Gochi Grill gives new life to the bento

Chef Iha’s proudest dish is his salmon with a ginger mushroom sauce – Courtesy of Storm Cruz

Gochisosama” is a Japanese term said after a meal that refers to giving appreciation. It’s equivalent to “that was delicious!” This idea is at the heart of Chef John Iha’s Gochi Grill.

Officially opened this summer and located in downtown Honolulu, Iha’s Gochi Grill serves upscale bentos to the masses.

The core of the menu is relatively small with local plate lunch staples like chicken katsu and kalbi. However, while the dishes can be found at other takeout places, Gochi Grill’s have the perfect amounts of fine-dining twisted in.

For instance, its chicken katsu is brined ahead of time to pack in flavor and somehow manages to keep its delicate crispiness long after purchasing it. A tuna melt is made from a fresh broken down ahi and served with a lemon aioli. The restaurant even offers a seared meatloaf, topped with truffled mushroom and onions and completed with sides of rice and macaroni salad.

“The dish I’m proudest of must be the salmon dish,” Iha said, referring to his seared salmon dish with a fish and ginger mushroom sauce. “Its sauce is simple, yet complex and delicious.”

After locking down the basic foundations of the menu, Iha enjoys experimenting in creating his daily specials. These often seem to be out-of-the-box ideas compared to the staples, adding a playful flare to the menu.

He recently debuted his own take on a familiar side dish with “No lie French fry:” French fries covered in gravy with bacon and truffle oil and topped with two sunny side up eggs.

The restaurant also has a refrigerator up front solely for salads, cold soba noodle takeouts and single-serving portion cups of blueberry panna cotta, a dessert typically reserved for dine-in restaurants.

When sourcing ingredients, Iha prefers to work with local vendors as much as possible. However, being a small venue where every dollar counts, he also uses produce and proteins from the mainland.

Iha was formerly the executive chef at Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas and also worked within the Sansei and D.K. Restaurants group. Alongside Iha is sous chef Sean Uehara, formerly of Vino in Honolulu and Over Easy in Kailua. Together, they serve what they like to call “elevated plate lunches at reasonable prices.”

“The concept came from years of busting my butt for others, and I finally decided to put together something small and manageable for myself,” Iha said.

A few refrigerators, a countertop cash register and a board for the specials make up the front space of Gochi Grill. It’s clean and simply styled, with a comfortable vibe.

After looking up at the menu and specials, it’s easy to tell Iha and Uehara are fully focused on their dishes, saving the ambience for local artists they have invited to come in to slowly start decorating the walls and trimmings with their artwork.

Practically in the center of downtown inside the Remington College building on Bishop Street, Gochi Grill’s clientele are primarily within walking distance.

“The majority of our customers are office people along with people who live in the high rises nearby, which were more than we had thought,” Iha said.

“The location is amazing, almost as if we are in the food court of a shopping mall,” Uehara added. “When it’s busy, it can get crazy. The foot traffic from all the businesses during the lunch rush hour is great for our business.”

Instagram has also been an effective way for the chef duo to connect with people about their food, while also sharing the lighter sides of their personalities.

Pictures of their daily specials are often combined with hilarious food pun captions curated by Iha himself. For example, a recent picture of a chicken katsu donburi rice bowl had the caption, “Try our don-worry-be-happy special!”

With more than 1,000 followers, the chefs post every day with new pictures of their food or restaurant.

“Social media has been huge especially when it came to the food writers blowing us up,” Iha said. “It had an overly positive impact.”

Gochi Grill’s bentos are unfortunately only available during a short lunch window. Normal hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. But with a Yelp rating of 4.5 out of 5, they sometimes close earlier as they regularly sell out of many of their main dishes.

With word of mouth spreading and the tantalizing menu options, it’s hard to choose just one plate to order.

“I hope people walk away thinking what else should I order next time,” Iha said.


by Storm Cruz, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter