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REVIEW: Sansei – The Big Island’s Best Gourmet Bargain?

October 3, 2014, 2:00 PM HST
* Updated September 8, 12:26 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.

If quietly reflecting over subtle sauces is what you’re after, then Sansei is definitely not the place for you. But if powerful flavors and a raucus atmosphere are up your alley, then welcome to nirvana.

After being tipped off at lunch time by the waiters at a neighboring establishment (always a good sign) that D.K. Kodama’s Waikoloa restaurant was offering up a half-off happy hour, we decided that 5 p.m. was definitely not too early for dinner.

Apparently, the majority of Waikoloa’s population agreed with us.

photo 5We arrived 15 minutes before opening to find a raucus line wrapping around the building, and dozens of hopeful patrons vying for a chance to get their money’s worth. While such a scene is common at iconic restaurants in places like Seattle and New York, this sort of thing is not normal for the Big Island.

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Miraculously, everyone in attendance seemed to have brought at least three friends, which meant a few stools at the bar were left unfilled. As it turns out, we got the best seats in the house.

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Author’s Note: Although the below orders were done during “happy hour,” the prices indicated are those listed at full price.

You Call that an Appetizer?

After ordering up a round of beers (not part of the half-off scheme, but we couldn’t resist), we dove straight into appetizer mode, quickly snarfing down Sansei’s Blue Crab and Lobster Ravioli with Truffle Butter Sauce ($12.50).

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Both crab and lobster were fresh and sweet tasting, and the warm truffle butter helped it all slide down in a rich bath of “yum.” Dangerous.

Pardon the dim lighting, this is the best shot of Sansei's "Shrimp Dynamite" before devouring it. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Pardon the dim lighting, this is the best shot of Sansei’s “Shrimp Dynamite” before devouring it. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The Shrimp Dynamite ($13.95) we had next was appropriately named, featuring crispy fried tempura shrimp tossed in chili aioli (mayo) with wasabi and green onions. The dish is totally over the top, and pickier food critics might criticize the fried food/mayo combination… but to heck with them. This just plain rocks.

Chef Kodama must keep truffle hunters pretty busy, as there is no shortage of the delicacy on the menu. They’re put to excellent use in D.K.’s Crab Ramen with Asian Truffle Broth ($17.95). The sweet and rich broth itself might just be our favorite thing on the entire menu, and for $9 at happy hour, it’s one of the Big Island’s best gourmet bargains.

Sansei’s appetizer portions are generally quite girthy, so bring a friend to split the bill and conserve tummy space. You’ll need it for the entrees.

Boastful Beef

Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar features a surprisingly deep selection of steaks, offering aged bone-in Rib Eye (their top seller), New York Steak, and Filet Mignon prepared no less than four different ways.

Although the Rib Eye is often touted as their best offering, we opted instead for the Chili-Porcini Crusted Filet Mignon with Unagi-Cabernet Demi Glace ($34.95). The reason? It’s half-off at happy hour, of course!

What arrived made us happy, indeed. The filet was prepared flawlessly to a perfect medium rare, and allowed to rest before being presented to us.

Although Demi Glace has a reputation for monotone richness, the Unagi and Cabernet used here offered both depth of flavor and sweet/tangy notes that played perfectly off of the earthy, mushroom-crusted beef. And the mashed potatoes? Hot and fluffy. Bravo.

Sansei's Shichimi-Seared Salmon with Tiger Prawns. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Sansei’s Shichimi-Seared Salmon with Tiger Prawns. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Interestingly, the Shichimi Seared Salmon with Jumbo Tiger Prawns we had didn’t quite measure up to the other outstanding offerings here ($27.95).

The prawns were perfectly cooked, but our pleasingly fresh salmon never quite got the “seared” treatment it deserved, arriving with a “just steamed” texture that left our fish begging for a little more quality time in a screaming hot skillet.

Happy Ending

Although it wasn’t humanly possible to sample Sansei’s sushi offerings during our review without causing ourselves permanent injury, we did manage to squeeze in no less than three desserts.

Sansei's Mud Pie - Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Sansei’s Mud Pie – Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Sansei’s Kona Coffee Mud Pie, a West-Hawai`i restaurant staple, was actually one of the best we’ve had, with layers of tightly packed ice cream offering a great mouth-feel.

Mama Kodama’s Brownie Sunday is mammoth in proportion, to the point of nearly departing from brownie territory entirely. More of a jumbo, chewy chocolate cake, it has a crusty exterior and slightly undercooked, melty chocolate within. Not our favorite, but definitely unique.

Sending us off on a high note was Sansei’s Warm Granny Smith Apple Tart with puff pastry and caramel sauce. Thinly sliced apples are baked into a puff pastry base with cinnamon and sugar, then topped with ice cream. It may take a knife to eat this properly, but the combination of buttery hot puff pastry and tart apple pair perfectly the cool vanilla cream that adorns them. Delightful.

Sansei's Warm Apple Tart. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Sansei’s Warm Apple Tart. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The ambience here is downright noisy. The dining room is a total beehive of diners, wait-staff, sushi chefs, Plasma TVs, and whirling bar blenders. But it’s all in good fun. Our bar-side seats meant ultra-quick drink service and easy access to add-on food orders (which we continually pestered the bartender for), and the food was so good, we didn’t mind rubbing elbows with our fellow barflies.

The fact that all of our food items were ordered at a 50% discount meant that despite putting on a display of sheer gluttony (to the point of impressing out waiters), we managed to escape the place with less than $100 on our tab, drinks included.

This may just be the Big Island’s best bargain.

Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar is located at Queen’s Market Place
201 Waikoloa Beach Dr, Ste 801  Waikoloa, HI 96738. Phone (808)-886-6286.

Hours of Operation are 7-days-a-week, from 5:30 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. Happy hour specials run from 5 p.m. until 6 p.m. on Sunday and Monday. Additional discounts may be available on other days. Call the restaurant for details.

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