When one drives into Hanapepe, it’s pretty dark and quiet most nights. The majority of stores and restaurants are closed. The streets are free of traffic. People are scarce.
Until you loop through the town on Hanapepe Road. There, on the right, one storefront is bright. There are lights and there are people inside and cars parked outside.
It is Japanese Grandma’s Cafe.
On this Sunday night, owner Keiko Napier greets guests with a warm, friendly smile. Customers at tables are engrossed in their authentic Japanese cuisine and conversation. Many come for the sushi, perhaps the most popular item on the dine in/take out menu.
Master Sushi Chef, Shinji Ueki, and Executive Chef, Tom Falchini, are behind the counter, skillfully slicing sashimi with insanely fast movements and still managing to talk story with enthralled customers. Artwork decorates the white walls.
Napier and staff keep close tabs on guests there for a Japanese Kaiseki Dinner ($75), that features seven offerings, served one after the other, not too quickly, not too slowly. Just right.
There’s the Maguro Yamakake, which is ahi tuna, served raw, and yamaimo or East Asian mountain yam. It is followed by Chawanmushi, described as traditional savory hot custard with shrimp, chicken and vegetables. Next comes Sake Miso Yaki, (broiled salmon with miso glaze); Ebi Kakiyage (shrimp tempura and vegetables); Tako Sunomono (cooked octopus served with cucumber salad, lightly dressed in a Japanese vinaigrette); Unagi Roll with Dashiki Tomago (broiled eel served with a Japanese egg omelette); Goma Tofu (homemade sesame seed based tofu) and rice, miso and pickled vegetables.
The food, fresh and crisp and neatly arranged, is perfectly prepared. The service is just as good. While prices might seem a bit high, remember, this is no ordinary dinner. It is Japanese cuisine at its finest. It’s more than about food. It’s an experience. And Kaiseki Dinner is only offered a few times a month with two sittings each night. Reservations are required.
Since opening Japanese Grandpa’s Cafe and the retail store Blue Umi under one roof after an extensive remodel of the 1926 USO Club building at 3871 Hanpepe Road, Napier has been steadily building a strong, loyal following. She makes the rounds during dinner, chatting with customers and checking to be sure everyone is happy.
Everyone usually is.
“It’s becoming a destination dining place,” Napier said, taking a brief break on a busy night.
Operating a restaurant has its challenges, but Napier loves the creative dishes from Ueki and Falchini and bringing this line of food to Kauai.
“I just feel that the island needed a great Japanese restaurant,” she said.
Dinner sets range from Kurobuta Pork Tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlet, shredded cabbage and seasonal veggies, $30), Unaju (broiled eel with rice and eel sauce, $36) and Beef Ribeye ($39).
Lunch includes Shrimp Tempura Bowl ($17), Organic Tofu Bowl ($11) and Pan Seared Organic Chicken Bowl.
Locals love it, too, many for that sushi mentioned earlier, with sets starting at $39.
While there are early bird prices, this is not the best place if you’re after cheap, fast food. It is a wonderful place if you are willing to pay for unique, delicious Japanese cuisine and professional service.
Napier and her chefs have big plans for Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14. The five-course meal, $75, will feature White Fish Carpaccio (seasonal white fish, ponzu, yuzu kosho, lobster Won Tons in porcini cream sauce); Braised Pork Belly and Roasted Pork Loin; Zuke Bowl (ahi tuna, sushi rice, ginger, wasabi) and Green Tea Panna Cotta.
It’s all served in a cozy, comfortable setting where smiles and laughter and delighted guests are the norm — which is just what Napier, born in Tokyo and raised in California, hoped when she pursued her lifelong dream to open a restaurant in honor of her father, a master Japanese chef who owned a Japanese restaurant.
She visited Kauai for the first time in about 20 years in 2015. Shortly afterward, when she became aware the building in Hanapepe was for sale, she didn’t hesitate to make the deal to buy it. It’s an investment she believes in.
“I’m happy we did it. It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” she said.
Japanese Grandma’s Cafe is open daily for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner is served 5:30 to 9 Thursday to Monday.
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