Contemporary Japanese Cuisine Just Got Real

Cover Story Features

March 23, 2015

Story By: Alana Folen | Photos by: Bodie Collins

There’s a new contemporary Japanese restaurant that’s popped up in the Islands, and it has been generating quite a buzz among Oahu’s dining culture. Rijo Restaurant opened Feb. 28 in the former Palomino space on the third floor of Harbor Court.

Grandiose views of Honolulu Harbor set a stunning backdrop for the sizable 10,000-square foot, 290-seat establishment open for lunch and dinner daily.

A Japan native, executive chef Yoichi Saito is the mastermind behind Rijo’s menus, executing eclectic dishes with a Japanese twist.

Not the least bit pretentious, Rijo does not categorize itself as a part of the fine-dining circuit. Rather, it gives off a contemporary-casual, laid-back vibe, where guests are to feel right at home. The restaurant staff is attentive and friendly but not overbearing, and won’t hesitate to share their recommendations with first-time diners.

Dining Out recently stopped by Rijo during the post-lunch, pre-dinner lull, and general manager Daniel Toves gave us an inside look at this downtown gem.

“We’ve predominantly styled our lunch service for the business professionals who stop by during their one-hour lunch break. These guests are pressed for time, so we make sure that the service is quick and efficient, while still keeping everything up to standards,” says Toves, who raves about Misoyaki Kobe Beef Philly Cheese Sandwich ($14). “Every dish has Japanese influence. In the sandwich, the Kobe beef ribeye features a smoked miso glaze, which brings out the sweet and savory.”

Once 5 p.m. hits, the fast-paced lunchtime atmosphere slows down, as the dining room fills up with patrons eager to partake in Rijo’s complete dining experience. “The dinner crowd likes to take their time and enjoy,” says Toves. The open kitchen allows guests to witness the chefs at work. What results are incredible renditions of mouthwatering appetizers, noteworthy entrees and decadent desserts.

Rijo Sunset ($15) is a contemporary take on maki sushi, featuring a spicy tuna roll topped with unagi, salmon, hamachi, avocado and locally grown microgreens.

“The fish and unagi are seared with a blowtorch, so the flavors pop, especially when combined with truffle, yuzu aioli and kabayaki sauce,” shares Toves.

Next, Crispy Tofu with Quinoa ($10) is a phenomenal vegan and gluten-free starter, which is just as popular with meat lovers. According to the chef, the quinoa is made fresh daily with essences of local cucumber, gobo, asparagus and Hamakua tomatoes tossed in a house-made sesame vinai grette. Pieces of organic tofu coated in crisp tempura batter sit atop the quinoa, and pairing these elements in one bite results in a spectacular blend of texture and flavor.

“Our take on chawanmushi is presented in Dungeness Crab Cake with Truffled Egg Tofu ($16). Two to three ounces of crab meat are coated in panko and deep fried, before it’s plated with white soy consomme and hints of black truffle,” says Toves. “There are distinct French, Amer-ican and Japanese influences in this appetizer.”

Entrees such as Corn Flake Jidori Chicken Katsu ($21), Misoyaki Filet Mignon ($30) and Garlic Shrimp with Satoimo-Daikon Mochi ($26) are just a few intriguing options. However, Toves and the rest of the kitchen staff agree that Rijo Bouillabaisse ($38) is the No. 1 choice among seafood enthusiasts, as half-lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, squid and the fresh catch of the day swim in dashi broth, which contains no MSG. A choice of white or brown rice accompanies the dish.

“The fresh catch usually consists of monchong or mahi mahi that we get from Honolulu Fish Auction,” notes Toves.

And just when you thought chef Yoichi’s creativity reached its climax, he wows with warm Macha Bread Pudding ($7), a delectable dessert composed of matcha-infused Hawaiian sweet bread with Jim Beam Bourbon Whiskey and creme anglaise complemented by a scoop of rich vanilla bean ice cream.

Rijo also offers happy hour daily from 3 to 6 p.m. with specially priced cocktails, mixed drinks, beer pitchers and more.

Owned by Iwakumi Corporation, the restaurant does get busy, so reservations are recommended. The lounge area also is open from 11 a.m. to closing. Validated parking is available at Harbor Court.

Rijo Restaurant

DAILY, 11 A.M.-2 P.M. (LUNCH);

Honolulu, HI 96813

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