The secret is out about Koiso. After several years of singing Sushi Master Hiro-san’s praises we find we can’t get in if we just show up. We have to call and make reservations. That’s OK with us — he’s worth the extra planning, and we can’t begrudge sushi lovers such an excellent experience, or Hirosan the business. Hiro-san’s domain is in the back of Dolphin Plaza in Kihei, and frankly, it’s tiny and doesn’t look very inviting from the outside. The two glass walls are plastered with posters, a crowded bulletin board features hundreds of snapshots of his loved ones, and the back wall is littered with various hand lettered signs detailing the day’s fish. There are maybe a dozen seats at his L-shaped sushi bar and one table for four. He doesn’t like to seat regulars at the table, perhaps because he knows that watching him work is part of what makes this place magical. Yes, we said magical. If you’ve seen a Harry Potter movie, you’ll recognize the phenomena we encounter at Koiso.
Despite the fact it’s like he opened his restaurant in his living room, once we sit and look over the fresh fish, something shifts. Just as the brick wall in the train station disappears when a wizard runs into it, when we sit and ask Hiro-san to feed us, the brick wall of everyday life — all the problems, worries, and stress — drops away and reveals a magical place where time seems to stand still and even the most independent-minded diners can’t help but smile at each other and strike up a conversation. It’s the impeccably fresh fish, of course. Some is local, and some is from Japan — the fishermen call him in the wee hours to let him know what they’ve got. If he likes the sound of it, they put it on a plane and it arrives on Maui in time for him to pick it up at the airport, tote it back to Kihei and prepare it for that evening. With fish this delicious, you cannot help but revel — and since everyone else is reveling, you have instant friends on either side. The magic isn’t all in the fish — some of it comes from Hiro-San himself. Watch him as he prepares your meal, and you will see him moving his entire body as he works.
All movements come from his abdomen, not his shoulders. He is anchored to the floor, but light on his feet. Every movement is precise, and every movement counts. His long knife flashes as he slices and flips and scoops — we can’t always follow the blade as it blurs with speed. Watching Hiro-san is an education in what it means to be a Sushi Master (which he is). Dedicating yourself to making sushi is an act of love, and we’ve seen his face dissolve into concentration, relaxation, and peace. We like to sit down and ask Hiro-san to feed us. He picks the best of what he has and prepares a lovely plate. This is not the place for fancy rolls; this is straight up classic sushi. If the Molokai shrimp is fresh, we order a pair of those plump shellfish, and he bakes the heads until they’re crisp and crunchy between our teeth. The baby abalone grown on the Big Island is tender, served sliced in its own shell with a shiso leaf and kalamansi lime. The miso soup is hearty from the earthy mushrooms that fill the bowl, yet still light and clear in the broth. Sake and beer are both available and the waitress keeps the water glasses filled and the drinks coming.
This is not a restaurant for big parties or sushi newbies — if you need beginner chopsticks you’re probably better off at Sansei — but if you have respect and admiration for sushi and want to spend an hour with a Master, call Koiso and see if they’ll take your reservation.
Keep in mind that this is a tiny place, and deeply personal. Hiro-san likes to populate it with people who really appreciate his food. If you suspect you are getting the cold shoulder, and you really want to visit, we suggest showing up a little later in the evening — maybe around 8pm — and quietly stepping just inside the door. Wait for him to acknowledge you and then bow a little and hold up your fingers with the number of people who would like to eat. If he likes the look of you — if you look respectful and knowledgeable he’ll either remove one of the “reserved” signs from in front of an empty chair or tell you about how long the wait will be.
And no matter how long that wait is, once you get your sake, listen to a few minutes of the music (usually a female vocalist singing “The Girl from Ipanema”), and start watching Hiro-san work, your own brick wall will fall, and you will join us and all of Hiro-san’s other fans in joyful communion.
Address: 2395 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, South Maui
Location: Dolphin Plaza across from Kamaole Beach Park I
Hours: M-Sa 6pm-10:30pm