Honolulu's new wave

Traditional Japanese cuisine gets a Hawaiian-style flavor infusion
Alex Salkever

The big umbrellas hanging from the ceiling of L'Uraku come in a riotous rainbow of colors, an unusual design flourish for a fine Japanese restaurant - even here in Honolulu. But chef Hiroshi Fukui reckons the bright decor is an apt reflection of his souped-up fare, which massages Tokyo and Paris onto the same plate. Witness his showstopping seared sea scallop topped with kabayaki beurre blanc sauce and a Japanese takana bacon ragout.

L'Uraku is in the vanguard of Hawaii restaurants taking tradition-bound Japanese cuisine in new directions. Influences ranging from increased availability of locally grown ingredients to the wild creativity seen on the Japanese television show Iron Chef have sparked the renaissance.

Hawaii is a natural for this new-style fusion cuisine because local chefs grew up with nori, agedashi, and other ingredients that remain exotic to many mainland chefs. And while menus may be experimental, they are still essentially Japanese. The restaurants below are serving up a unique mesclun of Japanese sensibilities, Hawaii ingredients, and international savoir faire with dishes that you won't find anywhere else in the world.

Three downtown restaurants

Imanas Tei. This modern izakaya (a place to stay and drink) is located near the University of Hawaii. Patrons often wait a half hour to get a table. The sleek interior sports bamboo curtains, blond woods, and a long communal table. Some of chef-owner Keisuke Asai's food is traditional, but it also includes many nouveau efforts such as delicious clams cooked in white wine, garlic, and butter. 5-11:30 Mon-Sat; small plates from $2.50. 2626 S. King St.; (808) 941-2626.

L'Uraku. Chef Hiroshi Fukui creates a Japanese-European fusion with exotic twists. Fukui started cooking at Furusato, a traditional Japanese restaurant in Waikiki. He found his clientele enjoyed dishes with European touches so much that he opened his own restaurant built around that concept. His contemporary versions of the kaiseki dinner-a traditional Japanese feast featuring a tightly woven progression of small plates that highlight seasonal ingredients-are legendary. Lunch 11-1:45, dinner 5:30-9:45 daily; lunch entrées from $9.50, dinner entrées from $17. 1341 Kapiolani Blvd.; (808) 955-0552.

Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar. Chef-owner DK Kodama is the Emeril of Japanese sushi: nothing he makes lacks "bam." Chili, garlic, and pepper spice up innovative piscine pleasures, from sublime Asian rock-shrimp cake with ginger-lime chili butter and cilantro pesto to "Just-in Clam Dynamite," a pungent mirugai clam topped with Maui onions and luscious miso-garlic butter. First-timers should skip the entrées and sample the small plates. 5-10 daily, bar service with sushi menu until 2 a.m. Thu-Sat; small plates from $4, dinner entrees from $18. Food is half price 5-5:30 Sun-Mon and 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Thu-Sat. 500 Ala Moana Blvd. #6-D1; (808) 536-6286.