The Do-Overs: 53 by the Sea and Lucky Belly
In which two decades-old restaurants give way to new ones. One is an outright replacement of the old John Dominis, the other took over a long-time Chinese greasy spoon.
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The well-edited bar is no doubt Dusty Grable’s doing. Grable, the front-of-house manager and partner in Lucky Belly, was the manager at Formaggio Kailua before he worked at Gary Danko, one of San Francisco’s most famed fine dining restaurants, and then went on to run the beverage program at Ame, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the St. Regis.
The ramen is as stylish as the restaurant, served in deep, wide bowls. The noodles stay firm until you get to the bottom of the bowl, and while the broth at times can be uneven—salty one day, a little flat another—it is usually just right. Garnishes include a soft, steamed egg, which oozes molten velvet into the broth, a tangle of wakame, a sprinkle of sesame, and a smidge of grated ginger for a touch of zing, all the supporting cast to the meats: pork belly, arabiki sausage and bacon in the Belly Bowl, or brisket, short rib and oxtail dumplings in the Beast Bowl. A table evenly divided between Belly and Beast Bowls will give way to a miniature barter economy. In the end, the market settles that one oxtail dumpling is worth one slice of pork belly and half the sausage.
But if you really want to experience the full glory of an oxtail dumpling, order the appetizer version, the rich, shredded meat encased in thick, chewy rice paper, (similar to har gao, the shrimp dumplings at dim sum), served atop a soy mustard sauce with bite.
Skip the duck lumpia, which taste mostly of the fried wrapper and only faintly of duck. Pork belly bao may be overplayed by now, but as with bacon and party drugs, it’s hard to say no.
The appetizers you must get are the watercress salad with chicharrones, which are really chunks of roasted pork with crispy skin, the salad tossed with generous portions of tomatoes and onions, the dish like the Filipino classic, lechon kawali, dolled up. Spiced beef tartare is perfect, perked up with togarashi and capers, topped with a raw quail egg yolk and accompanied by a smear of sweet, roasted garlic. Raw, chopped beef is an odd thing to crave, but now I do.
The beet salad looks like pink layered jello, which is a bit off-putting, but never mind: tangy goat cheese and the candied nut crunch (more please!) bring it back to tasty sophistication.
If you find yourself roaming Chinatown streets Thursday to Saturday night, you should belly up to Lucky Belly’s takeout window. The menu, which changes about every week, is a piece of butcher paper taped over the window, with three or four items, all $5. At 2 a.m., it could have just been some deep-fried mess for those looking for hangover-prevention provisions, but it’s much more refined. When we go, it’s bratwurst with sauerkraut sitting in a whole-grain mustard spiked potato mash; a grilled cheese sandwich with Gouda, prosciutto and tomatoes with a touch of citrusy mayo. A silky corn chowder with smoky bits of pork is the highlight, and we see it making cameos all over Chinatown—in the hands of after-shift line cooks, bar hoppers sobering up, a bouncer that just wants to be left alone with his bowl.
Before opening their restaurant, the Lucky Belly partners thought about opening a New England-inspired seafood shack, based on the corn chowder alone. But the ingredients would have been too difficult and expensive to get. Now, though, we get to have both: ramen inside the restaurant, corn chowder from the window. Lucky us.
Japanese vs. DIY
Honolulu’s newer restaurants these days seem to be either Japanese-investor backed dining rooms or DIY enterprises erected by the young and hip. A sampling of each:
Vintage Cave (opening this month): Japanese developer Takeshi Sekiguchi (most famous for building the Grand Wailea) bankrolls a restaurant in the basement of Shirokiya.
Nanzan Giro Giro (opened in May 2011): A kaiseki-only restaurant. Its namesake, Nanzan, is a ceramicist based out of Kyoto.
Bernini (opened April 2011): The Bernini Restaurant group has three restaurants in Japan, all focusing on authentic Italian. It serves some of Honolulu’s best Italian, perhaps not surprising—there are an estimated 2,000 Italian restaurants in Tokyo.
The Whole Ox Deli (opened March 2012): Raised funds via a Kickstarter campaign to build a meatery in Kakaako, Honolulu's latest urban renewal project.
Inferno Pizza (opened in Vice nightclub in July 2012): Kiawe-fired pizza, housed in a nightclub, sharing space with a brewery. Started out as an oven trailer in a Kalihi parking lot.
Downbeat Diner (opened January 2011): Punk rockers renovated a Vietnamese joint into a late-night diner with a big vegan following. It turns out vegans also like to stay out late and need deep-fried sustenance just like the rest of us.