Eat Here Now: Six New Restaurants in Honolulu

Hawaii is a great place to eat, and it seems to get better all the time. Here are six of our favorite new eateries that have opened in the past year.


Published:


Amasia's interior conjures up a Kyoto teahouse.

photos: courtesy grand wailea

It is a thrilling time to dine out in Hawaii. Eating spaces have gotten more casual—hell, some of them aren’t even permanent or fixed, as in the case of pop-ups and food trucks—as fanaticism over ingredients has replaced table linens and formal service. Everything we eat and drink these days has gotten better: coffee is brewed to order at new cafés such as Morning Glass and Beach Bum Café, gastropubs such as Real and Pint + Jigger serve craft beer from Hawai‘i and around the world, and, while local meats and produce used to be the provenance of high end restaurants such as Alan Wong’s and Roy’s, they are now also being served by prepared food vendors (i.e. The Pig and the Lady) at the farmers’ markets.

Here is a look at some of the most interesting and appetizing restaurants that opened in the past year.
 

Amasia

In the Grand Wailea, 3850 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea, Maui, (808) 891-3954,
wailearesortdining.com/alan-wongs-amasia.


Amasia's Kona kampachi tiradito with lilikoi.

Thirteen years ago, Alan Wong opened The Pineapple Room with a three-page pupu menu. This was before Jose Andrés popularized small-plate dining in the United States, before tapas popped up on every menu, even before izakayas became mainstream.

It lasted three months. People thought the portions were too small, they didn’t understand that plates were meant to be shared and “people were looking for the entrée,” Wong says.

Now, Wong’s revitalizing his old concept with Amasia at the Grand Wailea, offering a menu of 65 small plates and larger ones meant to be shared family-style. Dishes come from the raw bar, sushi bar, robata grill and main kitchen. There are Alan Wong classics, like a whole tomato salad with li hing dressing and soy-braised short ribs with ko choo jang sauce. Wong and his kitchen crew change the menu frequently, but new dishes have included a grilled Greek-inspired sausage on cardamom yogurt, topped with pickled fennel, and even some plates with “Spong,” a housemade Spam (the word itself is a mash-up of Spam and Wong).

Sushi chef Jeff Ramsey, who had a stint at Jose Andrés’ Minibar in Washington, D.C., has come up with some inventive sushi rolls, like the “lū‘au,” with grilled ika, a coconut-milk lū‘au sauce, and a cube of pressed l‘ūau leaf. Of the larger, family-style plates, there’s a whole chili-garlic Dungeness crab. The beauty of Amasia’s menu is that you get the whole spectrum of Wong’s cuisine, from the more local-style comfort food of The Pineapple Room, like a kimchee fried rice, to the rarefied dishes of Wong’s flagship restaurant, such as the “soup and sandwich,” a chilled tomato soup and a grilled cheese, kālua pig and foie gras sandwich. You can have it all at Amasia. You just have to share.
 

Cactus

767 Kailua Road, Kailua, 261-1000, cactusbistro.com.

Cactus collects the flavors of Latin and Caribbean cuisines and, like a spice trader at a market, lures you in with bright tastes and smells. There are wild boar picadillo empañadas, cumin-scented ground meat folded into corn tortillas and deep-fried; Argentine fry bread, rounds of fried dough somewhere between a biscuit and a doughnut, accompanied by a pineapple and chile jelly. These are from the small-plates section of the menu, a nod to current trends, perhaps. Mostly, though, the menu is dedicated to generous-size entrées, like a big hunk of pork shoulder roasted and sauced with tamarind and fresh mango. Pork and clams go together like beer and fries, and there’s all of that in the fideos, similar to a loose risotto, but made with vermicelli noodles. Here, they’re in a rich broth of Dos Equis lager, lemon and chile. The aforementioned pork and fries? They’re crisp, airy chicharrones, or fried pork skins.

John Memering, the chef of Cactus, spent six years helming the kitchen at Kalapawai Café before he moved right across the street to open his own place. (“That was incidental,” Memering says. “They have sore feelings about that.”) He’s brought with him the same style of comfort food—nothing too crazy or unusual, hearty portions—but instead of the pan-European fare at Kalapawai, he’s punching it up with chiles and spices from other tropical climes. It’s food that belongs here, according to Memering, with “the brightness of lime and mango and pineapple and coconut and chiles.”

Click here to watch our web exclusive video featuring Prima and The Whole Ox Deli.

 

 

Omakase at Kona Kai might include tai with rainbow trout caviar and lightly torched bluefin tuna.

photo: martha cheng

Kona Kai

2535 Coyne St., 594-7687.

Toward the end of the night at Kona Kai, the server sits down at the sushi bar and the chef asks what she wants to eat. “Fish,” she says. The chef makes her a special chirashi. “They pay me in fish,” she says. “The money is just bonus.”

She could hardly have picked a better place to work—not many have as wide a variety of fish as Kona Kai. James Matsukawa, the sushi chef, carries four types of tuna (Spanish bluefin, yellowfin, big eye and albacore), two types of ika, or squid (broad fin and spear), two different live shrimp (Santa Barbara spot prawn and New Caledonia blue shrimp), and many more, including fresh Hokkaido tako. When Matsukawa first brought in the tako, he hoped to serve it live, squirming tentacles and all, as is done in Japan, but his shipment came with a letter from the FDA warning against the practice. So now he cooks it and massages it for 45 minutes with daikon. (One suspects the tako of having forged this FDA letter.)

Kona Kai is for “people who want serious sushi,” Matsukawa says. But he named his restaurant Kona Kai instead of something like Matsukawa-Tei to appeal to locals instead of Japanese. “There are lots of Japanese sushi bars with Japanese sushi chefs,” he says. “They mostly tend to cater to the Japanese customers because they’re more educated about sushi. This is a place for local people who have more of an advanced sushi palate.”

The details: Matsukawa washes the ikura several times to take out some of the saltiness, then marinates it in dashi—when presented, instead of clumping together as a sticky mass, each orb glistens like a jewel. Translucent slices of tai (snapper) are topped with rainbow trout caviar, yellowfin ahi is brushed with a reduced mix of temari shoyu (the shoyu equivalent of extra virgin olive oil) and mirin. The shoyu at the table isn’t just shoyu—it’s cut with dashi so it doesn’t overwhelm delicate fish. The wasabi is fresh, of course.

Matsukawa is 30 and has worked at Japanese restaurants all over town—Tokkuri Tei, Sasabune, Jimbo’s. His menu reflects this: It has the esoteric sushi of Sasabune, but also Americanized sushi, such as the Kona Roll, a California roll topped with spicy ahi, tempura flakes and a pineapple chili sauce. It can seem incongruous, but so is the space—tucked above and behind Rock Bottom Sports Bar, Kona Kai is a place where you can enjoy exquisite sushi as people below play beer pong.


At Prima, Kevin Lee pulls a pizza out of the kiawe-fired oven, which the Prima owners tiled themselves.

PHOTOs: MONTE COSTA

Prima

108 Hekili St., #107, Kailua, 888-8933, primahawaii.com.

It's hard to classify Prima’s cuisine, and you get the sense that the young chefs here don't want you to. They're saying to hell with boundaries, and so the menu jumps from Italian-styled dishes to Indian spices to panang curry, all of it reconstructed in unexpected ways. Take the pappardelle Bolognese, which seems straightforward enough. At Prima, however, there’s a wink of curry in the meat sauce and it’s topped with crispy, fried curry leaves.

Click here to watch our web exclusive video featuring Prima and The Whole Ox Deli.

 

 

Roasted maitake mushroom, pickled hon shimiji and cauliflower puree at Prima.

Panna cotta is served as an appetizer, paired with fennel marmalade and coffee salt. A tandoori preparation does away with meat; instead, half a pear is blackened with warm, Indian spices and cooled with yogurt, grapefruit and mint. These are dishes like no other in Hawaii. The presentation alone will tell you that. What sounds like a simple mushroom salad is presented like a creature from Prometheus, though the tail, a swoosh of cauliflower puree, causes a wide swath of gustatory satisfaction, rather than death and alien procreation.

Prima will source ingredients as carefully as Alan Wong’s, but this is a technique-driven restaurant; what’s more interesting than where the food came from is what the chefs have done with it.

One section of Prima’s menu that hews traditional, however, are the pizzas, Neopolitan-style with thin, chewy crusts. The Prima chefs made a name for themselves with their pizzas at V-Lounge, which were devoured by gourmands, families who eschew Chuck E. Cheese and breakdancers sobering up at 3 a.m. Maybe it’s the $20,000 Stefano Ferrara oven, or Prima’s more refined interior, but the pizzas here seem better. They are the perfect complement for the menu’s series of small plates, to round out the meal, and the crusts the perfect utensils for sopping up any of the sauces, from the poached egg and chicken jus to the panang curry left over from the clams.


Takanori Wada at work in the kitchen, where the cabinets are made of the same cherry wood as the dining room tables.

photo: olivier koning

Wada

611 Kapahulu Ave., 737-0125, restaurantwada.com.

Seiji Kumagawa, the chef of Sushi Sasabune, came into Wada one night and ate at the bar. As Takanori Wada, the chef of his eponymous restaurant, tells it, Kumagawa said the food was very good, but with time and instruction, Wada could be an even better restaurant, like Sushi Sasabune.

Wada didn’t think much of the comment (“His rice is too warm,” Wada says). I don’t think he’ll be seeking Kumagawa’s advice anytime soon. Wada’s more of an I-can-do-it-myself type anyway. He’s worked at Man Ray, a now-closed French restaurant in Manhattan, and Sushi Samba, both in New York and Chicago, and now he’s doing his own thing. The menu is his, of course, and so is the design of the restaurant, from the kitchen to the tables to the cherry-wood walls. (The wood panels run out about three-quarters of the way through the restaurant, due to a miscalculation.) Wada even makes the ceramic dishes, which tend to have simple, organic shapes. They cradle some sublime combinations: duck slices and yuba, soft, fresh beancurd sheets in a thickened shoyu sauce; fried mozzarella in a light dashi. The sashimi here is impeccable, the quality rivaling Honolulu’s top sushi bars. But don’t expect sushi; there’s only one, with raw Washugyu beef (a cross between Wagyu and Angus) and uni. Much of the menu is unfamiliar. You’ll need a sense of adventure to try shuto ae, basically fresh, raw seafood in fermented fish guts, or fried-squid cartilage with steamed Manila clams. But the ishiyaki hirami is a crowd-pleaser: tender nuggets of beef and a mound of garlic, onions and mushrooms cooked quickly tableside on a stone grill.
 


Bob McGee of The Whole Ox Deli demonstrates how to eat the half-pound dry-aged burger. You're gonna need that napkin, Bob.

photo: matt mallams

The Whole Ox Deli

327 Keawe St., 699-6328, wholeoxdeli.com. (Open for dinner this month.)

The Whole Ox has perfected the porchetta sandwich, each bite yielding tender pork, fat and crackling skin. A touch of fennel marmalade brings a light sweetness to this composition. The porchetta comes at the sacrifice of a pig, deboned, brined for three days in brown sugar, salt and fennel seed, rolled up like a log and cooked slowly over the Labesse Giraudon rotisserie, until the skin is crispy.

It is just one of the satisfying sandwiches at The Whole Ox, an eatery where Bob McGee, formerly of Apartment3, 12th Ave Grill and Salt, hopes to “save the world, one sandwich at a time,” he says. He uses whole, local animals for his meats, which is no small feat—the process needs a lot of refrigerator space as well as butchery know-how and patience. Patience in waiting for the brisket to cure for two weeks and transform into pastrami for the reuben, patience in collecting all the meat bits (non-steak cuts and innards) to press into terrines.

Andrade Ranch on Kauai supplies the cows for Whole Ox’s dry-aged hamburger, Malama Farm on Maui the pigs for breakfast sausage and Canadian ham, Shinsato the pork for the porchetta.

Honolulu artists Satoro Abe and John Koga were so taken with The Whole Ox's philosophy, they have placed in the restaurant's care some of Jerry Okimoto’s last sculptures: a cleaver and chef’s knife, each made with pressed plywood, each over ten feet tall. Abe thinks the sawdust from Okimoto’s woodwork is what eventually killed him, just as I imagine McGee’s meat-heavy, delicious sandwiches will be the end of us. But what a way to go.

Click here to watch our web exclusive video featuring Prima and The Whole Ox Deli.

 

Subscribe to Honolulu