The Willow Tree Restaurant:
Korean Cuisine In Kailua

By: Kevin McQuarrie
Oahu Island News

I am the first to admit that I know very little about Korean cuisine, so before I hit the Willow Tree Restaurant, located in Kailua, I knew I needed to do a little research. I learned that Korean cooking reflects the history of the country, combining flavors and techniques from both peasant diets and food that would be served in a royal palace.

Seafood, pickles and rice are staples, just as in Japanese cuisine, and food is flavored with combinations of garlic, ginger, rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce or a base of fermented soybeans. Armed with this knowledge, I confidently met friends out for dinner at Willow Tree.

We found the décor to be rather austere; the lights are too bright and it looks and feels like a diner. Another downside is that the owners don’t have a liquor license, so our dreams of savoring a beer were immediately dashed and we had to make do with Pepsi. But the service was efficient and very friendly. Opening the menu, we all ordered from the “general dishes” side.

Small silver dishes arrived first: turnip soup. It looked extremely plain, a clear broth with a few slices of turnip bobbing about. Yet the soup was surprisingly well-seasoned and very satisfying. Next came tiny bowls of kimchi (spiced cabbage), spicy tofu and seasoned, cubed potatoes, for communal nibbling. Korean food is known for being spicy; cooks have had a 500-year love affair with the chili, which was introduced to the area by the Portuguese. The kimchi and potatoes here were pleasantly spicy, but not aggressively so. It seemed a happy medium for those who don’t love hot flavors and those of us who need the heat.

I had ordered the fish juhn mahi mahi ($8.45), thin slices of fish coated with an egg batter. It was good, but I would have liked a little more color on the plate to balance the mound of pale-yellow fish. My friend tried the Willow Tree Special ($12.95), which is a mixed offering of fish juhn, fried, spicy chicken wings, kalbee (barbecued short ribs), barbecue chicken and fried mandoo (dumplings). His dish seemed more interesting and was a great combination of flavors and textures. We also sampled the boolkokee, which is a barbecued beef.

Soup dishes are available, too, including a mochi (rice cake) soup with beef and egg or several varieties of mandoo soup. Another option is noodles, such as shrimp tempura udon or bibim kook soo (cold noodles with seasoned vegetables and beef). Vegetarians would be a little challenged, but could probably get by on tofu and squash juhn.

The restaurant serves plate lunches from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Priced at $5.95 to $7.25, those seem like a good value, as the meals are served with rice, soup, kimchi and vegetables as well as a meat serving such as shoyu chicken, meat juhn or barbecued short ribs.

I wanted to like the Willow Tree, really I did. But the whole experience seemed lackluster. The food and décor both need a shot in the arm, a dose of inspiration. But hey, at least there’s room to grow.

The Willow Tree
Aikahi Park Shopping Center
25 Kaneohe Bay Drive
Phone: 254-1139