If you took the advice from Nick Johnson to arrive early at Hakanai, a Japanese pop-up restaurant in Durham, you were rewarded with a view from the mezzanine overlooking The Front Room. Adorned by a cluster of red Japanese lanterns, the airy space, which is part of The Cookery on West Chapel Hill Street, was decorated with an enormous black origami crane affixed to a brick wall. Perched above the diners, it looked as if it might swoop down and pluck tempura off the plates.
Johnson and his wife, Rochelle, claim to have offered the first pop-up restaurant in the Southeast. Open for just three days last weekend, Hakanai was the brainchild of the Johnsons and the Cotters, the couple behind downtown hotspot Toast Paninoteca.
When tickets went on sale two months ago, Hakanai sold out in 15 minutes—300 seats at $55 a pop—but not before crashing the website's server. Did it live up to the hype? Yes.
Chef Billy Cotter prepared the five-course Japanese feast, though he did not claim, nor try, to be strictly Japanese. The raw oyster with lardo and crackling pig ear appetizers demonstrated the local twists to the menu. Nearly every aspect of Hakanai was exceptional. Aside from one dish with rather tepid broth—which spoke more about the challenge a pop-up faces in working out the kinks of service than it did about flavor—and my first run-in with gizzards, the meal was seamless.
On the mezzanine, early arrivals nibbled on popcorn seasoned with nori as they sipped on an aperitif. I went with the Japanese Cocktail ($12), which was so strong it about knocked me down the stairs. (A bit more orange would have been nice.) The popcorn was just salty and fishy enough to prime me for what I already knew I loved about Japanese food: the fifth taste, umami, a dance between sweet and savory.
I had two dining companions at a communal table, a colleague and a stranger named Tom, who was a friend of the Cotters. In addition to being lovely company, Tom knew the Cotters well enough to offer a few insights to the meal, such as the pine snow that adorned the tempura maitake mushroom in the exotic hassun—a sampling of appetizers. The pine snow resembled feta crumbles but was made from copious amounts of pine needles that Cotter had boiled down. I felt a bit guilty for not appreciating the taste, for the mushroom sang above all else.
Only once did I pause, mid-chew, wondering if I had eaten something that wasn't designed for ingestion. In the deconstructed chicken skewer, "head-to-tail chicken yakitori," I ate what was my first, and might be my last, gizzard. Although flavorful, the texture was like cartilage; nonetheless, I appreciated the exposure. I also ate my first chicken foot; I will be quite sad if it is my last. And I might never want to eat oysters again without a thin layer of lardo, or fatback.
In the soup course, the tempura soaked up the house-smoked bonito (fish) broth, though mine was tepid. Still, the temperature did not hinder the flavor, and the handmade soba were perhaps the lightest noodle I've ever eaten.
The sashimi, certainly the star of the dinner, featured kombu-cured hamachi, a fish native to the Pacific Ocean, with ponzu "roe" (it was tapioca beads, not fish eggs, in a citrus-based sauce) and fresh yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit.
The fish was firm, with what I thought initially to be a meager amount of the congealed ponzu beads. However, it turned out to be the perfect balance: the ponzu flavored the cured fish with bursts of orange citrus, and the scattering of smoked salt flakes acted as a soy sauce.
Perhaps the least exciting element to the dinner, the yakimono featured a grilled mackerel seasoned with ginger, scallion and Meyer lemon. It was not so much that it tasted poorly as that it paled in comparison to the rest of the meal. (I was told others thought it was among the best mackerel they had ever tasted.)
The main course, nimono, was a duck hotpot. After soaking in the steaming broth, the meatballs, at first bland, became as rich as the rest of the course. The watercress nicely cut through the gaminess of the sliced seven-spiced duck, another highlight to the meal as it poached in the liquid.
A surprising delight was the palate cleanser, tsukemono to gohan. A miso-pickled cucumber, pickled hakurei turnip and grilled sushi cake. I never would have thought the taste of charred rice would be so refreshing.
Dessert arrived: The okashi came with white chocolate- and clementine-stuffed mochi, clementine-sesame brittle ice cream from The Parlour, and a pomegranate compote. The dense, chewy sweetness of the mochi was a perfect way to end a multicourse meal that was nonetheless light and delicate.
The presentation was carefully curated, from the scrap of Japanese newspaper used to hold the crispy pig ear, to the bill folded and closed with a small red sticker atop a mini bamboo bed.
With a 6:15 p.m. reservation I was home by 9, but diners were still nursing drinks after midnight. They felt compelled, despite the late hour, to give Cotter and his staff a standing ovation.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A delicious weekend."