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REVIEW: Takenoko Sushi – Better Get in Line…

August 2, 2014, 1:33 PM HST (Updated August 3, 2014, 6:18 PM)
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Nate Gaddis is a 17-year food industry veteran. He gives his frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Hawai’i Island’s culinary scene.

As we wrapped our lips around our first pieces of Bluefin Tuna at Takenoko Sushi, cold strips of fat began melting over tart pearls of rice, and the steady burn of wasabi slowly awakened our taste buds, triggering a flood of memories…

Tsukiji – City of Seafood

It’s not a place for the squeamish.

Knives fly fast and furious as meat gets separated from bones, legs from bodies, and eyes from sockets. No shortage of blood is spilt at Tsukiji fish market in southeast Tokyo, and nothing is ever wasted.

In an epic display of organized savagery, the world’s largest single collection of seafood makes its way here almost daily, where most of it is bought, butchered, and jetted off to parts unknown, all in a matter of hours.

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo - the primary supplier for Takenoko Sushi in Hilo. Public domain image.

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo – the primary supplier for Takenoko Sushi in Hilo. Public domain image.

With slick floors, sharp edges, and heavy equipment zooming up and down narrow corridors, Tsukiji can be a very dangerous place for tourists. It also happens to be the primary supplier for one of the best restaurants to open in East Hawai`i in recent memory.

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Indeed, to eat at Takenoko Sushi is to take a blissful but brief tour through the world’s largest fish market — minus the risk of blunt trauma.

Glistening hunks of toro, mackerel, flounder, and more are flown in direct to Hilo, where chef Mitsuru Igarashi deftly breaks them down into bite-sized morsels of raw bliss.

Oh, What Those Hands Can Do…

Takenoko Sushi is not just a welcome rejection of the frozen, gas-treated “Franken-Tuna” increasingly common in island sushi restaurants. It also represents a celebration of Japan’s “old-guard” business model for sushi chefs: a seemingly endless, grueling crawl up a maddeningly slow ladder of apprenticeship.

Chef Mitsuru Igarashi of Takenoko Sushi. Photo by M's Photography.

Chef Mitsuru Igarashi of Takenoko Sushi. Photo by M’s Photography.

Chef Igarashi, by his own description, spent more than 1,500 days washing dishes before he was allowed to even wield a blade. Actually forming sushi didn’t happen until years later.

That kind of training would never be tolerated here in America, where an endless stream of action movies have taught us that the secrets of the Asian arts can be learned in, say, a few short weeks.

Under Chef Igarashi’s system, Daniel-San would still be waxing cars in Karate Kid 6, 7, and 8.

Though extreme, the 50-something sushi chef’s old-school origins have paid dividends. Igarashi’s hands are not only steady with a blade, but startlingly fast.

Raw Bliss

Part of the "Chef's Choice" sushi special ($40). From left: Maguro, Flounder, Toro, Mackerel, Salmon, and Ebi. Photo by M's photography.

Part of the “Chef’s Choice” sushi special ($40). From left: Maguro, Flounder, Toro, Mackerel, Salmon, and Ebi. Photo by M’s photography.

That purity of form carries over into nearly every aspect of Igarashi’s operation, and the menu itself is no exception.

You won’t find any wasabi-mayo splattered bar-b-que pork “gringo rolls” here. For the most part, Igarashi sticks to the classics.

On the recommendation of the chef’s wife (our server), we chose the “Omakase” (Chef’s Choice – $40 per person), a hand-picked assortment of Igarashi’s favorites.

Salmon, Ebi (shrimp) and locally sourced Maguro nigiri sushi arrived first, tasting clean and fresh, and hitting pleasant notes on our palates. Things only got better from here.

Scallop and flounder nigiri were both pristine in flavor, while the Spanish Mackerel’s rich skin was nicely offset by grated ginger and ponzu dipping sauce. Very nice.

The Uni (sea urchin roe) was light and creamy, without a hint of age. We also scored an abundance of deliciously fatty Toro (bluefin), with both nigiri and maki-style (rolled) tuna providing all the luscious marbling we’d been hoping for.

But the surprise standout? The Unagi (eel) nigiri sushi.

Incredibly clean tasting but full of rich, oily goodness, Takenoko’s Unagi was the single best we’d had anywhere. A stunner.

Broiled Yellowtail collar ($18). Our favorite thing on the menu. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Broiled Yellowtail collar ($18). Our favorite thing on the menu. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

While uber-purists might debate the ideal temperature for sushi rice (the restaurant’s AC blows pretty cold), and analyze the precise density of the granules (Igarashi doesn’t pack his “loose”), there’s little doubt that this is some of the best handiwork you’ll find on the Big Island.

And lest we forget, our favorite dish here doesn’t come served over rice.

The broiled yellowtail collar ($18) is a triumph of simplicity. Fresh and crisp on the outside, with a dreamy mixture of meat, collagen and fat tucked within, it’s served alongside grated daikon radish and ponzu sauce (neither of which we used much).

Forget your manners momentarily, for this is best eaten with a combination of chopstick-aided excavation and finger-licking fun. Eat it any other way, and you’ll risk missing a morsel.

Hokkaido Crab legs... simply gorgeous. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Hokkaido Crab legs… simply gorgeous. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Just don’t expect to wash all this down with a bottle of sake. Takenoko is “BYOB” only.

But don’t worry, you won’t go thirsty.

Chef Igarashi brews loose-leaf green tea in small quantities, whisking each batch in the traditional tea ceremony style of preparation. The result is a smooth, warming liquid with just enough tannins to cleanse your palate between bites of toro.

Get in Line

Our apologies in advance.

A view of the Takenoko Sushi dining room, chef Igarashi at work. Photo by M's Photography.

A view of the Takenoko Sushi dining room, chef Igarashi at work. Photo by M’s Photography.

Getting a seat at Takenoko Sushi is getting harder by the day, and we don’t expect we’ll be much help after publishing this article.

Lunch reservations were booked two weeks out at the time of our visit, which is impressive.

Dinner reservations though, could be traded on the black market.

As of Aug. 1, Takenoko Sushi was booked straight through till October.

They must be doing something right.

 

Takenoko Sushi is located in the Manono Marketplace in Hilo.

Address: 681 Manono St, Hilo, HI 96720

Phone: (808)-933-3939

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