Blue-green city lights, refracted through misty rain, cast a gauzy Blade Runner shine over the Honolulu block where my friend and I stood. We had paused in front of a new mustard-colored commercial complex, not far from the Hawaiʻi Convention Center and the Ala Moana shopping mall. Our dinner destination dwelled somewhere in this cluster. An outpost of a Japanese izakaya chain — two floors, ricocheting surfaces, amped servers rushing to deliver hot pots and noodle bowls — kicked up a raucous presence in one corner of the building.
But we were headed for a much more serene setting, through a nearly unmarked door that led to a small foyer lined with slate tiles and tall bamboo stalks. A staffer beckoned us through a second door with a smile. We entered a windowless room with a nine-seat sushi bar made of hinoki (blond cypress) polished so smooth it almost felt alien, like glass and soft leather at once.
Executive chef and owner Takeshi Kawasaki stood behind the counter at the room’s center, wearing a rolled blue and white hachimaki around his head and chatting with customers. Without much conversation, a server took our drink order and then another chef, Atsushi Kumagai, began setting down food: generous, tapered slices of chutoro sashimi (medium-fatty bluefin caught in Japan’s Aomori prefecture), and a dish of small white shrimp fried in sheets of batter so filigreed the seafood looked covered in gold leaf.
So began my visit to the extraordinary Sushi Maru. Kawasaki earned a Michelin star at the original location he established in 1987 in Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido. His son took over the business recently, but Kawasaki decided he still felt too energized to retire. In Honolulu he’s built his customers a teleportation chamber: He essentially replicated the design of his first restaurant, and he flies in many star ingredients from Hokkaido and other parts of Japan.
Remarkably, Maru is not the only exceptional sushi bar to open in Honolulu within the last year and a half. Less than a mile away, Keiji Nakazawa commands the 10-seat bar at Sushi Sho, a cloistered dining room at the Ritz-Carlton, Waikiki Beach.
In Tokyo, Nakazawa is a legendary wild man of sushi. He refused the usual paths of apprentice, powering through one job after another until 28 years ago, when he wound up operating a sushi bar near Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. No one came at first, so he began to experiment with more extreme forms of Edomae sushi — the forerunner of modern sushi developed in nineteenth century Edo (Toyko’s former name), when street vendors sold raw fish as quick meals. Pre-refrigeration, they devised preservation techniques to extend the fish’s shelf life. Nakazawa riffed hard on this idea, toying with aging as a way to alchemize more nuanced flavors.
Eventually his methods transfixed diners — as well as his acolytes who’ve gone on to open their open successful sushi bars, several which have Sho in the names to honor him.
The arrival of two sushi greats in Honolulu is not so much a profound cultural happening as a culmination of the indelible elements of Japanese cuisine in the city’s fabric. The first wave of Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1885; ethnic Japanese residents currently comprise around 16 percent of the state’s population. Over the decades they’re contributed what became intrinsic dishes to the singular local food culture, only beginning with saimin (noodle soup) and musubi (rice balls, the most famous variation of which features Spam). These days, Honolulu’s vital mix of ramen shops, ikazayas, yakitori restaurants, and Japanese-focused food halls contribute mightily to the city’s standing as a dining ascendant.
Hawaiʻi embraces sushi at every price point: pre-packaged containers stacked on takeout shelves; neighborhood favorites like Sushi ii (I missed the appeal; I was fed the most unpleasantly stale nigiri rice I’ve ever tasted), and luxury chains such as Sushi Ginza Onodera, where the fixed price omakase can begin at $250. The cachet that Kawasaki and Nakazawa bring to these shores alters the ecosystem. When it comes to sushi in America, Honolulu is beginning to rival New York and Los Angeles at the top end of the field. Connoisseurs could buy a plane ticket simply to dine with these two virtuosos and feel their money well spent.
At Maru Sushi, the revelations came from the absolute thrumming quality of the fish, and from the clarity of the ingredients that framed and seasoned them. No mainland American-style creative liberties influenced Kawasaki’s aesthetic — no smoked King salmon and mango in layers for nigiri, no shishito peppers teetering atop as garnishes.
The evening’s most subversive moment came with an undulant sliver of mackerel, topped with a strip of kombu (kelp) and a tiny mound of green onion and ginger meant to merely insinuate the flavor of garlic. “Traditional sushi does not use garlic,” the server reinforced. Message received, and intended effect registered: Every molecule of this palm-size composition was deliberate. The scallion and ginger cut the fish’s oily musk; the kombu added chew and umami. The pressed bundle of rice underneath still held a hint of warmth, and its echo of vinegar was sweet and mellow but unmistakable. Eating this single piece of sushi, the world somehow fell into order.
This pinnacle arrived about two-thirds of the way through a sequence of 25 or so courses — mostly single bites interspersed with the occasional cooked dish. After the chuturo and the fried shrimp that began the meal, next came abalone and its roe in a gentle abalone liver sauce the color of sage; long, translucent slices of kawahagi (or filefish), served with a combination of sauce from its liver and ponzu for dipping; aji (horse mackerel), its skin like mother of pearl; and spicy cod roe the color of candied apple. It was the season for kani, or queen crab, in Hokkaido; an angled slip of its meat arrived dolloped with a sauce made from its innards (a specific, salty-funky flavor that took me back to eating Maryland steamed crabs in summertime).
And the uni from Hokkaido, my god. It didn’t have a trace of that weird, vaguely metallic tang that too much uni possesses. The Hokkaido import tasted nearly as sweet as a scallop, its texture so melting that the uni nigiri came in a small ceramic bowl, finished with a bit of freshly grated wasabi. Uni also featured in a flawless chawanmushi, the egg custard just set, with greens, gingko nut, uni, and other wisps of seafood distinct in their own shades of crisp and soft and earthy and oceanic.
Form and structure matter; they can bring joy. That’s what rang in my head when my friend and I emerged from Maru over two hours later, after the final courses of owan (a soup of clear fish broth bobbing with a single, supple shrimp) and the traditional omakase ending of tamago (egg omelet). She and I walked the wet Honolulu streets, talking about over the meal’s details. Kumagai, the apprentice chef who served us most of the meal, had cut her pieces of sushi in half — a custom sometimes practiced in Japan because women are perceived to have smaller mouths. “I didn’t mind,” she said. “Of course I see the problem of profiling, but also I often do struggle with the size of sushi pieces.”
Maru offers two seatings nightly; at the second seating on a Friday night we sat alongside only three other customers. At the brink of its first anniversary, the restaurant may still be finding its deserved audience. I easily made reservations the week I arrived in Honolulu; so did another friend who’d gone recently. Is the discrete location or the high price tag (the cost starts at $280 per person) keeping customers away? For aficionados looking for an experience whose quality justifies the expense, Kawasaki’s is a door surely worth finding and walking through.
If Maru Sushi anchors its atmosphere in austerity and custom, Sushi Sho sets a literal stage for drama. Its room, off the seventh floor lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, resembles an amphitheater, with dark beams of mixed woods that surround the bar in a wide arch. A dozen inset ceiling lights flood down on the counter where Nakazawa and his two assistant chefs perform their craft.
Sho, also offering two seatings and charging $300 per person, books out weeks in advance. I was on a wait list and managed to score a last-minute cancellation.
It became apparent at the meal’s outset that our server Aaron, a Miamian who’d lived in Japan for eight years, would double as a translator; our attending chef, 31-year-old Yasushi Zenda, wanted to hear all our questions and had precise thoughts on beers and sakes to match our tastes. The room created an edge of suspense, but it was clear that the chefs foster a sense of interaction — an engaged, though certainly not casual, breaking of the fourth wall.
The meal began with two plump, gently boiled Shigoku oysters from Washington state, covered with a light flurry of yuzu. Then a sashimi trio: North Carolina snapper dolloped with fresh wasabi, locally caught tuna with minced Maui onion and hot mustard, and onaga (Hawaiian red snapper) cured in seaweed and flavored with Macadamia nut. Together they announced just how fluidly Nakazawa can move between traditional sushi preparations and spates of imagination. What appeared over two hours and two-dozen dishes felt like a series of gripping plot twists, never predictable or hackneyed.
A simple, studied piece of scallop nigiri, its flesh skimmed with a flame, preceded finely diced tuna tartare mixed with Maui onion, Japanese radish, and macadamia nuts, all neatly perched on a finger of rice. Three types of roe dotted his cumulous chawanmushi, including pale white escargot caviar, a first for me. Ankimo (monkfish liver) paired with pickled watermelon, a Nakazawa signature, was outrageous in its balanced richness. The most overt allusion to Hawaiian flavors — a maki roll filled with ankimo, dried pineapple, and avocado — appeared near the end of the meal as a disarming and delicious charmer.
It didn’t bother me that Nakazawa himself tended other customers. Zenda had a sly, mesmerizing presence. Each time he formed nigiri he enacted a choreographed movement where he cocked his head toward the rice, almost as though he were listening to the grains as he pressed them into his palm. It sounds goofy, I know, but there was such sincerity in his tactile pursuit of perfection that it was actually beautiful to watch. On a couple of occasions he made nigiri using akazu, a type of vinegar often used for aged Edomae-style sushi that stains rice the color of dried blood.
Near the meal’s conclusion, Zenda told us we’d reached the end of the planned progression, but then ticked off half a dozen extra options we order if we were still hungry, including 10-day-aged yellowtail, another Nakazawa hallmark. Imagine dry-aged steak in seafood form; the fish had the same intensified texture and rich, primal twang. And in the same way that a bombastically sweet dessert somehow gratifies after a New York strip, a bowl of extra slippery noodles in brown sugar syrup felt like an appropriate finale. That, along with the two types of tamago that followed — one flavored with taro, the lifeblood plant of Hawaiʻi.
I left Maru calm and awed. I walked out of Sho feeling electrified. Both restaurants stem from years of practice and knowledge. Is one style better than the other? Of course not. Their debuts in Honolulu contribute equally to American sushi dining. But I do see why seats at Sho are in towering demand. A maverick in the sushi realms draws the crowds; Nakazawa and his team have the chops and showmanship to keep that reputation very much alive.
Maru Sushi: 1731 Kalakaua Avenue, Space B, Honolulu, HI, (808) 951-4445. Open Tuesday-Saturday; first seating 5-5:30 p.m., second seating at 7:30 p.m.
Sushi Sho: Ritz-Carlton, Waikiki Beach, 383 Kalaimoku Street, Honolulu, HI, (808) 729-9717. Open Monday-Saturday; first seating at 5 p.m., second seating at 8 p.m.