A Healthy Approach to Traditional Contemporary Japanese CuisineCover Story Features
January 5, 2014
Story By: Alana Folen | Photos by: Leah Friel
Squeeze some zest into the new year at YuZu in Ala Moana Hotel. Husband-and-wife-team Isamu and Moco Kubota are veterans in the culinary realm, and together they decided to implement a healthier approach to authentic Japanese cuisine. Initially, the Kubotas’ main goal was to incorporate yuzu, or Japanese citrus fruit, into a variety of dishes. Today, YuZu has expanded its concept to serve guilt-free, nutritious fare with Japanese stylings in a modern dining space with contemporary accents, large-wooden tables and an effortless sense of pizazz.
Dining Out recently paid a visit to YuZu to get a jump start on our New Year’s resolutions. We met with restaurant owner Isamu Kubota, who shared that healthy eating doesn’t have to be a bore. Instead, Kubota let the food speak for itself. The result? Fascinating.
DO: On Japan’s ever-expanding dining scene, a recent trend has emerged for the health conscious who watch what they eat. It’s common to see restaurants in Tokyo that have branded the “organic” and “dairy-free” motif into their cuisine. This concept is one that you wanted to offer to Hawaii as well, correct?
Kubota: Yes. My wife, Moco Kubota, and I opened YuZu at Ala Moana Hotel in 2011. We are both self-taught cooks, and Moco has been a vegetarian for more than 25 years, eating organic foods and macrobiotic foods as much as possible. She was the one who wanted to create a healthy option for people who love Japanese food and created the YuZu concept. We are both passionate about delicious, healthy food, interesting flavors and promoting local ingredients.
DO: Why the name YuZu?
Kubota: Yuzu is a citrus fruit that has been used in Japanese cooking for centuries, but it has only recently been discovered in the west. Known as a “superfood” because of its high level of Vitamin C, Yuzu has a complex flavor with hints of mandarin, lemon and grapefruit, and is very aromatic. This fruit proves perfect in a variety of dishes, desserts (and even candies), teas, beer and cocktails. We incorporate yuzu in our sushi, sauces, vegenaise, and we make a very popular Yuzu Mojito. It’s delicious and healthy!
DO: YuZu caters to specific dietary wants and needs. Is the restaurant popular among vegetarians and vegans?
Kubota: Of course. We have a lot of vegetarian and vegan options — even vegetarian sushi, so there are a lot of regulars at YuZu who come to us for this reason. Now, having said that, that doesn’t mean we are a strictly vegetarian or vegan restaurant, per se. We also offer dishes with meat, chicken, pork, fish and eggs. We have a lot of fans who come specifically for other dishes, including our popular Spicy Sukiyaki Beef Udon with fresh made udon noodles; Shrimp Tempura; Maguro Kama; Yakitori; and Prime Sirloin Diced Steak. Our homemade tofu is also very popular, as it’s made with soy milk. Our signature Lotus Root Pizza ($8.95) is a big hit as well.
DO: That’s great! YuZu seems to be the perfect place to dine for those who wish to change their eating habits for the better. After all, that is a common goal at the start of a new year. Wouldn’t you agree?
Kubota: Yes. Here at YuZu we try to use locally produced organic foods, and glutenand dairy-free ingredients as much as possible. If you already love Japanese food, you should definitely dine at YuZu and Sushi YuZu. You can have all of your favorites — but a healthier version of it, as well as our signature dishes that can only be found at YuZu. All of our teishoku, or set meals, have the option of white or brown rice, and are served with healthy, organic greens. You can even have healthy french fries and “meatless yakitori” (made with soy). And opt to cut out all the fat of mayonnaise and try our homemade vegenaise instead.
Our restaurant is a great place to gather with friends and family when you have a mix of vegetarians and non-vegetarians — that way everyone can enjoy delicious, healthy fare of their choice.
DO: As the owner of YuZu, what would you say are must-have items on the menu?
Kubota: Our executive chef Ikunari Yamamura is really talented and cooks up delicious items. For starters, as I mentioned earlier, Handmade Silky Organic Tofu Cup ($4.75) served with shoyu koji (rice malt) is delicious. I would also recommend our Locally Grown Avocado and Myoga Ginger Salad with Wasabi Tamari Shoyu ($8.95). Our organic tamari house soy sauce is wheat-free.
Spicy Sukiyaki Beef Udon ($13.95) is our best-seller and won bok, flat chives and sprinkles of sesame are added to the soup base. Patrons also love our Kakiage Udon ($12.95), as well as Yakitori with your choice of sauce. Select from teriyaki; Yuzu pepper; plum and shiso; and basil paste and vegenaise.
DO: There is a variety of sushi selections on the menu. What would you recommend for a first-timer?
Kubota: I would recommend Temari Sampler ($14.95, six pieces assorted), an array of ball-shaped sushi, which includes white fish, salmon, shrimp, Hawaiian ahi, eel and yellow-tail. What’s so special about our sushi rice is the hints of vinegar and yuzu that add a wonderful flavor to our sushi selections.
DO: What can we look forward to from YuZu in 2014?
Kubota: We opened Sushi YuZu in Ko Olina last year with the same concept in a resort setting, so we will be making improvements to that establishment. We also hope to work on additional projects this year. Some of our local projects have included Okonomi Cuisine Kai, Kaiwa at Waikiki Beach Walk, Kai in Wailea, and Hale Macrobiotic. We also work with restaurant partners in Japan.
Ala Moana Hotel, Kona Tower Lobby
410 Atkinson Drive
Daily Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Daily Happy Hour, 5-6 p.m.
Monday-Saturday Dinner, 5 p.m.-midnight (last call 11:30 p.m.)
Sunday Dinner, 5-10:00 p.m. (last call 9:30 p.m.)