Dining: Gathering Places
Three new additions to Honolulu's dining scene focus on cozy, neighborhood-friendly experiences.
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People love new cars, the shine, the sparkle, the heady aroma of urethanes and polycarbonates in the interior.
I like new restaurants better.
A new restaurant has sparkle, shine—and hope. The staff always wears tentative, yet determined smiles that always remind me of the first weeks of school—those weeks when you promised yourself, this year you’re going to do great, no cutting class, no skipping homework. It’s going to be a great year, you’re even going to get a date for the prom.
Assaggio Bistro Kahala
4346 Waialae Ave. // 732-1011 // Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // assaggiohi.com
Most new restaurants aren’t exactly new. They are simply modifications, large or small, of the restaurant that previously leased the space. So it was a pleasure, indeed, to walk into the new Kahala Assaggio, which anchors a spanking new retail center built on the site of a former Chevron station by Assaggio owner Thomas Ky.
Not only is the restaurant new new: It’s the brightest, most spacious and comfortable of the now half-dozen Assaggio’s. Polished wood, frosted glass, wonderfully private, angled booths, a gleaming, backlit wine rack, comfortable, upholstered chairs, a staff with those wonderful first-weeks-of-school smiles.
Once you get over the shock of the new, however, Assaggio Kahala is Assaggio everywhere: Hawaii Kai, Kailua, Mililani, Ala Moana and Kapolei. Ky was sent at age 13 by his Chinese-Vietnamese family to America, grew up in foster homes and worked his way tirelessly from dishwasher to restaurant mogul. Somewhere along the way he hit on a brilliant formula for Assaggio. Why change it?
Ky’s restaurants offer exactly the kind of food people in Hawaii expect when they order Italian, but that’s hardly unique, since much of the standard Hawaii-Italian menu was pioneered by New Jersey transplant Cass Castagnola in the ’80s and has been replicated all over town.
What Assaggio does brilliantly, and consistently, is deliver a high-end restaurant experience at a moderate price. You get a white linen tablecloth and a real rose on the table, an attentive wait staff and a wine list—at a place where entrées range from $14 to $25. You never feel like you dropped by an Assaggio to grab a bite, you feel like you’ve been out to dinner.
Still, like us, you’ve probably been to an Assaggio so many times that you don’t even have to read the menu. We always order exactly the same thing, the chicken anchovy olio linguine, a large portion in hopes of having some left over for lunch the next day, two lunches, really, because otherwise we fight over who gets it.
This dish is a splendid bit of Italian rustic aglio e olio e a’lice, supplemented by crispy, grilled chicken thighs. It’s powerful music in your mouth.
“It’s a new restaurant. For once we should try something different,” I said. Asparagus with grilled garlic to start, even though it was pricey at $10.90. It arrived a nice jade green, but was probably not locally sourced.
For the entrées, we had sausage, peppers and potatoes, a rather meek and mild rendition of that classic trio. Much better was the osso buco, two large veal shanks braised in tomato sauce, served with a nice, high-end restaurant touch, a little spoon for digging out the marrow.
“You ordered the osso buco with vegetables,” said my wife, surveying the mound of oversize bell-pepper pieces.
She did not applaud my healthy choice. Instead, she turned to the waiter and ordered a side of pasta.
One thing seemed different at Kahala: the wine list. Perhaps in a gesture to its upscale neighborhood, the offerings included Dom Pérignon at $190 a bottle (hardly the highest price I’ve seen on a Honolulu wine list).
More welcome at a weekday dinner were the Italian by-the-glass offerings: Bollini chardonnay, much more food-friendly than a California chardonnay, and the Fontanafredda Barbera “Briccotondo,” which is a remarkably rich, yummy red for its low price tag.
We finished by splitting a tiramisu, the real thing, with ladyfingers instead of cake and actual, fine ground espresso. Then we sighed. Dinner for two was $100 with tip, rather more than we usually spend at Assaggio, but, then again, we’re usually eating the aglia e olio and maybe a salad.
I have no fear that the Kahala Assaggio will fly in the face of the recession. Remarkably, the Kāhala area is short of nice sit-down restaurants, and this one’s a beauty, complete with a 30-seat party room and a pleasant, roomy bar. As we ate dinner, we saw more than one friend rush in to get takeout, so it works that way as well.