Centuries ago, I had this horribly cute boyfriend named Tom. Tom was a Japanese Lit major at UH & worked nights at a very exclusive Japanese restaurant in the Prince hotel called Hakone, from which, he once boasted, he regularly took home several hundred dollars in tips per night from waiting on Japanese celebrities & millionaires. His mother, who owned a sushi bar called Sawa at the time, was a fabulous cook, serving us meals of several small dishes on trays while we watched Northern Exposure, but Tom took me out to eat Japanese food as well. It was with Tom that I developed a love for zaru soba & zaru udon at late night noodle houses (not Sanoya’s.) & that I learned what a Kaiseki was, although I never stepped foot inside Hakone so never experienced one.
I still haven’t. We went to Hakone for shabu shabu.
I was excited to finally go to this restaurant that had been so highly built up in my mind. Staci & I are also still searching for our Aoyama substitute. She says that she recently saw Danny Kaleikini & asked him if he had found another place for shabu shabu, & he had replied, with a sad look, that he hadn’t.
Hakone offers an impressive Japanese buffet for $39; see the thumbnails below. We drooled over the gorgeous offerings (there’s just something about bowls of kabocha that make me feel happy; I don’t know why), but steeled ourselves against temptation; we were here for shabu shabu! And at $55 a head we were not adding on a buffet. Come on.
The atmosphere wasn’t anywhere near as stiff as I had anticipated. There were several non-Japanese, some wearing shorts. I remember Tom complaining about the advent of a buffet which would “attract all the rubbish.” This was before 9/11, when Waikiki servers could still afford to be snotty. At Miyako the former owner of a certain golf course, my ex-mother-in-law’s best friend, had been sitting at an adjacent table & had given me evil stares on her way out. I didn’t see her, or my ex-mother-in-law, or my ex for that matter, at Hakone. Small blessings.
We were both served kobachi, which here consisted of seasoned bamboo shoots, gobo & carrot slices, & konnyaku. I like stuff like that. I also couldn’t help myself & ordered the mozuku, which I had become addicted to at Aoyama.
Just look at that. That was some amazing mozuku. For those who like slimy textures (natto, yamaimo, okra, & the like), Hakone’s mozuku was, if you’ll pardon my language, The Shit. The manager, Mr. Kimura, graciously came over & held the mozuku in my hashi so I could photograph it. The one hand technique wasn’t working. It would have come out like the leech pics for which I received critical comments. From which I am scarred for life.
When the shabu shabu came it was a very exciting moment. I have forgotten to mention that we were paying $55 a head for Kobe beef shabu shabu. Yes, I know that true Kobe beef is not available in the US, but you know what I mean. Even the imitation is a something to look forward to.
The vegetables were not particularly unique except for the manly chunks of mochi. I thought that was just excellent. I could really get used to mochi in my shabu shabu. Yes, that’s me, the carb girl.
The plate of meat, when it came, was impressive. Each thin slice of meat was neatly folded, & at a wider angle from the plate than you would think. The meat had height. We were about halfway through the plate when we realized: there was a lot of meat here.
To our disappointment but also (by now) amusement, there was no mesh strainer with which Staci could skim the scum which would develop as we cooked. When we asked Grace about it, she said that there was actually only one mesh skimmer in the whole restaurant. Hm. Purloined? Grace thereafter visited our table several times & skimmed the pot for us, God bless her.
In defense of $55 per head, it was more food than we could eat. Something to be said about that at a fine dining joint in Waikiki. I even forgot to add the shirataki to the pot (bad Lauren.) but we couldn’t have done it great justice anyway.
It was impossible to immerse a slice of meat in the nabe & retrieve it whole. We had to swish our pieces folded; they were so fatty they would practically disintegrate in the boiling water.
Staci tapped out early & it was left to me to finish the last few pieces of fat- er, I mean, meat, & to be honest, while the concept appealed, I was forcing myself. That was just too much food. I couldn’t even eat udon at the end. I felt so guilty.
I’d like to add that this was the best rice yet. Hakone uses Tamaki Gold, same as Miyako. But I know that the rice was exceptional not just through my own senses, but because Staci, who isn’t a rice freak like I am but still patiently sits through my dissertations about rice, commented before I said anything: “This is really good rice.”
We’re going back. =)