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First Look: Bethel Union

Playing it cool with fresh pasta, highly allocated wine and intriguing cocktails, Bethel Union, the evolution of Italian from the J.J. Dolan’s team, brings a welcome change of pace to Chinatown and Downtown.


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Bethel Union main dishes

Vegetarian farro risotto ($19).
Photos: Diane Lee

 

Those who dream of a more civilized life, one, for example, that includes leisurely meals at a comfortable neighborhood restaurant, are going to love Bethel Union. Drawing on the spirit and tradition of terraced Cinque Terre and timeless Palermo, reminiscent of the long-departed old-school trattorias of New York City’s Little Italy, this long-awaited new tenant of the old Du Vin space across from the Hawai‘i Theatre is just what the current Chinatown scene needs. It’s an oasis of serenity dishing up a suite of coastal Mediterranean flavors, a tightly curated wine list and some of the more intriguingly adult cocktails we’ve tasted.

 

Now open for dinner, with lunch on the near horizon, Bethel Union plays it cool. When we arrived early one evening, the light was natural and the music on the sound system was barely ambient. The short cocktail list stays in character, the five house specials by Kevin Czaban complex without getting all geeky or theatrical (no tikis blowing nostril smoke rings). Though tempted by the updated versions of the Rob Roy or the Sazerac, on Czaban’s advice I went with an “exotic white Negroni” he calls The Incomparable Kanaloa: a yellow-hued elixir of Italian gin, aromatized wine, gentian bitters and citron.

 

Bitters work like a snap of the fingers in front of a dazed boxer; after my day in the cubicle, this one woke all the senses and an appetite buried under lunchtime’s musubi. The gorgeous color was also strangely compelling, absinthelike, more so the deeper I delved.

 

Bethel Union drinks

The Hanabata Days (left) and The Incomparable Kanaloa.

 

A pushover for good SEO, my companion couldn’t resist The Hanabata Days, a bouquet of li hing vodka, seasonal fruit purée, white wine and pickled mango. Visually sweet, delicately floral to sip, with a racy nip from the mango, it did conjure up a plantation alchemist blowing minds behind the cane boiler.

 

The menu at Bethel Union might be summed up as dolce vita Italian. You pull up in your Fiat Spyder and hop out to dally with a heart-of-palm salad (paper-thin discs of palm, orange segments, lettuces, a fan of avocado slices; $12), smoky grilled octopus (fingerling potatoes, shaved fennel, chimichurri sauce and more orange segments; $12) and cod croquettes (crispy cakes made with salt cod, in the proper Basque fashion, on a bed of sage-inflected aioli; $8). Yes, there is a meatball appetizer ($9), because, well, the heart wants what it wants.

 

Cod croquette

Cod croquettes ($8).

 

When the starter menu does offer familiar items, they’re enhanced by flavor and ingredients. The bruschetta has two variations, one with lomi tomatoes and cured salmon ($7.50), the other with tuna tartare, chervil and firecracker aioli ($9); “Phoenician” fries are dusted with sumac, parsley and Parmesan ($9); focaccia is laden with fresh mozzarella, basil and balsamic fig glaze ($7) or prosciutto, arugula and Parmesan ($8).

 

Avocado slices

Heart-of-palm salad ($12).

 

If Bethel Union feels like a late-summer daydream, a place to wear linen and your floppy straw hat, it may be because it’s the culmination of a dream of a young man of Italian extraction from the docklands of Jersey City. When J.J. Niebuhr arrived in Honolulu as a marine, his sergeant told him Chinatown was off-limits to enlisted personnel; naturally, the 26-year-old made a beeline there and took to drinking at the old Harbor Lights Lounge.

 

Skip ahead a couple of decades and Niebuhr and a friend and co-worker, Danny Dolan, joined forces to start the redoubtable pizzeria J.J. Dolan’s, not coincidentally bolstering the latest Chinatown revival. Bethel Union completes the circle, with the two taking over and combining the old Harbor Lights and Du Vin spaces. A half-a-million dollars later, the renovation takes full advantage of the good-size room.

 

A couple of tables look out on Sun Yat Sen Park’s better half. On a first visit, a quick one, dining solo, we sat up front and watched the world go by like a true member of café society. After a savory caesar salad ($9), the Mediterranean steak ($27) came medium-rare as requested, each bite heightened by a chimichurri sauce that made the word zesty spring unbidden into our mind (the only time this has ever happened, we swear). Classic bistro accompaniments filled the plate: lightly grilled asparagus, fingerling potatoes. We felt as if we had slipped into a different time zone, especially with a glass of Gamay Beaujolais at hand.

 

Inside

 

GardenAs you go deeper into the room, more tables parallel a long bar (you could fit the crew of a Roman galley on the 18 stools) opposite an olive-green leather banquette. If you yearn for Du Vin’s back garden, it has returned, spiffed-up with blue-and-white-trimmed walls and and brick flooring, a pergola of vines overhead and a Capri grotto at the deep end.

 

Nor is that all. Hidden around a twisty corridor is the private room, liberated from a shady past—“Nefarious dealings went down here,” says Niebuhr—when it was the backstage of a burlesque show. You’ll call dibs for your next office retreat once you check out the high ceiling, dark wood furniture, bar with a brass railing salvaged from the old Honolulu Publishing building, black-and-white floor tiles and shuttered windows looking out into the garden.

 

Niebuhr’s vision for the culinary side came from memories of all the seaside Jersey Shore places of his youth, Italian restaurants that drew on the bounty of the ocean and the land (the Shore’s offshore canyons teem with bigeye tuna and a Jersey tomato is a thing of beauty). He also wanted noodles. Noting that there are already a lot of noodles in Chinatown, he explains that demand on the nonpizza catering side of J.J. Dolan’s opened his eyes to an opportunity. “Everyone wanted to know how they could get our baked ziti. So we decided to do fresh pasta. It would be an evolution of J.J. Dolan’s.” From there, the duo talked to loyal Du Vin patrons about what they missed. They talked to former employees about what they’d change. “The inefficient kitchen. No expediting window. Now we’ve got one.”

 

The bar

 

They’ve also got a chef.  “Somebody suggested we take a look at this chef from New York, who’d been at the Halekūlani and was at the Outrigger Canoe Club,” Niebuhr says. “We met Lucy Han and fell in love with her cooking.”

 

Born in Korea, raised in New York City from an early age, Han delivers entrée choices that align with Niebuhr’s philosophy: “Fresh pasta, wine and cocktails—that’s our mantra.”

 

One early star in Bethel Union’s short life is the pappardelle, whose wide ribbons tumble and coil in a rich slick of braised short ribs, cremini mushrooms and sherry cream sauce ($17). After one bite, we thanked the gods that our companion was not a meat-eater.

 

A glass of Corvina Rondinella Masa “Campofiorin” ($6 for 2 oz./$12 for 5 oz.; an original Super-Venetian to you Parkerphiles) played well with the pappardelle. It’s worth noting here that the comprehensive yet curated wine list is one to study, and sample. The highly allocated choices will give regulars and oenophiles something new to look forward to on successive visits.

 

Pasta

Pappardelle ($17).

 

Clams and linguini (fennel-simmered with Portuguese sausage in a white wine butter sauce; $20) join a delicious and vegetarian farro risotto (kabocha squash, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized leeks, sunchokes with truffle oil and parmesan; $19) on the Pasta & Grains ledger, but keep your eye out for a fresh pasta of the day.

 

The fresh catch on our visit was an herb-scented log of ‘ahi served atop a green-pea risotto whose creamy richness established an excellent counterpoint with bites of fish. Living in our sushi-centric Pacific, it’s easy to forget that the predecessors of the Italians were catching bigeye in stone traps off the coast of Sardinia and Sicily as far back as 9200 B.C. The version here is the best-tasting history lesson I’ve had in a while.

 

Other mains also aim to retake the Italian food narrative. Thus the dignified status of the stand-alone meatballs marinara ($15, add $5 for pasta), chicken cacciatore (pan-seared airline chicken breast in a lemon marinade with capers, red peppers and fresh daily vegetable; $22), stuffed shells (ricotta and Italian sausage in an herbed marinara; $17) and clams and linguini (fennel-simmered with Portuguese sausage in white wine butter sauce; $20).

 

Portions are appropriate for adults, if not NFL linemen. Niebuhr explains that he wants to restore a sense of proportion to standards that have been pumped up to ludicrous, eat-until-you-burst extremes at certain red-sauce chain restaurants. So, while it’s true that these are safe choices, it’s also true that when the classics are executed correctly they recall the reason why they’re classics. The Mediterranean Steak certainly makes the point—it would be welcome on any Paris bistro’s menu.

 

Apple pie

Fresh apple cake ($5.50).

 

The dessert side of the menu is still in flux. A promising-sounding sabayon with fresh fruit ($7.50) wasn’t available, though gelatos and sorbets ($5) were perfect for chilling. Though neither of us claimed to have any remaining appetite, a slice of fresh apple cake ($5.50) with a ball of sea salt caramel gelato seemed to disappear all by itself.   

 

Similarly, once you’re through the solid doors and into the inner sanctum of dining room, garden and back room, Bethel Union makes it easy to forget our town’s trendy tourist tinsel, noise and froth. Niebuhr is an active, genuinely exhilarated host, gliding through the room in kitchen whites—his welcome is sincere and infectious. With a drink that makes you think under your belt, food that will have you leaning forward and an unrushed, unfussy atmosphere, you may find yourself thinking this could be your home away from home.

 

1115 Bethel St.; 524-0447, bethelunion.com

 

READ MORE STORIES BY DON WALLACE

 

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