to my liking. I know they're trying to recreate Ferran Adria's spherified olive here, though the implementation falls way short. First of all, Yamada Chikara uses black olives, which is a bit unusual if you ask me. Second, I don't think it's really a spherification. The "olive" was partially frozen when we ate it and the servers were pretty adamant about us eating it right away. I'm guessing this is because the thing would melt if we didn't.
I've never had the privilege of dining at El Bulli, but I have dined at another El Bulli alumni's restaurants on more than one occasion. And to say that Yamada Chikara's olive falls short is an understatement. The spherified olives served at Jose Andres's restaurants like Jaleo are a perfect execution of the dish. An intensely olive-flavored liquid olive contained by a thin membrane formed by the liquid itself.
Following the cocktail is the appetizer course, which comes with six different options, half of which have a surcharge. Of the six choices, guests may select two, and on that night the Mrs. and I both chose the Crab & Sea Urchin Soup Royale ($10) for one of our options.
The Soup Royal is basically chawanmushi that's filled with shredded crab meat and topped with two sacks of uni. It's a warm, comforting dish, with a velvety texture and a profoundly savory flavor offset by the sweetness of the crab and the uni.
For her other option, the Mrs. chose the Sashimi Yamada Chikara Style with Soy Sauce Cube ($15).
The sashimi, while of high quality, was nothing special. It's the cube of shoyu that made this dish unique. Our server told us the cube is made with shoyu and apple juice, which had a soft, somewhat spongy texture that melts the minute you pop it into your mouth. It's a dish that made me laugh because it's so unique and just works. In fact, despite being more than enough for all of the fish, we ended up eating the entire shoyu cube too.
For my second option, I went with the Spanish Omelet ($10).
Served in a glass, I was told this wasn't a traditional omelet. Instead, the egg was presented as a foam, covering a bed of caramelized onions and topped with slices of black truffle. It was just ok, as the foam had next to no flavor at all and was much too light in texture. I wouldn't order this again.
Hot and Cold Surprising Appetizer
Course four is described merely as "quinoa." It's supposed to be a surprise, but thanks to the media reviews thus far, I already knew what this dish was. Skip ahead if you don't want to know, but I don't think knowing what it is detracts from the experience at all. I, for one, was looking forward to it, despite knowing what it was.
For those of you that want to know what this is, you're first presented a dish filled halfway with shavings of frozen foie gras. Your server will then pour hot dashi into the bowl, allowing both to co-exist for a brief moment.
The trick with this dish is to eat it quickly so you can enjoy some of the frozen foie gras along with the hot broth. But, when the foie gras eventually melts, you're left with a warm, umami-filled dashi with a lovely amount of added richness.
The penultimate dish of the meal is the main course. Here, guests choose one dish from a selection of five. And for her Main Dish, Mrs. Island Miler chose the Wagyu Steak with original soy sauce and yuzu citrus pepper sauce ($20).
What can I say? It's perfectly cooked wagyu beef. Only, it's not A5 wagyu beef. The marbling wasn't so intense that you couldn't finish this whole thing without feeling sick. But, it was good nonetheless, even without using the shoyu or yuzu kosho.
For my main, I went with the Teriyaki Grilled Foie Gras ($10).
To be honest, I was apprehensive about choosing this dish. I like foie gras, but to have as a main dish is a bit excessive. However, this foie gras was unlike any I've ever had before. It wasn't super rich or super fatty; instead, it had a firmer, meatier texture to it. And the teriyaki sauce was very mild, which worked well with the very light foie gras flavor. I probably wouldn't order this again, though, as it was just ok. I'm thankful it wasn't super heavy, as I was already getting full, but it didn't really taste like foie gras either.
I kid you not, the last dish of the meal is called "dish." And this one is yet another one in which guests have a choice. This time, guests may select one dish from a list of four. Mrs. Island Miler went with the Sauce Mentaiko on Udon Noodles, while I went with the Truffle Carbonara ($10).
The Mentaiko Udon Noodles was the star of our two selections. It had an excellent mentai flavor without being overly spicy or salty with a nice, mild creaminess.
My Truffle Carbonara, on the other hand, was an utter flop. It had an offputting smell that I can't put my finger on and was way too soupy. I honestly didn't like this dish at all but powered through as much of it as I could. At a minimum, I made it a point to eat the truffle slices because that's the good stuff!
For dessert, Mrs. Island Miler and I made our selections, however, knowing it was our anniversary, the wait staff brought out a special sampler trio! On it were the Melon Soda Float, the Hojicha Tiramisu with Hojicha Ice Cream, and Creme Brulee with caramel ice cream.
I didn't really care to try the Melon Soda Float, but I must say, it was good. It was really fizzy with a sweet, slightly tangy honeydew flavor offset by the creaminess of vanilla ice cream. To me, it tastes like a Melona Bar in the best possible way, but with much more depth and complexity, while not being as sweet.
The Tiramisu was also good, with a strong hojicha flavor melding well with the spongy cake and creamy filling. It's accompanying ice cream, though, was a dud. I didn't even know it was ice cream when I was eating it, as it had a strange, stiff texture and virtually no flavor.
I didn't try any of the Creme Brulee, as Mrs. Island Miler doesn't like melon and I was on my own for that item. But she liked it, so that's good enough for me.
Following your meal, guests are offered a tea service. There are four teas to choose from and you can choose to have it served to you at the tea ceremony bar or your table. We chose the latter and went with our server's suggestion of wheat tea, which is also known as barley tea or mugi-cha. He said it's a favorite summertime refreshment, so why the heck not?
And you know what? He was right. The tea, served chilled, had a slightly toasty profile with an undertone of kuromitsu (Japanese black sugar syrup). It was light and refreshing, just what we needed after such a rich meal.
Yamada Chikara Honolulu, Final Thoughts
Our overall experience at Yamada Chikara was a pleasant one with superb service in a pleasant atmosphere. However, the dishes are hit or miss, which is unacceptable at this level of spending. As a result, I'd much prefer to go someplace like PAI Honolulu, Senia, or Chef Mavro, all of which are consistently fantastic. But, Yamada Chikara does add another option in the richening tapestry that is Hawaii's diversifying dining scene. Especially since we don't have any molecular gastronomy restaurants at the moment. However, Yamada Chikara misses the mark in that regard and is something I hope they'll improve on in the future.