There’s a plate of raw fish and greens on the sushi bar in front of me. “I opened up this restaurant just so I could eat this salad,” Moon Greene tells me. The stack of perfectly seared ahi slices are gorgeously arranged over organic leafy veggies, avocado, shrimp, sunflower seeds. It’s topped with what Greene calls “Hiro’s miso magic,” a dressing so divine you might open a restaurant just so you could eat it, too.
Greene’s passion for food and style didn’t happen overnight. In fact, you’ve probably tasted her food before. Along with Yuri Soledade, Greene co-owns Paia Fish Market, the North Shore’s iconic corner restaurant with its Best of Maui award-winning fish burgers, tacos, chowder, fish and chips and all things seafood. When I asked what made her want to open another restaurant, she said, “I wanted a spot so I could work with Hiro. I love his food.”
Hiro is Hiro Takanashi, Nuka’s master sushi chef. He’s been making sushi for over 30 years on Maui and his dedication to the art is apparent in Nuka’s lineup of specialty rolls and pupu plates, where they serve sushi and Japanese food izakaya style.
The closest translation to izakaya food in English is pub fare, but the description doesn’t do the food justice. If you’re not in the mood for extravagant specialty rolls, they have an amazing selection of nigiri sushi, sashimi and simple rolls like Spicy Tuna and California, and for a buck you can swap nori for soy paper. Salads, Udon and soup and Ostumami plates are also available. The latter are little plates that you can share or devour all on your own, like tempura, Karaage, Poke and Miso Butterfish.
Then there are the bowls, the Nuka or Donburi, which serve a selection of proteins and veggies over Nuka rice. The Nuka bowl is reminiscent of Vietnamese and Korean one-bowl rice dishes that include bean sprouts, cucumber, onion, cabbage, basil, mint, peanuts and either tofu, chicken or salmon, all lined up in neat rows with a sesame dressing on the side. Greene says Nuka sources lots of veggies locally, some from co-owner DeWitt Lickle’s gardens as well.
“Yes, his fish and farmed vegetables supplement the restaurant,” says Greene. “We do not have a full scale operation to supply the amount of food we need. Things that are locally grown on the menu are eggplant, daikon, snap peas, salad greens, shiso leaf, corn and whatever else happens to be in season.”
As for Hiro, like most sushi chefs I’ve met, he didn’t want to discuss his career, preferring to let his food do the talking. The Haleakala Roll, Lollipop Roll and Nuka Roll spoke volumes about his control over flavors and fresh fish combinations. In the Nuka Roll, raw ahi and snapper intersect with cukes, avo, shiso leaf with spry jalapeno and tangy ponzu. You can set your chopsticks aside with the Lollipop Roll, where slim layers of cucumber and fish mold sushi pops together over Nuka’s own house-milled rice. Each slice of the roll comes pre-poked with a pick up stick. And the Haleakala Roll? That’s a rich mash-up of a baked Dynamite Roll and California Roll with salmon and bonito.
Greene says she found the perfect spot for Nuka after she eyeballed the old Haiku car parts store. She teamed up with Lickle and Soledade to create a vision for sushi in Haiku, complete with an exhibition kitchen where you can marvel at the action behind what appears on your plate.The Gyotaku art on the walls belongs to Lickle.
The name “Nuka” means rice bran, which is fitting for the restaurant that carefully sources their own brown rice and then mills it in-house. They also utilize that bran to create their own pickled veggies, a Japanese dish called Nuka Zuke.
At one point, Chef Gabriel Begin showed me some of the Takuan root pickled in the process of making Nuka Zuke. Begin learned to pickle in Japan and brings plenty of experience in Japanese cuisine as well as the ability to speak fluent Japanese. His kitchen is equipped with a special fryer imported from Japan so your Tempura, Karate and Agedashi come out light and crisp.
Nuka uses rice bran oil, which is as healthy as you can get away with when frying foods. The fried Gobo chips are the perfect starter–shaved gobo root fluffs and curls, but they melt in your mouth. Gobo is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking and is packed with vitamins and minerals. The Miso Butterfish is incredible, too: sweet miso-infused and broiled cod that’s tender and irresistible. The list of delicious Otsumami extends over a whole page of their menu–too many to fit into one meal–so I will have to come back to sample through all.
The dining room is small, containing just 10 tables, but the sushi bar can hold 12. The cement sushi bar and polished aluminum lighting chairs give the room a modern industrial feel that’s softened by bamboo, a slatted wood ceiling and a wall of seating cushions.
The bar keeps a tight selection of Sake, Shochu, wine and beer to accompany your izakaya fare. They also have a list of martinis that can be made with sake as well. The cucumber ginger mint martini with a sugar rim was fantastic–dry with plenty of zing from the ginger. I’m also partial to Hitachino beer but they also serve Kirin, Sapporo and Tsing Tao.
Nuka is serving just dinner for now, but Greene says that they plan to create a lunch deli, too. It’s already gaining a popular following, with tourists, locals on date night and groups of dinner-goers packing the place on the weeknight I visited. Join them for dinner Tuesday thru Sunday, 4:30-10pm. Starting in July, they will be open seven days a week.
780 Haiku Road
All Images by Sean Hower – howerphoto.com