While I didn’t travel much last year nor dine out much, I enjoyed a surprising amount of great eats. So, I wanted to take some time to go over my best bites of 2023.
Yeah, I know. I’m late with this post. But at least I’m getting this published in the first week of the year! That said, unlike last year, I’m not going to rank any of my favorite bites. Instead, I’ll present them in alphabetical order according to the restaurant’s name. Further, I selected only nine bites this year.
Best Bites of 2023
You’re going to see a theme in my best bites of 2023 post – sushi. That’s because most of the places I ended up dining at this year were sushi spots. But not everything will be sushi, while all of the featured sushi spots aren’t quite “normal.”
Though they’re temporarily closed at the moment, Agaru – a Japanese concept by Chris Kajioka with Daysen of Foodxjitsu running the sushi program – made big waves in Hawaii’s food scene last year. Naturally, the team there didn’t disappoint.
Any time Kajioka does anything with cabbage, it’s magical. In this case, it was charred cabbage with shio kombu and salsa verde. The simple look of this dish belies its complexity. Sweet-savory notes of the charred cabbage are enhanced by a punch of umami and nutty brown butter. Miraculously, the dish remains light despite the prominence of the brown butter.
Also from Agaru is the 6-piece Omakase set. Though presented in a different setting, Daysen’s hallmark style shines through with this set, which included pieces like Toro with shoyu garlic and chives, Hotate with lime, and Sake with tomatoes and Ikura.
For the latest Agaru news, follow them on Instagram.
Kilani Bakery (Oahu)
Next up on my list of best bites of 2023 is Kilani Bakery. The decades-old neighborhood bakery in Wahiwa is a perennial favorite of mine. But last year, they served up something new (at least to me) – brownie bombs. Here, they take their signature brownies, cut them into chunks, and top them with their decadent chantilly frosting. So good!
For the latest bakery news, follow them on Instagram.
Kusano Sushi (Big Island)
Much like Daysen’s Foodxjitsu, Kusano Sushi is a to-go omakase experience, which Bryan runs out of his home. And as is the case with Daysen’s sushi, Bryan’s is among the best quality you’ll have anywhere. But as I stated in my review, the two Hilo boys have vastly different styles. Both are equally good in my eyes, and I couldn’t choose one over the other. I’d definitely return to both without a second thought!
Na’au Hilo (Big Island)
Long-time readers are probably getting tired of me gushing over Na’au Hilo. But… too bad! They’re being featured on my best bites of 2023 post because I got to dine with them last year and because Chef Hirata blew my mind. Again.
First up, I want to talk about Chef’s congee. I love any flavorful rice porridge, but this version punches things up to new levels with its heavy use of dried seafood, ginger-scallion relish, and that incredible hunk of Gindai on top.
Next up from Na’au Hilo is the “Local Pork.” Crispy on the outside, melty on the inside, and perfectly seasoned, the luxuriousness of the pork was enhanced by the sunnyside-up quail egg. Creamy yet toothsome mung beans, with crispy garlic chips and shallot strips, along with a dusting of herbaceous malunggay (moringa) powder, helped to balance the richness of the meat and egg. So good!
The final dish from Na’au Hilo is the Local Mushrooms. I actually had a hard time deciding between this and the Poha cake & ice cream Chef Brian served up for dessert, but the subtle complexity on display here pushed it ahead. These gloriously caramelized, meaty mushrooms came in a perfectly seasoned butter sauce spiked with thyme. But what really pushed them over the edge was the wonderfully tart local sourdough, and the deep umami butter chef makes with homemade mushroom powder. This combo helps to provide balance while also intensifying the flavors of the dish.
Obake Honolulu (Oahu)
Another new kid on the block I got to check out last year was Obake Honolulu. As far as I know, this was Honolulu’s first sushi roll bar. At first glance, one might not think of mere sushi rolls as being one of my best bites of 2023. But Chef Grace does an excellent job of taking familiar flavors and transforming them into new experiences.
I especially loved the Ho, Hayn!, which is Chef’s take on poke. Here, she takes buttery, dried-aged Kona Kampachi and tosses it with ogo, negi, Kukui Nut, and sesame. On its own, this is one of the best pokes I’ve ever had. But served with sushi rice and a side of Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water? It’s sublime.
However, it wasn’t just the sushi that got me at Obake Honolulu. Their collab dessert with Double Fat Ice Cream – an ice cream sandwich made with black sesame cookies and Double Fat’s furikake ice cream – is to die for. Earthy, sweet-salty, umami-filled, I could eat this every day!
For the latest Obake news, follow them on Instagram.
Best Sips of 2023
While my best bites of 2023 post is food-focused, I wanted to recognize some incredible drinks I had this past year.
Down the street from Kilani Bakery is the Hawaiian Vinegary Company. As their name suggests, they do make vinegar. However, the start attraction here is their shrubs. My personal favorite is the tangerine turmeric, though I haven’t been able to get my hands on any more. It’s so refreshing and flavorful!
For the latest Hawaiian Vinegar news, follow them on Instagram.
Obake Honolulu isn’t just a sushi bar – they’re a traditional bar, too. Gabe, a holdover from HeiHo House, runs the bar program at Obake and does an incredible job crafting refreshing, flavorful drinks that play well with the delicate sushi rolls. If you aren’t hungry, the drinks are reason alone to pay them a visit. My personal favorite is the Twelve Levels – Suntory Toki Whisky, Palm Sugar, Yuzu, Soda, Orange Blossom Water, Purple Shiso, and Preserved Yuzu Peel.
Best Bites of 2023, Final Thoughts
Even with my limited travel and dining last year, I got to experience many great eats. I’ve covered most of these already, though I still have a couple more 2023 reviews in the works. Unfortunately, none of them made the list, but that’s not to say they were bad. In fact, there were a lot of dishes that I loved that didn’t make the list. As always, this list serves to highlight my most memorable bites, so not everything I love ends up on it.
That said, what were your best bites of 2023?