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Old Haunts, New Food: Rijō and Square Barrels

New restaurants Rijō and Square Barrels have opened in the locations of two old Downtown favorites. How do they stack up?


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THE PAN-SEARED CHILEAN SEA BASS at Rijō. 
PHOTOS: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

There are restaurants you love. And there are restaurants you forgot you loved.

 

When I worked in downtown Honolulu, there were two spots on opposite sides of the urban core (and opposite sides of the culinary universe, too) that I got sappy about once they closed.

 

It wasn’t because they served the best food in town. I missed them for what they represented in my life at the time.

 

I was an idealistic college student, searching for answers, as idealistic college students do: in books of poetry, confusing art shows and music infused with ambiguous lyrics. That often led me to Café Che Pasta in Bishop Square, which, at night, would host art shows and live music. I remember supporting one of my girlfriends, now a fashion designer in Honolulu, by attending an art show opening there for a collective of young artists known as Special Prescription. They were the cool kids. I came for the free food.

 

When I started working as a reporter at the (now-defunct) Honolulu Advertiser, another restaurant became an important part of my single life. (No, Ocean Club was not a restaurant.) Palomino Euro Bistro in Harbor Court was our go-to watering hole after work. I can’t tell you how many times my friends and I closed down the bar there. The bartenders knew both our real and our fake names. We sipped cocktails and ate plates of the restaurant’s signature Chop Chop Salad and an appetizer that resembled a deconstructed pizza. It was the first time I had roasted garlic (definitely not the last).

 

Both eateries closed, leaving a void in both prime downtown real estate and whatever remained of my social life.

 

And then it happened.

 

Two new restaurant concepts—both markedly different from their predecessors—opened up in these spaces in recent months. While I’m no longer single and have swapped poetry for books on hydroponic gardening, I was still drawn by nostalgia and old-fashioned curiosity to see if these two places could live up to my own sentimental hype.

 

Rijō Restaurant

 ONE OF THE RESTAURANT’S MOST POPULAR DESSERTS IS THIS CHOCOLATE MOLTEN-LAVA CAKE WITH A GREEN-TEA GANACHE AND SERVED WITH FRESH FRUIT.

 

Rijō Restaurant has a few things going against it.

 

First, its concept—Japanese contemporary—isn’t new. Second, it occupies one of the largest dining spaces in downtown Honolulu, a mind-boggling 13,000 square feet. (To put that in context, it’s more than four times bigger than The Pig and the Lady, nearby.) And, lastly, the restaurants that followed Palomino in that space—Cassis and Harbor Court Bistro—didn’t survive very long.

 

None of that is easy to overcome.

 

Yet local businessman John Hayashi decided to open Rijō anyway, despite the odds, with the hopes that its unique spin on traditional Japanese food would lure both the downtown lunch crowd and adventurous foodies looking for something new to eat. The restaurant officially opened in February.

 

While I wouldn’t normally recommend a new restaurant keep the décor of its predecessor, in this case, it works. Just about everything here—from the marble tabletops in the bar, the dizzyingly high ceilings, the bathrooms (those of you who were with me in those late hours at the bar will understand)—are exactly the same. That’s comforting, especally if you’re walking into such a cavernous space for the first time.

 

Really, the only changes I could see—confirmed later by restaurant manager Kelvin Nakahata—were Japanese-style gold lamp fixtures in the ceiling and artwork by local artists on the walls.

 

I felt immediately at home, wandering into the bar area that curves to the right as you enter the restaurant. Two women were leaning back into the cushy armchairs, browsing the menu for happy hour, which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. daily, with half-full glasses of red wine. Another few downtown workers, two in ties, sat contentedly at the bar, chatting with the friendly bartenders (another thing that hasn’t changed).

 

Like Palomino, Rijō wants to be the go-to pau hana place. It boasts a diverse drink menu with draft beers, Japanese whiskey and a solid selection of scotch and wine. It also features seven specialty cocktails, including the Rice Rocket ($10), Kai lychee vodka macerated with lychee syrup—not fresh fruit, unfortunately—served martini style; the Whiskey Smash ($10), with Four Roses bourbon muddled with fresh lemon juice and mint poured over a large chunk of ice; and the Rijō Raba ($10), Rijō’s version of the Moscow mule, with Grey Goose Le Melon—which has the honey-sweet flavor of the Cavaillon melon—ginger beer and fresh mint. The cocktails were a nice way to ease into dinner but not quite of the same caliber as the handcrafted drinks at, say, 12th Ave Grill or Pint and Jigger. But I appreciated the effort.

 

There’s a lot going on in Rijō’s Hawaiian Dragon Roll, with tempura shrimp, pickled papaya, avocado, unagi, macadamia nuts and a mango relish. 

 

We were seated in a small booth near expansive windows overlooking Honolulu Harbor. Despite the numerous times I had been to Palomino, I could only remember ever eating in the dining area once before, for an office party, which makes sense, considering the size of this space. We had arrived early enough for happy hour, and before the dinner crowd showed up, so we had the place—and the service staff—virtually to ourselves.

 

After relaxing into our cocktails, the server recommended we try the Hawaiian Dragon Roll ($14), stuffed with a tempura shrimp and pickled papaya—the “Hawaiian” part—and topped with avocado, unagi and macadamia nuts with a mango relish and drizzled with unagi sauce. It sounded like a lot of competing flavors, so I was actually happy the kitchen forgot to add the unagi to the roll. The sauce was enough to give it a sweet flavor without having the eel overpower the shrimp and pickled papaya.

 

We also ordered the Butter Milked Karaage pūpū ($9), really just bite-size chicken pieces marinated in buttermilk then deep-fried and served with organic veggie sticks and paired with a buffalo chicken bleu cheese dip. The batter was light and crispy—what you’d hope for but not necessarily expect, and not greasy at all—and the spicy dip was a great complement. The sticks of carrots and bell peppers, though, were unnecessary.

 

Our favorite appetizer was the Dungeness crab cakes ($16), deep-fried and paired with a chilled custard and microgreens in a (barely detectable) black-truffle dashi consommé the menu called a “truffled egg tofu.” The two crab cakes were meaty, dense and fried to a perfect golden brown. The combination of the chilled custard and the warm cakes worked, and, to be honest, I’m glad the black truffle didn’t overwhelm the dish, as it could.

 

We didn’t have to wait long for our entrées, great for downtown eaters on the clock. My husband ordered the 11-ounce lightly smoked kalbi rib-eye ($32), which came with a shiso-katsuo yaki onigiri (grilled rice ball), charred shishitō peppers, okra with mushrooms and a garlic-lemon-butter sauce. That was a lot of different flavors to take in. The rib-eye itself was prepared medium rare, as ordered, tender and lightly flavored with shoyu, sugar, garlic and ginger. The grilled musubi, though, with its distinct shiso and fishy katsuo, overpowered the subtle flavors of the meat. The blistered peppers had potential on this plate, but we were waylaid by the inconsistency in hotness. Supposedly, one in every 10 of this type of pepper is super hot. And, when I say hot, I mean almost unbearable to eat. We encountered two on this plate, and the heat made it impossible to taste anything else for a few minutes.

 

I had actually ordered the Nori “Tsukudani” ‘Ahi Katsu ($27) and got the Sizzling “Gin Mutsu” ($31) instead. (The server apologized and offered to take it back, but I decided to keep the dish. It’s one of the restaurant’s most popular.)

Golden Dungeness crab cakes, deep-fried and paired with a chilled custard.

 

I still haven’t figured out what “Gin Mutsu” is, but this dish featured a pan-seared Chilean sea bass with warm spinach and kale ohitashi, a classic Japanese side dish, topped with microgreens, a sizzling sweet black-bean sauce and a yuzu vin blanc.

 

A word about the Chilean sea bass: The name is a bit misleading. This fish is really called the unappetizing name of toothfish—a cold-water cod, not bass—and a minority of these fish actually comes from the coast of Chile. It’s really more of a marketing invention, but the fish’s buttery, melt-in-your-mouth texture has made it a trendy—and fairly sustainable—option for upscale restaurants.

 

Though I didn’t originally order it, I’m glad it appeared in front of me, anyway. The sea bass’s incredibly high fat content makes this a tasty fish option. (It’s almost impossible to overcook it, too.) The white, translucent flesh has a texture that’s buttery soft and moist. It almost has a lobster feel to it. The wilted spinach and kale with the tangy yuzu vin blanc were perfect companions to the mild-flavored fish.

 

For dessert, we debated between the molten-lava chocolate cake ($9) with a green-tea ganache center and the panna cotta ($7). We went with the latter—a lighter, cleaner finish—which was a fluffed-up version of condensed milk paired with a strawberry compote and fresh fruits.

 

Look, it’s not easy for an untested concept to move into an intimidatingly enormous space that once housed a successful and beloved restaurant. But Rijō is doing its best. It’s only been a few months since it opened, and, probably, tweaks and modifications will need to be made. But it’s certainly venturing down the right path.

 

“We don’t see it so much as a challenge but a complement to us,” manager Nakahata says about the restaurant’s predecessor. “People remember Palomino, but now come here and feel comfortable because they’ve been here before. Now, they’re just trying something different.”

 

66 Queen St., 208-8180, rijorestaurant.com

 

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