Everyone has one. The best, most memorable dinner of your life. It might change over time. Sometimes the significance fades. Other times it’s simply outdone. Mine happened during my honeymoon in Hawaii.
$250 Sushi Breakfast Anyone?
It was my husband’s boss’s boss that recommended Ginza Onodera Honolulu. He described it as a small hole-in-the-wall-type place but with the best sushi. Make sure you sit at the sushi counter, he advised. You should also know that there is no menu. It’s all omakase (chef’s choice), and they don’t speak much English. Oh, and don’t forget to buy the chef beer.
Before booking I did a little research. For a hole-in-the-wall place, I balked at the $250 per person price tag. But decided it was justified because A) It was our honeymoon. B) It was the boss’s recommendation. C) Something about the fish in Europe being subject to different regulations than in Hawaii, making it a unique and, from what I could gather, worthwhile opportunity.
However, I could only get a reservation for our first night, when the jet lag would be at its worst. Especially since we were flying from London via Tokyo with a 7 hour stopover: a total transit time of 30 hours! Not only would we be heavily jet-lagged, our sushi dinner would be at 6 am London time. Tough luck. I made the booking for 8 pm.
We landed in Honolulu somewhere around 7 and arrived at our hotel before 10 in the morning. I had requested an early check-in and, after traveling for 30+ hours, became rather livid when told that our room would not be ready for another 5 hours. To prevent a near nuclear explosion, the staff led us to a guest lounge where we could take a shower and keep our bags. By this point I was also starving, so after a very quick shower, we headed out to find some food and explore the area.
What happened next is another story for another time involving a Peter Lik gallery and a $14,000 photograph (which no, we did not buy.) We returned to the hotel a little after 2 in the afternoon and were finally taken to our room. Exhausted, I told George I was going down for a one hour nap and set my alarm. George, who claimed he wasn’t tired at all, said he’d probably go to the pool.
Five hours later, I woke up dazed and confused in a pitch black room. I checked my phone and started freaking out. It was 7.30 pm and George was laying beside me fast asleep. I woke him up yelling how did this happen? Why didn’t you set an alarm? Do you know what time it is? Our dinner reservation is in half an hour!!
There was no time to waste. We had to make a decision. Do we even still go? It was hard to think straight. Is there really no way to reverse time? I honestly didn’t know what to do. A little voice in my head was pleading for me to skip it. Take it easy. Wake up slowly. Order room service. But how much would I regret that? I turned to George. What do we do? Should we skip it? Do we really want to pay $250 each for a sushi breakfast right now?!
Yes. Yes we do! So George jumped in the shower and I jumped into a little black dress. I threw my hair up in a bun, thankful I had already washed it that morning. Rubbed some foundation on my face, no time for the full routine. Applied a quick coat of mascara, strapped on my heels, and called an uber.
The Akifumi Sakagami Experience
We reached the restaurant at exactly 8.05 pm, looking deceivingly sharp for our jet-lagged-just-woken-up-where-the-hell-are-we brains. The uber ride took roughly ten minutes, driving away from the bright lights of Waikiki and turning onto several dark roads until we reached the unassuming restaurant.
Inside, a Japanese hostess wearing a beautiful red yukata looked relieved to see us. She hadn’t been sure we were coming after no response in the last 24 hours. If only she knew. After a short wait in one of the private rooms, where George and I exchanged silly faces as it registered that we were omg in Hawaii, we were shown to the sushi counter. Of the seven seats, a party of four was already midway through their meal.
The true Japanese way to eat sushi is omakase at the sushi counter. The idea is to eat the sushi as soon as the chef has prepared it. While the western equivalent is ‘chef’s choice’, the Japanese word actually means ‘entrust’. So this would be my first time entrusting someone with my sush (and $250!)
Entering Ginza Onodera felt like stepping into Japan. The rooms decorated in contemporary Japanese style with beautiful wood-paneled walls, ceilings, and Canadian wood countertops that get sanded once a week. Behind the chef, I noticed his rack of Japanese sushi knives (called hocho), with only one unused.
Having just woken up, George ordered a coke and I went for green tea. Our hostess came by with several entrees in delicate decorative bowls and antique dishes. The chef began slicing up some courses of sashimi, served two pieces at a time.
After each serving, he would announce the name of the fish in Japanese and our hostess would translate using a fish dictionary. Pointing to a picture book with both the Japanese and English names printed in big letters. And each time, I would smile and nod in acknowledgment, pretending that names like silver pomfret, horse mackerel or golden eye snapper meant something to me.
By now, George and I were feeling a bit more awake and ordered a beer each, remembering to offer one to the chef. I guess I expected he would accept the drink and discreetly consume it as he carried on his work. I couldn’t have been more wrong. His face lit up with excitement at the mere suggestion, and once the beers were brought in, we toasted after every sip! Kanpai (cheers)!
Joking in Japanese
The mood now altered, the proverbial ice broken, it was time for introductions. We started to exchange hellos and names with the other guests. They were a couple with their daughter of university age and a family friend. As we got to names, the father introduced his daughter as Hime. Hime? George asked. So does that mean you are the o-sama?
I don’t speak any Japanese, but George is actually pretty good. So I could only read the astonished facial expressions around the room and knew that George had made a joke, and that his Japanese had taken them by surprise. They were all laughing and talking as if to say, I can’t believe this guy knows Japanese! Finally, George explained to me that the father had made a joke by introducing his daughter as Hime, which means princess. Of course, they had never expected George to understand when he replied, princess? So does that mean you are the King?
The father then gestured towards chef Akifumi Sakagami and told us that he is the Ginza Onodera Group Executive Chef. Hontoni? Asked George, which was obviously another joke because they were all at it again. I can’t help it but when everyone is laughing it’s infectious and I often find myself laughing at the joke before I even know what’s funny. Beats laughing on your own. That’s the problem with translating jokes, you also have to explain the humour behind it. Hontoni is like saying really? Sarcastically, like, no way, you? Let’s just say that Chef Sakagami and George share the same sense of humour and from there on it was one joke after another until we were all clutching our stomachs.
The sashimi was followed by several courses prepared in the kitchen, before a course of nigiri, served one piece at a time. I have to say, the superiority of the sushi was obvious from the very first bite. Unmistakably the best I ever had.
It was such a pleasure to watch Akifumi form the perfect thumb of nigiri rice in the palm of his hand, topped with a smear of wasabi root freshly ground by his wakiita (apprentice). Like watching a ballet with knives, each piece of fish sliced with the type of precision reserved only for master craftsmen.
The fish is placed on top and finished off with nikiri (sweet soy) or soy sauce brushed over. Contrary to the maki roll, which you dip yourself, nigiri is already prepared and seasoned for you. The perfect bite. The proper way to eat it is simply to pick it up with your fingers or chopsticks and pop into your mouth.
I savoured each piece, encountering so many new flavours. Many of the fish I’d never even heard of, while old favourites such as otoro (fatty tuna), ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin) were as if tasting them for the first time. Nothing was chewy, dry or too fishy. He might as well have been serving it to us on the very boat it was fished from. It tasted that fresh.
All this made me so happy I felt euphoric. Not only was I eating the best sushi I’d ever had the pleasure of tasting, it was the first night of my honeymoon. We had made it, I was in Hawaii of all places, and in the best company I could ask for! It was like a dream. So we ordered another round of beers for the chef, one for his assistant too, and a bottle of cold sake that came in the most beautiful glass flask.
We were having such a good time that before we knew it we were all, how shall I put this, quite drunk! By this point, we had bought beers not only for the executive chef and his assistant, but also for the kitchen staff, waitress and hostess, who had now joined us around the sushi counter as we joked and laughed like misbehaving school kids.
One of the funniest points of the night was when Akifumi was asking how we knew about Ginza Onodera. We explained it had been recommended by George’s Bosu, a regular there. After we described him and Akifumi recalled who he was, he burst out laughing and said it all made sense now. He had been scratching his head over the past hour and a half wondering how on earth we had known he liked beer?
Typical of omakase, a simple maki roll is served at the end, followed by miso soup. Apparently, the proper way is to have your soup at the very end. Lastly, they served a selection of desserts on a platter that said Happy Honeymoon! As we finished it off, the hostess dressed me up in a yukata and Akifumi dressed George in his spare chef’s uniform and hat so we could take some photos!
If we’d been in Japan, we might have all headed out together for karaoke. But we were visibly tired and just drunk enough to sleep through the night even though it was daytime for our body clocks. After we paid the bill, the hostess called us a taxi and the entire restaurant staff walked us out. We felt treated no less than royalty, although we know this to be Japanese hospitality at its finest. In the taxi, George and I couldn’t stop saying how it was without a doubt the best dinner of our lives, and to think we almost missed it!