Dining: Gathering Places
Three new additions to Honolulu's dining scene focus on cozy, neighborhood-friendly experiences.
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Sheraton Waikiki // 2255 Kalakaua Ave. // 922-4422, 921-4600 // Breakfast daily 6 to 11 a.m.; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. // Free validated parking, major credit cards // sheraton-waikiki.com
It’s vast, the Sheraton Waikiki’s new Kai Market, 300 seats, with a buffet that spreads its way all along the back of the room. That’s not to mention the walls sprouting live herbs—thyme, rosemary, chives, several basils, chocolate mint.
When the hotel planned Kai Market, no one foresaw the Recession That Ate Tourism. The night we arrived, despite enough diners to populate a more moderate-size restaurant, Kai Market looked desolate and empty.
Except the buffet—which was the most appealing I’ve ever seen. It’s spacious, well lit, with nicely designed little signs, printed on recycled paper, marking every dish.
The salads were on ice and ti leaves, the seafood dishes on ice and ogo, and the entrées, in cast-iron pans on a matte black cooktop. Somebody worked at this. The food, unlike that at scores of other buffets I have shuffled through, looked good enough to eat. And I haven’t even mentioned the candlelit pyramids of desserts. I was still settling at our table when my wife and daughter were up, checking out the desserts. “Let’s forget all this other stuff,” said my daughter, gesturing dismissively at the rest of the buffet. “Let’s start right here.”
Looking at the “other stuff,” however, made skipping directly to dessert less appealing.
The syntax is the same as at any other buffet. You start with salads, except that Kai Market has a whole salad section. It’s billing itself as a farm-to-table restaurant. Hardly a novel notion in 2009, but Kai Market pulls it off reasonably well.
The salad bar was Waimanalo greens, Hāmākua tomatoes, Big Island hearts of palm, fresh local cucumbers, seaweed and Hāmākua mushrooms (though they sure looked like enoki mushrooms to me).
There was an array of local-style salads, as well: a reasonably spicy shrimp salad with tomatoes; a Honda tofu and watercress salad with sesame oil-based dressing; and what billed itself as a cucumber salad with Surfing Goat Dairy feta, but was actually an excellent edamame salad, sharpened with cheese from Maui’s famous goat farm.
But what had us all oohing and ahhing was the potato salad. Kai Market had encouraged people to submit family recipes, and their restaurant manager, Shaun Ono, had submitted this recipe from his mother, who passed away last spring.
Even if it hadn’t come with a touching story, this was amazing, stuffed with onion and tuna, slightly underdone potatoes, and plenty of Best Foods and chopped egg on top.
It was all I could do to keep myself from filling up on it. But eating at a buffet requires discipline. We still had to go to the cold dishes: sashimi, ahi poke, tako poke with a restrained amount of kim chee in it.
Also hot dishes: Kahuku shrimp cooked up head-on, Chinese salt-and-pepper style. I’ve had this dish many times, but never with large, quality shrimp like these.
Another Chinese restaurant special: Sun Noodle crispy cake noodles with shrimp, squid, baby scallops, baby corn, vegetables in the usual cornstarch-shoyu sauce.
A creditable chop steak stuffed with tender beef, a touch of black bean sauce perhaps, bright with multicolor bell peppers and onion.
Some baby back ribs, dry rubbed with Kona coffee—which lacked a certain zing in the barbecue sauce.
And vinha d’ahlos, a dish that arrived in Hawai‘i with the Portuguese. There are scores of vinha d’ahlos recipes; some of them call for marinating pork for three to five days in wine, garlic and vinegar, plus any number of any other spices, red chili pepper and black pepper prominent among them.
At that point, recipes diverge. Some people fry the pork with potatoes, others brown and braise it with the potatoes. I would go with braising, and I would not cook it quite as dry as Kai Market did. A little remaining pan liquid would have brought out the vinegary flavors. (On the other hand, this was someone’s family recipe, as well, so I won’t quibble.)
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