Oshogatsu (お正月) or Japanese New Year is appropriately celebrated when it is the weekend before Chinese New Year at a restaurant that serves Okinawan food with a twist of French, Italian, and Korean flavors . . . wait a minute, what?!
Off-Menu: the Start
While, some traditions are dying in Hawaii others are beginning to take root. I sincerely, hope that this third Off-Premise event is a sign of things to come and look forward to like the New Year that we all celebrate. While I found the food at Off the Wall not necessarily new and mind-altering, I would daresay that the food was more approachable than Chief Sean Priester’s experiments. They offered something that I would eat on a regular basis or be happy to bring to a potluck, per chance celebrating the New Year or gathering of friends. However, before I get into it all let me lay the scene.
The sun is setting, but the reds and oranges in the sky are still strong enough for sunglasses as I pull into the Pearl Kai Shopping Center. The parking lot is half full, with dinner goers and drinkers trickling in to their affordable eating spots and drinking dives. Out across the uneven parking lot a white tent stands out. It is signature Off-Menu.
I arrive and sign in. I’m handed my table number on a personalized card and handed a sheet of paper. It’s game time. This time it’s not guessing the name of exotic fruits and vegetables. This one is squarely running with the theme of Japanese New Year. The party-goers need to play a matching game of connecting the meaning/symbolism of a traditional food dish to the food name. I stare at the food, the names, and the symbols. I then stare at them again, and then I proceed to fold my paper and stuff it in my pocket. I had realized that studying seven years of Japanese, watching countless anime, and hanging out at my best friend’s house every New Years for o-zōni was not going to help me. Time to mingle.
I’m handed a free pomegranate pear spritzer, which is sweet and relaxing, even without the alcohol and grab a caprese skewer. The spitzer with the skewer are perfect for enjoying the weather and the company of old and new friends. After chit chatting we are ushered behind closed doors into Off the Wall.
However, this was not the Off the Wall I remembered eating at several weeks ago for dinner. Off-Menu has done it again. They have transformed a tiny space into something else with tricks of lighting and fabric, what was once a local hang out spot for plate lunch, is now a white room with hints of red. It is like an homage to the “Red and White Song Battle” of NHK fame.
Off the Wall: the Food
With the visual feast and set-up presented by Off-Menu, and their guests ushered in this hidden white room, the real fun could begin. Off the Wall presented us with five courses.
First up, was Edamame Hummus with Grilled Flatbread and Tofu Katsu Wrap, served with a Soy Sweet Chili Sauce. This was served family style, which was different from the past two Off-Premise events. It was a nice change and kept well with the Asian theme. I would order this for my attempt at “Meatless Mondays” and is a good lunch snack. However, I would like to see the edamame teased out more. I think they should experiment with different types a flatbreads and see, which would hold the hummus better. The tofu katsu wrap was fun and the crunch was there. I think I would like a more crispy bite. More akin to the rolls you would get at a Vietnamese restaurant. Overall, good warm up and a way for people at the table to get acquainted with each other.
Next up was something that surprised me. It was Korean Salmon Carpaccio. Normally, I do not like salmon. However, this Kalbi Salmon Tataki with Kim Chee Garden Salad took me by surprise. When I think of Korean food I do not think of salmon, nor do I think of a searing on the salmon. I personally think that the kalbi compliments the taste of salmon quite well in the way it was presented. I would probably eat this as a salad for lunch. It is light enough, but has a slight spiciness that I like from the kim chee. So compliments to the chefs, as I appreciate it when someone can get me to eat something I normally do not care for. If you want to see a pictures of the Korean Salmon Carpaccio and other food pics from the event check it out at here.
The third course was different for me than everyone else. As you can already guess it has to do with my shellfish allergy. So I can’t really comment on the “Asian Shrimp and Chips” or Sweet Prawn Kaarage on a Bed of Vegetable Fries. Lucky for me I had the chicken kaarage, “lucky” because I love salt. I love salty and crispy. So this suited me just fine. I thank the chefs for allowing substitution and I recognize their priority is not to wow the solo serving of chicken from the sea of prawns, but to me at the end of the day this was typical chicken kaarage. However, do not take that the wrong way I would probably order it day in and day out at as a plate lunch. I would say it is definitely better than all other places that serve chicken karaage nearby.
Following that was the Braised Shoyu Pork with Okinawan Soba Pasta. This dish is what I was looking forward to and I think it was good, but I think what would have made it for me and other party-goers was if they had not shredded the pork and cubed it. The pork was there, but the consistency of the noodles versus shredded pork had the pork being lost in that texture. Still, I liked the dish and would also order it regularly as a plate of noodles to go.
Even after all that we were given dessert. It was Okinawan Andagi with Azuki Beans and Yuzu Mousse. I enjoyed it. I think it was a little too heavy after four dishes, but I can understand the need to end with something signature Okinawan. I don’t care for azuki beans so I skipped that, but scoped up the Yuzu Mousse. I have to say that the Yuzu could have teased out the citrus flavor more because it was closer to regular whip cream. The green tea powder flaked on the andagi though was a good move and did nice balance of bitter to sweet.
All in all the meal was filling and there are dishes I would eat again. Would I say this was mind-blowing food? I’ll be honest, no, but it did not have to be. To me New Years celebrations are paradoxes. It is a celebration of the new using traditions of the old. We say good-bye to the past, welcome the future, and all doing this with things we are familiar with. However, every year you may celebrate it with a new friend, new location, a new food. This is what we had. I know the chefs used themes and ingredients they are familiar and comfortable with, but tried to make things that would be a welcome addition to your plate lunch or good eats dinner rotation.
Before I close out this post, I would like to say that the restaurant and its staff was very accommodating. Off the Wall’s serving staff waited on us, and not Off-Menu’s. Lastly, they have a good selection of beers and sakes from Japan and Okinawa to match the dishes they have on hand. Moreover, they have good specials on them on certain nights of the week. I highly recommend stopping by Off the Wall whenever you find yourself out in Aiea and Pearl City area.
With that I look forward to a new year of food, friends, and fun.
P.S. Want another take on the event? Read this HGC and awesome Yelper’s write-up here.