Robatayaki Grill Tsukuneya
My friend’s birthday was approaching fast, and we still hadn’t picked a place to eat a celebratory meal. Desperate to try something different, we picked Tsukuneya. Tsukune is ground chicken, seasoned and shaped into an egg-shaped ball on a skewer, then grilled.
For those of you that haven’t passed by UH lately, Players is no longer in existence there. Or if it’s been a really really long time since you’ve been by UH, Pizza Hut is gone. In it’s place is this very orange, very swirly looking place called Tsukuneya. It’s a Japanese restaruant serving Robata-yaki (Grilled food). To be precise, they serve Nagoya-style food. Now, I’m not a big fan of Nagoya-anything, maybe with the exception of Chanpon. But here, I was pleased to find out that most of their items were really not much different from the usual Robatayaki items you find nationwide in Japan.
So, the day after we go eat at this place, I find there is a review fresh off the press in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin . I decided to postpone my review until some of the fluff had settled…if you want to see what was said, you can read it here . There were points made in the review that I agree with, but for the most part (especially the taste portion), I think my muthaland palate disagrees.
To start off – it’s really cold. The restaurant. Is cold. Despite the “warm wood” interior, it feels like you’re hugging a Stainless Steel SubZero refrigerator. Bring a light jacket. Or parka. Trust me. Maybe if you sit in the outside area you’d fare better…but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Have fun finding parking. I wanted to tell the Valet that, too. It was good we went on a weekday, I can’t imagine what it’s like on a Friday or Saturday night there. The entire parking lot is reserved for valet only. And when that’s full, I have no idea where the valet would park your car.
Now to the fun part. The experience.
We’re seated, and we’re freezing. We’re hungry. We smell good things…and then, we’re given this…storybook? The menu is full of illustrations and all this text about how to eat Tsukune, what is tsukune, blah blah blah. Oh and you even get to read about Nagoya. I’m hungry. I don’t want to read about the region and Toyota and Samurai. I want to read about your food. I decided to skip on to actual menu part and use the “educational reading” section while I wait for food to arrive. Well, no chance of that because as this waitress was clicking our order (she was using that PDA order tablet thing) our food arrived. Immediately. While we were still ordering. One by one, things appeared. It was strange and distracting, and our ordering frenzy fizzled into this awkward silence. We all looked at each other, wondering if that was a sign to stop ordering so much food. As one friend put it, we had no time to sit back and enjoy our cocktail, engage in some light conversation, and savor the moment. After all, it’s a birthday dinner! No, food arrived as we’re still talking to the waitress, and we felt we had to dive right in before the food freezes over.
Oh and as was mentioned in the newspaper review, you have to order two of the same Tsukune flavors at a time. Now, this is a bit confusing because the menu lists each item, ranging from $1.50 to about $3 but these are for one/single/uno piece. Why not just list it as $3, and say you get 2 sticks per order? I don’t get it. We each ordered different flavors: Garlic, Mixed Cheese, Piripirihabu (meaning, spicy herb), and Misonnaise. They all pretty much tasted the same, just with different sauces. Garlic was not very “garlic”, Cheese was..meh, the Piripiri was not spicy at all, and I tasted no herb whatsoever, and Misonnaise just tasted like I mixed miso and mayo. Nothing special.
We quickly moved on to dishes that sounded a bit more exciting. The homemade tofu (Zaru Tofu) with yuzu was good. We were a bit annoyed that 2 different waitresses came over to explain how to add the flavor to the water. Um, duh. But hey, it’s probably their job, right? But why two people, in succession, to explain? Did it seem like we didn’t understand the first time? Then we realized, this must be the way they do things here because for the Kamameshi and the Yakionigiri (Grilled Rice Ball with soup) we went through the same drill. We still had no opportunity to sit back and enjoy our meal. The restaurant was half-empty, but we felt they were tyring to rush us through the meal to get us out of there. The best item for me was the Unagi Kamameshi. Most unagi dishes I’ve tried in Hawaii have been mediocre at best. Very thin slices of unagi that lightly cover the rice. But this dish here was a pleasant surprise at that point in the evening. Thick pieces of unagi, and lots of it! And cooked just right. Now if that waitress would stop coming to our table to recommend that I pour some fish stock over my precious unagi rice…
The seafood dynamite was a hit as well. Big chunks of fresh crab meat smothered in sauce and baked…yum. Fried tofu was so-so. It’s just fried tofu with some sauce. Better to order the homemade tofu instead. Ebi fry? Just some sticks o’ shrimp and veggies stuck into what looked like an incense holder. Again, don’t bother unless you’re a hardcore fan of fried shrimp. Order something else instead.
Ah, dessert! We love dessert. And hey! It’s a birthday dinner! We have to have dessert! And besides, desserts are guaranteed fun! We ordered the cheesecake, which turned out to be Japanese-style cheesecake (not anything close to New York Cheesecake) served with some whipped cream and azuki beans. It was good, and I prefer this style over the heavier New York cheesecake, but it was good plain.
We also ordered something called the “Fried Monkey”. The description on the menu said it is a “deep fried banana served with ice cream”. We all had images of banana chimichangas or banana lumpias dancing in our heads. We were excited…until it arrived. Looking at it, we thought we had the wrong order. It looked like a corndog smothered in chocolate sauce. We dig in, and find out that not only is the banana battered with something like a pancake batter, but it’s a not-quite-ripe apple banana. Oh and they “ran out” of silverware so we were given plastic forks. Hmm. It was hard, there was no other flavoring except for the chocolate sauce and ice cream, and we actually did not finish it. Up, down, up, down…that was our experience at Tsukuneya. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions and expectations.
I don’t feel that Tsukuneya deserves the rating it got in the newspaper review, but I’ll give it another chance. Maybe it’s just too “new” and they need to figure out their timing and menu. Still, I’m in no hurry to go back for that second take. Oh and I was told that their “buffalo wings” were good, even though the food critic didn’t like them. I think you have to order them knowing that they are not going to be “buffalo wings” but rather, chicken wings seasoned Nagoya-style. Or something like that.