Wednesday, January 7, 2015

First bite: Yakiniku House Futago

Nadine Kam photos
Niku sea urchin, on the menu at Yakiniku House Futago, combines beef, shiso, uni and nori.

We don’t need low expectations heading into 2015, so there’s nothing like starting the new year with a bang to set the tone for the rest of the year.

I’m grateful that Yakiniku House Futago came to town, with a perfectly timed opening on Christmas Day, a day of gifts and magic.

“Futago” is the Japanese word for “twins,” in reference to the chain’s youthful founders, Sunchol and Sunbong Lee. The pair launched their first Osaka-style yakiniku restaurant in Japan a mere four years ago. Today, their empire numbers 30 restaurants in Japan and China. Next up: Manhattan.

The New York restaurant was already in the works when the duo decided to open in Hawaii after vacationing here and discovering a lack of Japanese-style yakiniku venues. They found only Hiroshi, in Waikiki, and Gyu-kaku, and thought the market would be perfect for their concept, presenting premium beef in a lively setting with plenty of coddling from an energetic — if not all English-speaking — young staff.

Explaining through an interpreter, Sunbong — who will be working the floor alongside his staff for about a month — summed up their work as “eatertainment,” with the idea that hands-on “concierge” grill service, music and the palpable enthusiasm of waiters enhances the flavor of the food.

He may have a point there, but I’ve always felt that as a truth seeker, I’m impervious to the kind of bells and whistles restaurateurs use to charm a crowd. The food is darn good on its own, and my taste buds don’t change with the addition of good service and lavish decor.

But having someone there to guide the experience and offer helpful information makes dinner here all the more impressive, especially for those more likely to swallow than taste food. When pointed out, you will find vast differences in sections of beef, a mere one-half inch apart.

At 949 Kapahulu Ave. Call (808) 734-3956.

Welcome to their world:

Though Korean by blood, twins Sunbong, left, and Sunchol Lee grew up in Japan favoring the lighter Japanese, rather than highly marinated Korean-style yakiniku.

The niku sea urchin, with the beef cooked, ready to be rolled up and devoured.

It’s rare to experience a vertical beef tasting, but that is what you get with the house specialty, Japanese Wagyu “Hamideru” Kalbi ($28). Your “concierge” will cuts away parts and pre­sents them one at a time for you to savor and compare the fatty marbled rib shi, tender and sweet rib maki, a triangular slipper-shaped piece they call the “geta,” and “kaduri,” the piece of back fat that tastes like short ribs. This can be enjoyed with Kyushu-style ponzu sauce, but don’t add sauce until you have savored the wagyu solo, with its sweetness and fattiness.”

Hamideru availability is limited. Your next-best choice might be the Futago Premium selection of four kinds of beef ($25 per person), about four ounces each of beef tongue, short rib, flank and skirt steak, grilled tableside for you.

The garlic steak isn’t as flavorful as the other cuts, but worth a try, for the compensation, a garlic-butter-shiso-sesame sauce warmed on the grill.

Beyond the meat options, there is an assortment of kim chee ($4.80), and below, avocado ($8.80) served two ways, with a creamy dressing and a mix of shoyu and wasabi.

Raw beef is mixed with a small dice of apple and topped with raw egg in the Korean specialty of yukhoe, available with rice ($9.80), or without ($12.80), as an appetizer.

Dessert of sweet potato ($4.80) served with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup proved to be a wonderful combination.

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