Reeling In Fresh Seafood To SavorCover Story
December 24, 2017
Story By: Caroline Wright | Photos by: ANTHONY CONSILLIO
The story of Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill is well-known around Pier 38 and beyond. Bruce Johnson created his award-winning restaurant as a tribute to his beloved “uncles,” the legendary aku fishermen who became his mentors after he arrived in Hawaii some 50 years ago.
But one of the most interesting stories at Uncle’s can be found in the kitchen. Johnson’s executive chef — a “local boy” named Geoffrey Arakawa — is something of a legend himself.
“I was a surf bum!” Arakawa laughs, recounting the start of his career in some of Hawaii’s finest professional kitchens. “Ala Moana hadn’t even opened yet. I stumbled in, and Jimmy said, ‘Hey, you wanna work?’ I said, ‘I guess so.’ He said, ‘Okay, change your clothes!'”
“Jimmy” was James “Jimmy” Sueyoshi, executive chef at Liberty House’s brand-new Garden Court Restaurant, and later founder of Leeward Community College’s culinary program. Sueyoshi took the young chef under his wing, and his influence left a deep impression. “He was a good mentor,” recalls Arakawa.
Arakawa continued to hone his skills as corporate chef for Spencecliff, the Hawaii restaurant company whose restaurants included Fisherman’s Wharf, Tahitian Lanai, Coco’s, and dozens more, and also as chef at Third Floor, the Hawaiian Regent Hotel’s stellar restaurant.
He’s now been at Uncle’s helm for a decade, steering the restaurant into the stratosphere as it wins shelves full of awards (including a ranking as one of the country’s best seafood restaurants by the readers of USA Today) for its auction-fresh catches and other seafood specialties. Arakawa’s mastery of his art is obvious in the ocean-sourced delights he creates, including Sushi Bowl ($25).
“In the Japanese sushi bars, they call it a chirashi bowl — chirashi means ‘scattered,'” the chef explains. “Our own version includes fresh ahi, hamachi, salmon, ikura (salmon roe) — and a taste of deep-fried calamari.” The bounty is a favorite at Uncle’s, substantial enough to share with the table or enjoy as a meal.
Another great option is Fresh Onaga ($35), or Hawaiian red snapper. The fish is pan-seared with lobster mushroom sauce made with fresh Maine lobster. “Onaga is a fish that Mainlanders might not ever have tried,” Arakawa says. “When they try it, it becomes a favorite!”
“We think onaga is one of the top-tier fish on the market,” agrees Brian McKelvey, director of restaurant operations.
“It’s a really high-quality dish with a great balance of flavors.”
Uncle’s award-winning Garlic Ahi ($25) consists of a sashimi-grade ahi steak, sauteed to a perfect medium. “It has a really nice sauce with compound butter, bonito veloute and chili soy, and a bit of a kick, because we add garlic, green chilis and capers,” says McKelvey.
“It’s our No. 1 seller,” adds the chef.
Also a best-seller, especially at lunchtime, is Fresh Fish & Chips ($18-19, depending on the fish).
“I personally think it’s the best fish and chips on the island,” McKelvey says. “It’s one of the things people go out of their way for.”
The restaurant uses high-quality fish for this dish, mainly snapper, but also mahi, opakapaka or onaga.
Irresistible news for oyster-lovers! “We’ve been sourcing some of the best oysters on the market,” confides Brian McKelvey, director of operations at Uncle’s. Now featured:
• Chef’s Choice Oysters: (choose one or two varieties; $18 for half-dozen)
• Chefs Creek: Named for a creek near Vancouver Island; known for creamy, briny sweetness
• Paradise: Known for melony finish and crispness
• Kusshi: Japanese for “precious;” McKelvey calls them “the Kobe of the oyster world,” clean, sweet, briny, delectable
Take a Sip
Uncle’s will launch an updated cocktail menu in January with a few new instant classics:
• The 1944 Mai Tai: Uncle’s version of Trader Vic’s classic, featuring light and dark rums, orgeat, and orange curacao, plus lilikoi juice
• Spicy Mango Margarita: Don Julio Reposado tequila, fresh mango and lime juices, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, and Uncle’s chili pepper infusion
• The Bloody Mary: Bacon, cucumber, or celery salt; housemade pickled vegetable garnishes
Specialty cocktails $11; Bloodies $10