New Lunch Service at Rain Honolulu Delivers
For a cool lunch in a hot town, duck into Rain and savor new chef Michael D’Souza’s deft take on American bistro classics.
Lox deviled eggs and asparagus pistou—with local sea asparagus—are on the lunch menu at Rain Honolulu.
Photos: Enjy El-Kadi
Fort Street could’ve used a good drenching the hot day we took a stroll over to lunch at Rain Honolulu, but once we were inside its inner sanctum, our thermostats quickly settled down. That’s one of the benefits of Rain’s distinctive nightclub exterior, which resembles a 1950s boîte du nuit on Place Pigalle in Paris—you know, the neighborhood where people got their kicks at Moulin Rouge and, later, their pockets picked. The louche look suits Fort Street Mall and the adjacent nightclub, Scarlet, which is owned by the same team that is putting on today’s restaurant with spunk and style.
Ducking in and out of the sun, we found ourselves in an aquariumlike interior: plate glass windows, blue-tiled tray ceiling, dark-wood tables in the front room, a cool gray banquette seating section opposite the bar. You can’t miss the theme: umbrellas are everywhere, stenciled on windows and on the large photos of stylized fashionistas. When you factor in the overhead light fixtures, which resemble giant whipped peaks of meringue, and the floor-level track lighting, in fuchsia and neon blue, it’s almost disappointing that disco isn’t on the soundtrack.
The inside of Rain Honolulu at lunchtime.
In fact, the sound levels were muted, contributing to a growing impression that Rain would be refreshingly human-friendly. It’s spacious, so it doesn’t feel tight, even with a good crowd at 1 p.m. Plenty of room between tables and sections meant we didn’t feel like we were wedged into an economy class airline seat. At our banquette, we could actually hear what people at the end of the table were saying. Which was good, because the five of us who were sampling the menu had a lot to say. Our server was quick, attentive and unobtrusive.
Some of us checked out Rain when it opened. But chef Brooks Hart has departed, replaced by Michael D’Souza, whose internationalist career includes stops in Dubai, Singapore and Waikīkī. Another reason to visit: We’d heard the lunch was good.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Rain Honolulu
To start, lox deviled eggs ($6)—four halves, each topped with a comma of smoked salmon that rested on a cream cheese/caper/red onion dome—were salty, smoky, creamy and gone. For a second starter we chose a side of Brussels sprouts ($8), flash-sautéed with macadamia nuts and a honey vinaigrette and topped by a snowfall of melting Parmesan. Asparagus hummus ($9) sparked our first excited discussion: The bowl of creamy dip, studded with whole chickpeas and pooled in greenish-yellow olive oil, was heaped with sea asparagus.
The flash-sautéed Brussels sprouts are topped with a honey vinaigrette and melting Parmesan.
A cry of “Where’s the real asparagus?” went up before a wiser head noted the presence of pistou in the menu description. Asparagus pistou, sea asparagus—it was a punning culinary pairing of two of O‘ahu’s North Shore ingredients. Flavorful and just slightly different, the hummus went down fast thanks to puffy deep-fried pita.
Our resident hummus diva did regret the absence of garlic, a criticism that would find echoes in a number of delicately seasoned dishes. To be fair, bistro food typically errs on the side of over-salting and over-dosing on the fats and other savory flavor profiles. As the meal unfolded, Rain would seem to be taking a less assertive approach from confidence, not timidity.
Rain is proud of its drink and cocktails menu, especially those served in copper mugs with ginger beer—what we think of as Moscow mules. We opted for the Fort Street Smash ($9): rye whiskey instead of vodka, with pear syrup, lime, basil and the aforementioned ginger beer. It arrived, timed with the starters, tinkling with ice, an ideal antidote for the furnace heat we’d walked through. First sip was of a basil float (no leaf in evidence), so we gave it a stir; the ginger beer came welling up on the third sip. There was a lot of drink and it was refreshing, although, perversely, we missed the tang of rye.
The Fort Street Smash.
Lovers of Moscow mules and all featured cocktails, take note: Theyʻre 50 percent off Thursday nights. Also, the Wine Wednesday and Monday Birds & Bubbles specials are worth checking out.
Entrées arrived quickly and together. The Rain Burger ($15), enlivened by Gruyère, a slab of pork belly and topped with a gorgeous fried egg, sunny-side-up, arrived medium-well, something that worried our self-proclaimed burger diva. She’d not specified doneness, but the waiter hadn’t asked, either. One careful bite set her mind to rest that this was a curated burger; the moist yolk and pork belly, along with lettuce, tomato and pickle, actually needed a stout beef foundation.
The Rain Burger.
A designated big eater, I was torn between the Short Rib Mac & Cheese ($18), with Gruyère, crème fraîche and toasted breadcrumbs and the Country Fried Chicken ($17) with boneless thighs, Portuguese sausage gravy, smashed fingerling potatoes and green beans. Fried chicken is a trickier test of a kitchen—one my Memphis grandmother, god bless her, never failed—particularly when gravy is promised. A lot can go wrong between crust and gravy.
Here, the crispy coating was darker and redder than a classic country crust. In fact, I thought I was in for some fiery Nashville-style hot chicken, all the current rage; but there was no heat, not even a prickle of black pepper as you might expect. The sturdy, well-executed jacket had no dead pockets of unmixed flour and stuck to the succulent meat when you cut into the rather large thighs. The wave of dark gravy indeed hinted at Portuguese sausage origins but couldn’t soften that crust. This is quite a feat. Flavorwise, the takeaway was almost too subtle, but this again showed a measure of chef control that’s hard to find in a world that bludgeons the taste buds to get our attention.
The Country Fried Chicken.
There was, however, lots to savor in the ample helping of string beans, sautéed (very lightly) until they’d barely wilted, and the six tiny fingerling potatoes, whose skins were puffed out, just so. As a whole, the plate was generous and impressive.
The kitchen’s proficiency was also shown off in the perfectly seared chunks of sesame-coated fish in the ‘ahi salad ($14), which came with wasabi mayo on a bed of mixed greens and avocado, in a vinaigrette. A lunchtime salad is the equivalent of a string of pearls and a little black dress, in that it’s chic and understated, but doesn’t feel mingy. This one nails it.
The seared ‘ahi salad.
Salads are advertised as served with focaccia bread, but when we asked about its absence we received instead a proud explanation of how chef D’Souza bakes all the breads, including the pita puffs, except for the buns. Which was nice to know, but, well, where’s the bread? In the end, we put it down to the whole carb-avoidance thing. (Let’s take this moment to remind readers to always ask for the bread because otherwise one day it will go away—or they’ll charge you $4 for it.)
Pork belly sliders.
Pork belly sliders ($13) pleased our tablemate, who’d been living in Chicago, stockyard of America, and knew something about pig. “With pork belly, it’s super hard to take bites, because if the outside end is hard, you take one bite and half your slider is gone,” she said. Not so with these, served with a carrot and radish pickle, and dabbed in garlic and green onion mayonnaise. We saw her take three bites for each slider, which are large and come with either a salad or hand-cut fries. “These are definitely homemade,” she added of the fries. But the thick fries glittered with sea salt that came on a little strong—the only dish where this happened.
A creamy Bailey’s cheesecake ($7), made off-site, was a perfect one-bite-fits-all dessert.
Rain looks quirky, but delivers true value in a tasteful and understated way. You may go in the first time for lunch thinking you’ll find a clientele of manic pixies out of Amélie or waitstaff bursting into song à la The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but it’s actually rather sane and soothing. Which is what you want, after all, at a weekday lunch.
Rain Honolulu,1138 Fort St. Mall, open for lunch weekdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner from 4:30 until 9 p.m. on Monday through Wednesday, 10 p.m. on Thursday and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, (808) 200-0910, rainhonolulu.com
Join us for an evening of fantastic food, creative cocktails and exhilarating entertainment as we celebrate Hawai‘i’s very best restaurants at the 2018 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Destination Delicious on Sept. 17 at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Take a culinary trip around the world in one evening while you dine on artfully crafted dishes from Hawai‘i’s best chefs. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.