Café 8 1/2 is Now Soffritto
The Downtown Italian eatery finds a new location and expands its menu to include Cajun cuisine.
Café 8 1/2, which closed in June on Alakea Street, reopened as Soffritto on Pauahi Street in Downtown, serving Italian, new orleans-style french and cajun dishes.
Photos: James Charisma
If you’re a downtown regular, you might know Café 8 1/2 (named for the 1963 Fellini film) as a cozy lunchtime destination for fresh Italian cuisine, popular for such favorites as the spaghetti carbonara or the radiatore verde made with fresh pesto and cubes of steak, run by the eccentric, sometimes irascible owner and chef Robert Warner.
Or you might know Café 8 1/2 as the restaurant that made national news headlines and attracted controversy late last year when Warner posted a scribbled note on the front doors (next to numerous assorted other handwritten notes, signs and menus) that read, “If you voted for Trump you cannot eat here! No Nazis.” Robert’s wife, Jali, spoke to the local newspaper at the time explaining that the restaurant didn’t really care who their customers voted for, it was just a way for her husband to express his frustration with the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Regardless, people came out of the woodwork to leave scathing reviews of the Italian eatery. “I had people on Yelp leaving comments saying Café 8 1/2 was the worst pizza they ever had. I never even served pizza,” recalls Warner, with a shrug.
However you might be familiar with this tucked away eatery, Café 8 1/2 closed its doors this past June when the office building it was located inside was sold. Just one month later, Warner found a new location a few blocks away nearby in the former Yum Yum Thai location, next to Döner Shack and across from the nightclub Scarlet Honolulu. He moved everything from kitchen equipment to restaurant décor into the new space and opened for business as an entirely new restaurant: Soffritto, specializing in New Orleans-style French, Italian and Cajun food.
Those familiar with Café 8 1/2 will instantly recognize the rustic furnishings and wood furniture from the former location; it’s like the old restaurant was poured into the new space, complete with its chandeliers, vases and fabrics. On the walls, Warner installed planks of old redwood from Re-use Hawai‘i. The dining room is considerably smaller than it used to be, but the kitchen’s bigger, allowing the chef to experiment with new dishes, such as Vietnamese-style pork belly, lechon kawali, complete with tomato onion relish and mayo and served banh mi style in ciabatta ($8).
Warner hopes the pressed sandwiches, which rotate regularly and are plastic-wrapped ready-to-go at the front counter, will be a hit for nearby HPU college students looking for a bite while hustling between classes. In addition to the sandwiches, he offers heartier fare that includes stews and pasta, which can be quickly served into takeout containers. The day we went, the option was “Nawlins” red beans and rice and mushroom beef stroganoff macaroni made with beef trimmings from the steak in the radiatore verde, both $12. Other selections are 8 ½ classics, including the carbonara ($15) and puttanesca spaghetti ($14).
The mushroom beef stroganoff macaroni made with beef trimmings from the steak in the radiatore verde.
The pork belly sandwich is a grab-and-go selection.
Warner makes his own bread in the back but I found the sandwich a little chewy, the ciabatta maybe made soft by the warmth and humidity next to the stews behind the counter. The pork belly was lean and not overly fatty though. The stroganoff is hearty, filled with rich shreds of meat and topped with homemade crème fraîche instead of sour cream.
The all-star here is the jambalaya ($15), made with Gulf shrimp, big chunks of andouille sausage, tomatoes, the titular soffritto (a diced mixture of carrots, celery and onions) and rice, although Warner says the ingredients change depending on what he has in stock. The stew tastes fresh and gently spicy.
The jambalaya is made with Gulf shrimp, big chunks of andouille sausage, tomatoes, the titular soffritto and rice.
In addition to being an expert Italian chef, Warner has another regional culinary mastery we’ve been unaware of: Cajun cooking. “I learned how to cook Cajun from Paul Prudhomme,” a chef who was known internationally for his Creole and Cajun cooking, Warner says. “And I make my own roux,” the cooked flour-and-fat mixture used as a thickener for sauces. A lesser chef (or a less committed one) might settle for something store bought.
But not Warner, who frequently hangs outside around the front of restaurant when he’s not in the kitchen. From here, he can greet the people passing by and meet his new neighbors. There’s a different crowd on Fort Street Mall from the businesspeople hustling by on Alakea Street. Luckily, Soffritto’s experimental nature seems just right; it’s a place where Warner is just as likely to come out and talk with you about poetry and metaphysics and the nature of the universe as he is to cook your food—all while the main theme from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial happens to be playing in the background on Hawai‘i Public Radio.
At 67, Warner’s been asked if he has plans to retire anytime soon. “No way man,” he says. “That’s like asking a bluesman when they’ll retire from playing music. Never gonna happen.”
73 S. Pauahi St., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, (808) 524-4064
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.