2016 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Champions of Chinatown
Here’s how two of downtown’s hottest new restaurants sprang from the partnership of Jesse Cruz and Dusty Grable. Two self-described “nobodies” (just try to find them in this photo!). The saga of Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern shows that heart. Friendship and paying your dues make for an unbeatable combination.
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The crab and avocado salad with shiso-tomato gazpacho and ikura, a recent addition to the menu at Lucky Belly.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
After the Mandarin Oriental, Dusty Grable went to Alan Wong’s. “It was good, it was tough. I met Mike Ishihara, who was a waiter there; he’s now our beverage director.” After Alan Wong’s, he migrated to Chinatown and Indigo, then to Brasserie Du Vin, working under early Chinatown innovator, Dave Stewart. “I’d found a passion for hospitality, a passion for the industry,” he says. Then came Formaggio’s, where he met Cruz.
“The chef had just left,” recalls Cruz, “and had been out for two weeks. It wasn’t a nice handoff. I had to work 60 days straight to turn the room around. I needed to learn the culture of Hawai‘i food again; the materials are a lot different, the purveyors are a lot different.”
As the two became friends, says Grable, “I learned so much. The team was inventive and relentless: how they did fine wine, small pours, blindfolded dinners, family dinners, jazz dinners.” He adds: “From Formaggio’s, I saw that everything is about relationships. Food and beverage is a very small part of what we do. They’re just the vessels of all we do.”
Grable and Cruz started talking about opening their own place. Restaurant regulars encouraged them, including a couple that offered to back them if they ever went out on their own. In 2009, Grable says, he and Cruz got serious. “In Las Vegas and San Diego, Jesse had been doing bigger stuff than most of us local kids. He said I needed to work on the Mainland to learn more. So I went.”
Cook Thomas Tarlpey working in the kitchen at Livestock Tavern.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino
Crable’s then-girlfriend, now wife, Elyse Grable, had a good job as an interior decorator but was willing to move to San Francisco. Grable had a short list of places to work: “Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, Cyrus in Healdsburg, Ame at the St. Regis in San Francisco.” He started at Gary Danko, where he found “an understated menu, but everything represented: local fish and shellfish, meat and game, no duplicated sauces or sides.”
An upper-crust sanctuary, “Gary Danko is a machine in which you play your role,” Grable says. When he felt ready to move on, he landed a dream job: Ame at the St. Regis hotel. “The St. Regis taught me the business skills I didn’t learn anywhere else—they held me accountable for labor costs, ingredient costs, beverage costs.”
Grable and Cruz would call each other and Cruz would report on the search for a space. But progress was slow. Once, Cruz said he was thinking of opening a shrimp shack in Kailua. “I said, ‘Awesome, but it doesn’t sound like a two-man operation.’” Finally, in 2012, a call came out for applications to lease a space on Hotel Street, former home of the old-school Mini Garden restaurant. Grable asked Dave Stewart of Du Vin, on nearby Bethel Street, to look at it. His advice: Do it. “I called Jesse: ‘You got to get that spot.’”
But there were 11 other applicants, many better qualified on paper. How to convince the landlord?
Moses Moses and Tonio Welle, Lucky Belly cooks at work.
In San Diego, Cruz had recently opened Underbelly for the Cohn Group, with a boundary-pushing hipster ramen menu similar to David Chang’s Momofuku in New York City. “We’d looked around Chinatown,” Cruz says, “and asked ourselves, ‘What does the area need?’ Not pho and not dim sum. We don’t have the capital to do wine or steak.” They saw ramen getting a lot of attention on the Mainland, in New York and Los Angeles. “We thought, ‘We’re from Hawai‘i, we know what ramen is. Why can’t we make a ramen that is the best in the state?’”
And ramen was cheap. But how, then, to make it an experience? “Eating noodles is part of the culture here,” says Grable. “Ramen shops are great, but they want to turn over the table. You can’t linger.” Their ramen would be served in a restaurant, not a shop.
Once Lucky Belly’s concept won over the landlords, Grable and Cruz reached out to those regular customers at Formaggio’s, Marites and Ron Calad, who’d once offered financial backing. “We asked them, ‘Were you at all serious?’” They were.
The Keep the Change cocktail by Livestock Tavern bartender Ku‘ulei Akuna.
They started with a small menu done well. “We served what we could afford,” says Grable. With success they could evolve and find customers “willing to spend more money on seared duck and crab if we put it on the menu.”
Not even a year had passed when the landlord came back with a new opportunity: the opposite corner of Hotel and Smith.
Once again, they asked the question: What does the area need?
Livestock Tavern’s chef Alfredo Baliba Jr. gets ready for dinner.
“In Hawai‘i, it’s so easy to smother food in a kim chee marinade, to serve kalbi ribs and steamed white rice,” says Cruz. “It’s so easy, it’s kind of nuts not to do that. But we wanted to make a nice room like Ame in San Francisco, like Cyrus in Healdsburg.”
This time, the partners aimed higher: “What Hawai‘i doesn’t have is a New American Modern restaurant. We’ll do seasonal—and pilafs, not white rice.” It would be a risk, because it could be out of their current customers’ comfort zone. The ingredients would be pricier and, if they wanted continuity in the menu, the sourcing would be an ongoing challenge.
But, says Cruz, “Flavor is flavor.” And Livestock Tavern would draw on Cruz’s understanding of what diners universally crave: “Any dish needs acidity, needs salt, needs crispness—the technique can be different, but everyone is looking for the crispness and the charring. If you’re from Japan you add soy sauce, if you’re from Italy you want balsamic. Then you change things up with your ingredients, your spices, your rosemary and tarragon, every one giving the dish a little twist.”
To go with a seasonal menu rich in color and savor, one that would draw inspiration from early American and Eastern Shore comfort food, Elyse Grable took the space down to its exposed brick walls and then created a hip tavern vibe with dark woods, tall windows pouring down light, and a hammered metal sign on the exterior. A modern Paul Revere could hang his hat here and let the Thomas Crown Affair cocktail ring his bell.
When Livestock opened its doors in 2014, this time there was no rocky start, no trashing sessions on Yelp. The place was packed from the outset. Comfort food beckoned—scallops with bone marrow on truffle grits, mushroom bread pudding with smoked Gouda, beet salad frisee and a darn good New England clam chowder—and won approval and acclaim. Quirky touches include a cocktail menu themed to cult classics (think The Princess Bride, Labyrinth and Robert Frost). Turns out we were just waiting for New American Modern to come along.
Cruz and Grable still sound surprised by success. They’d been so focused on the journey they hadn’t noticed they’d arrived. “We were kind of uncertain about going onstage to receive the Hale ‘Aina [for Best New Restaurant],” says Grable. “But when we were standing there looking out over all these people, it hit us. I turned to Jesse and said, ‘You know, we’ve got to start taking this seriously.’”
When the night of celebration was over, Grable and his wife went home to their apartment above Hotel Street. There he reached for his comfort food since he was a little boy. “Top Ramen,” he says, then, like James Bond ordering his signature martini: “Dry.” Of course. “I open the noodle packet, tear open the spice packet, shake it all up. Eat it uncooked.
“The night of the Hale ‘Aina Awards, my wife looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy.’”