6 Rules for Eating Brunch in Honolulu
Why does everyone, except me, love brunch?
In 1895, an Englishman named Guy Beringer published, in a magazine named Hunter’s Weekly, an article entitled, “Brunch: A Plea.”
Fed up with the heavy English Sunday supper, usually eaten right after church, Beringer made a pitch for a lighter meal that kicked off around noon, beginning with breakfast items for late risers.
“Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,” he wrote. “It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”
Beringer’s cheery idea conquered the world. The word for brunch in German is brunch. Even the French—who detest English words creeping into their language—call it brunche.
Everyone loves brunch. Except me.
To me, if you make plans to go out Sunday morning, you’re underestimating the potential of Saturday night. Plus, you don’t have to be Alan Wong to whip up a decent Sunday morning breakfast. Some sautéed spinach, some eggs fried the way the Greeks do, in olive oil scented with herbs, spooning over the hot oil to make sure the whites on top are cooked.
Add toast, bacon, coffee, fruit and you don’t have to get dressed up and go anywhere.
But, apparently, everyone but me actually enjoys getting dressed up and going out to brunch. With Mother’s Day, that national brunch holiday, fast approaching, I thought I’d ask people for their must-go brunches. I was stunned by their enthusiasm.
I went to the three brunches everyone told me I couldn’t resist, and in the process, I came up with my six rules of brunch.
Brunch Rule No. 1: Even if it’s just a meal, brunch is a special occasion.
Not being a brunch fan, I was afraid no one would go with me. But I hardly had to ask. My wife volunteered with suspicious alacrity, though I assumed she was just being kind.
It was the kids who shocked me. I have teenage daughters. Teenagers dislike wasting time on people as dull as their parents. “We’re there,” said the girls, cheerfully. “All three brunches.”
I’d decided to start with Mariposa, which was warmly recommended to me by several women friends. “Everyone’s there on Sunday,” insisted one. “You better make a reservation.”
Besides, I’d discovered that Mariposa had a menu brunch, not a massive buffet. That’s the trend on the Mainland, where it even has a name, Brunch Lite. It sounded like a gentle first step.
There were people waiting for Mariposa to open at 11: a sprinkling of couples and families, many groups of quite dressed-up women. Part of the allure may be that Mariposa is attached to a department store with all of Ala Moana right outside.
Rule No. 2: There are certain advantages to a menu brunch.
Brunch, like lunch, at Mariposa kicks off with many people’s favorite part of the meal, the little white cup of chicken broth and the warm popovers. “All a popover is, is a hollow muffin?” asked my older daughter, but she was mollified when she tasted the sweet pineapple-papaya butter.
Even better, a menu brunch is the right place to eat eggs Benedict. Invented in 1894 by Wall Street broker Lemuel Benedict as a hangover cure, the combination of English muffin, poached eggs, ham and hollandaise has become the brunch classic.
Most brunches offer eggs Benedict, but buffet brunches are at a disadvantage. Poached eggs are delicate, hollandaise sauce is temperature sensitive. Neither fare well in a chafing dish.
If you want eggs Benedict, you’re better off having them cooked specially for you. Mariposa’s include a fine slice of ham, freshly poached eggs with soft yolks, velvety Hollandaise, a sprinkle of paprika for color. They’re runny, rich and gooey. They may not cure a hangover, but they may make life seem worth living.
Eggs Benedict aside, the brunch at Mariposa is actually just lunch at Mariposa. There are only two other breakfast items—and you could tell the kitchen’s heart wasn’t in them. The “Southwestern” omelet had some odd additions, like artichoke hearts. But it was basically a lukewarm omelet distracted by a pineapple salsa. It needs rethinking.
The waffle arrived topped by a pile of whipped cream nearly six inches tall, and garnished, like all the other breakfast plates, with strawberries. My daughter ate all the whipped cream, filching everyone else’s strawberries in the process. She left the waffle, which was undistinguished anyway.
Our second daughter refused to get in the breakfast spirit, insisting on a hamburger. “Teddy’s Bigger Burgers is better,” she opined. I disagreed, since it had decent beef and cheddar, some grilled onions, an herb aioli—although for a $12 burger, it lacked star power.
For those who like vegetables at breakfast—a group of people that may include only me—the lunch menu has various offerings a la carte. The Swiss chard was well cooked, brilliantly green, still firm, with a deft touch of garlic.
There are two final advantages of a menu brunch. It’s cheaper. And while it makes for a leisurely enough breakfast, it’s much faster than multiple trips through a buffet. My wife and the girls announced they were going shopping, and left me to pay the check: $100 with tip.
Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 951-3420, Sunday Brunch/Lunch: 11 a.m.–3 p.m., free parking, major credit cards.
To enter Hoku’s, you have to walk through the brunch buffet, salads and entrees to the left of you, sushi arrayed on the counters to the right, desserts at the end, including a cascading chocolate fountain.
Sheer joy seemed to ripple through our little party. “Dad,” said my elder daughter. “This place kicks Mariposa’s butt.”
Hoku’s brunch is rich in seafood. Our first stop was the silver basins filled with crab claws, lobster, shrimp and oysters.
photo: Ron Yeung
Note that she hadn’t actually eaten anything yet.
Rule No. 3: Brunch is food for the eye.
Realistically, there’s a limit to how much anyone can eat at a single sitting. But a buffet brunch you eat with your eyes.
Just seeing the buffet makes people think: “I can eat everything I want! Some of this, some of that, and oh, I really like that over there. And when I’m done, I’m going to have every single dessert.”
Such joy comes at a price. “You’ve got to try Hoku’s,” said one of my informants. “Brunch there is even more expensive than it is at the Halekulani.” I failed to see why that was a plus.
Yes, brunch at Hoku’s is $55, brunch at Orchids is only $46. However, the price at Hoku’s includes a choice of fresh juices or a mimosa. My wife was about to order juice. “Take the mimosa,” I said, knowing full well she’d pass me hers after one sip.
Rule No. 4: Brunch is the only occasion on which it’s socially acceptable to drink before noon.
Drinking at breakfast usually raises eyebrows. Hardly anyone even drinks at lunch anymore. But brunch? Whoa, bring on the champagne and orange juice.
Thus fortified, we tackled the buffet. First off, the kids dipped fresh fruit skewers into the chocolate fountain. Then they settled down to devouring as many crab legs as they could manage (about three), the shrimp tempura (about two each). To my surprise, they went crazy at the Chinese offerings, the roast duck, the shu mai and lup cheong in steamed buns.
They even ate the wedges of frittata—that great device to clean out whatever vegetables and meats you have in the refrigerator. “This tastes awesome,” said the little one, the ultimate teenage superlative.
My wife, sensible woman, started with salads.
They are noteworthy—a platter of heirloom tomato slices, another of aspa-ragus, complete Caesar salad fixings.
As far as I was concerned, vegetables could wait. I’d spotted the two large silver basins piled with plump New Zealand oysters, mussels, crab claws and lobster.
Hoku’s buffet is not huge, but it’s rich in seafood. In addition to the raw bar, there’s platter after platter of sushi, not maki sushi, which you’d expect, but battalions of little nigiri fingers topped with ‘ahi, hamachi, salmon, unagi and classy little cuts of California roll. I wanted to eat everything. Of course, I scarcely made a dent.
Chefs tend not to like brunch; people are pickier at breakfast than at any other meal. Watching one of my daughters nibble at an omelet, I developed a craving for a sunnyside-up egg. The young cook at the omelet station started the egg in an omelet pan and then, all the while listening politely to my account of how the Greeks fry eggs, finished it under the salamander.
“He put your egg under a lizard?” inquired my children when I retired to the table with my perfect egg and a slice of rare roast beef. A salamander is one of those shallow, extremely hot broilers that restaurants have and you don’t, which is why restaurant dishes are more nicely browned than yours. They’re also perfect to make sure the top of a sunnyside-up egg is actually cooked while the yolk is still soft.
The kids were by then ransacking the dessert table. My older daughter dipped a cookie into the chocolate fountain and, to get a nice two-tone effect, spread the other half with whipped cream. “Great brunch,” she said.
We had to love it, even when, after coffee and some extra juices, it cost us $300 with tip.
The Kahala Hotel & Resort, 5000 Kahala Ave., (808) 739-8780, Sunday Brunch, 10:30 a.m.–2 p.m., validated valet parking, major credit cards.
Orchids is the gold standard for brunch in Honolulu. We did it last instead of first, because I had to wait three weeks for a reservation.
The crowd at brunch is predominantly local, often big parties, celebrating birthday lu‘aus and such. People walk in bearing gifts, balloons and lei. It was a perfect example of Rule No. 1: Brunch is by nature a special occasion.
Rule No. 3 also applied here as well. It may be impossible to describe the extent of the brunch buffet at Orchids without a diagram. The buffet stretches around corners, into alcoves, tables of salads and pokes on ice, silver chafing dishes full of entrées and breakfast goodies, dozens upon dozens of dessert platters. It’s more food than the average apartment in Honolulu could hold.
Rule No. 5: A great brunch tries to have something for absolutely everybody.
Since Orchids attracts so many family groups, there is, in one corner surrounded by stuffed animals: a keiki brunch station. Silver chafing dishes filled with chicken nuggets, fish sticks, mini pancakes, Tater Tots.
Eating with your eyes: The first thing you see at the brunch buffet at Orchids is a triple table of desserts.
photo: Hotels & Resorts of Halekulani
There were a few concessions toward the health of the younger generation—cheese, carrot sticks and grapes. But children aren’t any better behaved than adults. The main attraction was the candy dish.
I watched in fascination as a little girl about 3, dressed in one of those elaborate party dresses you can only get them in when they are too young to resist, used a silver spoon to fill a plate with Gummi Bears, marshmallows, Jelly Bellies, chocolate wafers and M&Ms. All with the same focus and judiciousness I employed picking out the best piece of Norwegian gravlax at the adult buffet and trying to sprinkle it carefully with just the right number of capers.
You need a strategy to cope with that much food. My strategy was protein, a serious run at the poke (‘ahi, nairagi, tako, all with wonderful, crunchy fresh ogo), followed by a visit to the carving station, which boasted a Baron of Kobe beef (which is virtually the entire back haunch of the cow). I skipped the turkey, but had at the whole suckling pig, complete with crackling.
While I tried and failed to get a single fried egg (the omelet chef left it runny on top), my wife made a fairly sensible journey from salads to entrées to the Halekulani coconut cake. “It’s our third brunch in a row. You learn not to eat everything,” she said.
But my elder daughter went from some kind of raspberry mousse in a chocolate cup to bacon to pancakes to roast beef to oversize chocolate strawberries. “I have a strategy, too,” she insisted. “Sweet-salty-sweet. I learned that from years of eating junk food.”
As I watched her eat sweets, the obvious, overarching principle of brunch finally dawned on me.
Brunch Rule No. 6: It’s about dessert, stupid.
When I collected recommendations about where to eat brunch, people would wax rhapsodic about the desserts.
It’s a triple table with a dozen cakes, a dozen pies, French pastries, liliko‘i cheesecake, raspberry charlotte, chocolate mousse, haupia, fresh fruits and, just so Mariposa doesn’t get a swelled head, popovers with poh-a-berry jam.
The dessert table dominates the main room.
I could walk past it without flinching. But at an entirely separate station decorated with flowers, I discovered housemade ice creams and everything in the world to put on them.
I was torn. There were fresh blackberries, raspberries, blueberries—which would be best on vanilla. But what about the Kona coffee ice cream? Wouldn’t that be better with caramel sauce and chocolate shavings?
Apparently, I was thinking out loud. The young woman behind the ice cream counter said gently, “Sir, we have lots of bowls. And plenty of ice cream.”
So I got both.
Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road, (808) 923-2311, Sunday Brunch 9:30 a.m.–2 p.m., free validated parking, major credit cards.