Dining: Gathering Places
Three new additions to Honolulu's dining scene focus on cozy, neighborhood-friendly experiences.
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As you may have guessed by now, Kai Market’s thing is to offer to guests who may not have a clue about—or even care—the foods that everyone in Hawai‘i eats all the time. “Food from seven cultures!” our waiter said repeatedly, though his cultural grip slackened a bit when he insisted vinha d’ahlos was Filipino food.
Of all the cultural offerings, the one that worked best was the Chinatown roast duck, which tasted exactly as it would if you bought it from a stand in Chinatown. It came complete with hoisin sauce, slivers of green onion, a steamer full of bao and some of the best cilantro I’ve ever tasted. I was hoping it was plucked off the wall covered in fresh herbs, but apparently it was micro cilantro from Nalo Farms.
I suppose the haole were well-represented by the prime rib at the carving station and the Japanese by a two-foot fillet of sea bass (hapu‘upu‘u) that tasted for all the world like miso butterfish, with that tasty half-sweet glaze on top.
Even the sides were beautiful: an array of oven-roasted vegetables tossed with herbs (hopefully from the wall), plus some creamy and not terribly garlicky garlic mashed potatoes, and a big wok full of fried rice. It wasn’t bad fried rice, and it supposedly contained Kukui Brand kim chee and Portuguese sausage, but it was awfully bland—a criticism that might be applied to much of the buffet. It was Hawai‘i food, all right, but lacking the flavors that make our food stand out.
Still, Kai Market is trying. To let one detail speak for the rest, the vegetables in the fried rice were fresh, but they were carefully cut to look like they’d come out of the bag frozen, like most of the fried rice you get all over town.
At this point, I set down my pen, notebook, fork and chopsticks, thinking I was pau. Foolish man. My wife and daughter were ready for dessert, and, in fact, passed up the small plates at the dessert buffet and instead equipped themselves with the bigger plates used for entrées.
Our table was soon laden with sweets of all cultures and varieties. I have been at buffets where the desserts looked pretty good, but all tasted pretty much the same. These were all different and all good. Too many to mention, but fresh, really fresh, coconut mochi, passion fruit flan, chocolate pot au crème with whipped cream and raspberries, gooey rich pao doce bread pudding, and—I’m sorry, Anna Miller’s, and don’t even mention Ted’s Bakery to me—the best, richest, freshest chocolate haupia pie I have ever tasted.
That’s not to mention the assortment of Satura Cakes “cupcakes,” which have so much whipped icing piled on top, they come in cups, like ice cream.
On top of that, Kai Market was an incredible bargain. Make a reservation, not that you need one in a restaurant this large, but it gives you a chance to tell them you live here. The buffet costs $49, but kids under 12 eat free. (One child per paying adult). However, if you’re a local resident, you get 25 percent off, so the buffet is only $36.75. And soft drinks and parking are free.
Alcohol isn’t, of course. For some reason, after all the planning, the hotel stuck the service bar out by the new infinity pool. After a considerable delay, the waiter returned with my glass of pinot noir—“Sorry, sir, I have to go a long way to get this.”
I told him he might mention to the bartender that red wine isn’t usually served warmed, as in a half-dozen degrees above room temperature. To his credit, after another longish interval, the waiter arrived with a slightly cooler replacement glass. “The bar’s outside, sir. It gets very hot out there. The sun.”
That aside, you will probably want to put Kai Market on your list. You may remember the Parc Café, the former buffet restaurant in the Waikiki Parc. It was perfect for those situations in which people in Hawai‘i often find themselves. You are taking an extended family out to dinner. You want a place nice enough that everyone feels they’ve been out to dinner and is comfortable for a wide range of ages, from babies to oldsters. You need a variety of foods (perhaps lots of it). Since you’re going to get the check, you need to know what it’s going to cost you going in.
Parc Café is no more, having given way to Nobu Waikiki. But Kai Market is bigger, newer and better. Assemble the ohana and get there before the Sheraton comes to its senses and abandons the kamaaina discount.
Wild Ginger Asian Cuisine
3441 Waialae Ave. // 738-1168 // Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards
Wild Ginger isn’t new new. It replaced a Chinese seafood restaurant more than a year ago. It was still new to me. I’d been planning to get there for months because I was intrigued by the notion that it was pan-Asian: contemporary, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese.
By the time I got there, the pan-Asian claims had been downsized a little. There’s not much trace of Japanese on the menu and only a hint of Malaysian. It’s Chinese food with diversions into Thai, but, for all that, an interesting menu.
An interesting place, as well, done up in Chinese-restaurant opulent: blonde wood, flower arrangements, curtains, chairs and table coverings in brocade, although the latter two are covered with plastic. It draws a casual neighborhood clientele.
There were four of us at dinner, all hungry. Someone ordered crispy wontons, over my protests. I ended up eating more than my share. They were just like all the other crispy wontons I’ve ever encountered, except the usual red sweet-and-sour sauce was jazzed up with chili peppers, which seemed to redeem the whole concept.
To start, I’d ordered the Wild Ginger Combo; a loosely constructed spring roll; a standard summer roll (why are there never fall and winter rolls?); a crab cake that was unlike any I’d had before, a flat pancakelike thing nicely golden brown, with the texture of fish cake inside; and something done extraordinarily well, a soft-shell crab, lightly battered and still hot from the fryer, a few bites of exceptional fun.