I have been trying to dine at Izakaya Gaku for two years! Having said that, I have only been to Honolulu four times in the last two years , so really I have only tried four times. Although it's a casual eatery (the best food in Honolulu hands down no holds barred no exceptions made are served casually), make a reservation. The three of us called a day in advance and could only get a reservation at 5:30 PM for the sushi bar.
We hit Izakaya Gaku the night of my brother K's high school graduation from Punahou, our trio's second traditional "izakaya before graduation" meal. Last time we hit Izakaya Nonbei on Olu when brother R graduated in a similar fashion.
To be consistent, I started with a little cold sake. Their list had several sakes I am unfamiliar with, but most were in larger format bottles than I wanted prior to potential napping in the cheap seats during the endless festivities. I have had this one several times and always enjoy it. Light and slightly fruity, slightly dry.
While waiting for Pops, D and I start with oysters on the half shell: tobiko, green onions, ponzu. The thing about izakaya (Japanese food in general) and me, well, I usually order pretty much the same thing no matter where I am. Starting out with oysters served on a bed of ice.
For some reason, unbeknownst to me, oysters in Japanese restaurants are typically served just a hair cooler than room temperature rather than the close to ice cold oyster one is served at a North American raw bar. I know that when food is warm the flavors develop more fully on your tongue and aromas are more fragrant. Still, I have a slight bias toward a v v v cold bivalve. Nevermind, these were lovely and we sucked them down while waiting for a slightly belated Dad.
Even before 6 PM sushi chefs and all the cooks in the kitchen were humming right along.
Decor is ever so slightly on the chic side, but don't let that deter you. Gaku is in no way trendy or pretentious. Glossy wood beams, tables and chairs and bar stools, dim lighting and small aquariums placed around the room give Gaku an elegant feel. Yet it has an earthiness about the decor, and all employees have such a friendly personability to their service you will feel very much at ease.
Simple salad with ginger dressing made from local produce, lightly fried Maui onions sprinkled on top. One of the things I love about eating in Hawai'i is the amazing local produce. Granted, we are certainly spoiled for an abundance of wonderful produce here in California. However, the locavorism had firm footing in Hawai'i long before we considered it an uber-movement on the mainland.
D ordered the same salad as I, I refused to share, and also a few pieces of sushi. Gaku is definitely heralded as a sushi bar inasmuch as an izakaya. Maguro and ebi, probably two of the most boring nigiri in my mind. But D loves to eat healthy and eschews my favorites: ankimo & hamachi.
Someone on Yelp was raving about the karaage, Japanese fried chicken. Sharing this with the two most important men in my life was painful. Let me rephrase, sharing some of this was painful. I highly suggest it should you find yourself at Gaku. It reminded me ever so slightly of Ludovic Lefebvre's famous fried chicken.
Snarky blogger Sinosoul, my blogging colleague and foodie inspiration many times over, suggested I try agedashi tofu awhile back the evening I ate at Raku Izakaya in Las Vegas. Agedashi tofu is silken tofu dusted with cornstarch and deep fried, served in a puddle of tentsuyu broth made from dashi, hence the name. The agedashi tofu at Gaku was great. It fell apart fairly easily as I plied it with my chopsticks, cut it into smaller cubes so Dad could try it. I have had agedashi a few times between the Raku and Gaku experiences, but everything in between paled in comparison to those culinary bookends. Agedashi tofu at my favorite izakaya in L.A does not excite me in the same way.
D and Dad also both ordered the clam miso. Thick miso broth with a bounty of wakame ribbons and fresh briny clams. The soup kept speed with the other wonderful small plates that filled us up that evening, delectably delightful.
Dad has tried to go back a couple times since with J, but at the last minute and could not get in. This echoes my experience the three trips prior. Next time I visit Oahu, I will make that reservation weeks in advance. There will be no more high school commencement rites of passage because the boys are becoming men. They will have to think of some other ways to get me to the islands with equal frequency. I would be embarrassed to admit the karaage at Gaku tempts me from the middle of the Pacific.