Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Richo's hybrid menu has bright spots

By Nadine Kam 

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 22, 2010

Visiting chef Eun Myoung Hee, above, of Richo in Tokyo prepares a specialty of beef tongue at the new Richo restaurant in Kaimuki.

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For too long, the rallying cry for the Internet and its myriad blogs and websites -- to the detriment of, ahem, old media -- has been "information wants to be free."
Maybe so, but as a writer, I'd really like to continue getting paid for my work.

A similar rallying cry might apply to restaurants, although consumers have either been slow or sympathetic to the plight of the small restaurateur. I've noticed since the recession hit that restaurants initially increased entree prices to keep up with overhead. They turned next to adding or increasing cost of incidentals like soft drinks, appetizers and sometimes, even the bread we've come to expect for free.

But unlike information, perhaps food doesn't want to be free ... anymore. (Not that it ever was, but costs could be better hidden before.)

Keep that in mind at Richo, where the first thing that glares at you from the menu is the cost of banchan. Say what?

Surely, banchan wants to be free. It is the minimum show of hospitality we've come to expect from a Korean restaurant.

Ah, but Richo is actually part of a Japanese chain, that, like so many from the land of the rising sun, is wending its way west. Hawaii has always been the logical stepping stone by virtue of some shared culture and heritage. Yet, I can't help thinking maybe they should have skipped one pond in favor of a destination where Korean traditions are less ingrained.

The cost of the banchan, at $6 for assorted namul and $3 for kim chee, isn't much, but I know it will rankle many. It's the principle of the thing. Is a restaurant going to make a show of playing the good host, or not?
Richo is at the base of Waialae Avenue, where the Japanese izakaya Momomo once stood. The monolithic black building has given way to clean white, and a plus of the location is its parking lot, though getting in is easier than reversing out.

Inside, there's a mix of standard tables and multiple, cozy tatami rooms for those who want to curl up in semiprivacy.

There's no sense being stubborn about the banchan. You still have to get the namul, a delicious assortment of tender royal ferns, bean sprouts, seasoned spinach, spicy octopus and pickled onions -- seven little dishes beautifully arranged in a bamboo basket.

Other starters include deep-fried seaweed and noodle spring rolls ($10), and Korean poke ($9) of ahi in kochujang sauce.

The restaurant betrays its roots with a reference to the Korean-style pancakes (pa jun), using the Japanese word, chigimi, plus a series of typos referring to the "panfly" nature of the crisp-fried savory egg-and-flour pancakes, with your choice of seafood and leek ($12 full order, $8 half), plain leek ($10/$7), squid and chive ($11/$7.50) or beef and yam ($12/$8) fillings. I found a half-order to be plenty for two.

You can order entrees such as kalbi ($13.50), bulkogi ($16), and beef or seafood chapchae (rice noodles $10.96) a la carte, but there's more of a show attached to the pork ($40) or beef tongue ($50) shabu-shabu for two. If you prefer a grill specialty over the soupy shabu-shabu, there's just one, pork belly ($24) for two to cook at your table. This is another dish with extra costs, at $3 for lettuce for wrapping your cooked pork, and $2 for garlic cloves. I consider these musts because pork alone (it does come with a slice of onion) would be boring.

It's nice when it's not too crowded here and the staffers have the time to help you cook the pork at your table, starting with brushing the grill with oil and rosemary. The pork is mildly flavored, so it's conceivable some might detect the herb flavor. There's none of the raunchy intense sesame and salt flavors that you'd find at most Korean restaurants.

Some of the dishes are just wrong, like, Spicy Fire Chicken ($11.80) billed as a grilled dish, but that comprises small pieces of meat sauteed in Richo's house hot sauce.

Ahi bibimbap ($10) also struck me as being more Japanese than Korean because of the raw fish and vegetable choices of cabbage slaw, lettuce and slivered carrots. It made a nice salad.

The restaurant is not bad, but I was left wondering about who the audience might be for this Korean-Japanese hybrid. It's definitely not a place for traditionalists who already have two or three favorite Korean restaurants.

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