Battle of the Brunches: Koko Head Cafe vs. Bills Sydney

New spots Koko Head Cafe and Bills Sydney introduce novel dishes, but in very different ways.


Published:

 

Left to right: The breakfast spread at Bills Sydney and Koko Head Cafe.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
 

My ideal pancake has a lot in common with my ideal man: tall, tender and there for me in the morning. And like men, while I have a favorite (the one at home), I also have a wandering eye for the new hotness.

Enter Bills and Koko Head Cafe: two new places that serve pancakes with supreme confidence. “Bills is famous for its pancakes,” servers are quick to inform. In Japan, they attract two-hour lines. At Koko Head Cafe, the chef promised pancakes so good I’d have to write about them.

Pancake challenge accepted.
 

Koko Head Cafe

Inside the restaurant, formerly 12th Ave Grill.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon


First up, Koko Head Cafe. Except—oh, that wandering eye—when I opened the menu, I completely forgot about the pancakes. Confronted by a cornflake French toast, reuben frittata and bourbon milkshake with candied bacon, what would you have done? Pancakes, the love of my life, were forgotten (my husband’s seen that before).  
 

 

Cornflake French toast and breakfast bibimbap.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
 

And what an affair: The French toast, rolled in cornflakes, is as crunchy as Popeye’s fried chicken. Served a la mode with frosted flake gelato and sugared bacon, this is dessert for breakfast. And you’ve never had eggs like this—a pastrami sandwich reincarnated as a reuben frittata with housemade pastrami, kimchee sauerkraut and Thousand Island sauce. The Don Buri Chen is a meat fest that surprisingly keeps gluttony in check—the pickles bring the miso-smoked pork, five-spice pork belly, chicharron and just-barely cooked, creamy eggs back to the edge of reason. (The dish is named for William Chen, formerly the chef at Beachhouse at the Moana, now doing his own thing with Fresh Box.) The only real letdown that day was the bourbon milkshake, more the consistency of a white Russian than a thick shake.

The menu is divided into sections that are somewhat arbitrary and don’t do much to help the decision-making. Some sections are cheeky, such as “Kung Fu Fighting,” befitting a gregarious TV chef. Lee Anne Wong, who partnered with Kevin Hanney to open Koko Head Cafe, competed on the first-ever season of Top Chef. She didn’t win, but she did well for herself, landing a spin-off show and other TV gigs. She moved to Hawaii about a year ago to see about a boy. “I met my boyfriend over breakfast,” she says.

Lucky boy, if he gets to eat like this regularly. Which I’m guessing he doesn’t, since she’s spending seven days a week cooking breakfast for everyone else.

It wasn’t until a second visit that I finally tried the pancakes. The bacon version (a fresh fruit option is also available, for the virtuous among us) is similar to the French toast, with bacon and the same sop-it-up-till-it’s-gone black-pepper maple sauce. Ricotta in the pancakes gives them a slight tang and keeps them extra moist, so much so that the stack reminds me of a cream-soaked tres leches cake. They are delicious, but the French toast still rises to the top.

Koko Head Cafe takes everything comfortable and makes it new again, from eggs to dumplings (she has a cookbook coming out soon: Dumplings All Day Wong). Sure, throwing three kinds of meat (bacon, ham, Portuguese sausage) into the congee gives rice porridge instant sex appeal, but it’s the creative touch of cheddar cheese and cinnamon-sugared croutons that makes it worth returning to.

Brunch plates $6 to $18, Koko Head Cafe, 1145c 12th Ave., 732-8920, kokoheadcafe.com
 

 

Bills Sydney

“The food is nothing special," people say about Bills. And yet, they keep coming back for more. It turns out, when it comes to food we want to eat every day, creativity is overrated.

There are some plates—in particular, an extremely naked chopped salad with only a lemon wedge for dressing—that will make you think, “I could make this.” Bills knows this. It even provides the recipes: Pick up the Bills Everyday Food cookbook in the foyer on your way out.

But I keep returning anyway. I love the freshness and lightness of Bills’ dishes, such a rarity in this meat and gravy-laden town where carrots are interchangeable with orchids as garnishes. And I especially love the gorgeous dining room, which is all raw wood and pastels and, during the day, washed in natural light, thanks to the cathedral ceilings and skylights.

Bills refers to Aussie restaurateur Bill Granger, who wants you to believe he’s just an awesome home cook. You won’t catch him in chef’s whites anymore than you’d find his servers in black slacks. (Technically, the restaurants are named “bills”—oh, those Aussies, so laid back they can’t be bothered with capitalization and punctuation.) He’s “the Australian Ed Kenney,” as a local chef once described him to me. He has eight restaurants, with most of them in his home country and Japan (where the lines for his ricotta hotcakes are the longest) and at least as many cookbooks (Ryan Gosling says he has them all). In his restaurants, the flavors range from Mediterranean to Asian, drawing especially on flavors from sunny climes. He’s even introduced a kimchee fried rice to his menus, inspired by a visit to Diamond Head Grill, except this one’s got chorizo and crab meat. The rest of the world might dig it, but it might be too light for local tastes, in both meat and kimchee.

I’ve come to Bills at all times of the day: lunch for a salad of beets, quinoa and sprouted sunflower seeds, finished off with fresh lime and a sprinkle of chili flakes; dinner for an excellent burger (Australians put beets in their sandwiches, a friend told me recently, and there it was! A fat beet slice in my burger!); and late night for a sundae topped with fresh lilikoi and cookie crumbles. I’m a happier person, having found salads and sundaes like these.

 

 

Left: The full Aussie breakfast, the Down Under version of Denny's Grand Slam. Right: The Australian-style coffee menu includes a piccolo, flat white and long black.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
 

But what Bills is really known for—the reputation Granger cannot shake, even as he writes new cookbooks on Italian food and touts his guanciale-and-fennel pizza—is breakfast. When The New York Times calls you “the egg master of Sydney,” it’s a typecast people don’t forget.

They’re velvety and quite possibly the best eggs you’ve ever had. The secret is a lot of cream—practically equal amounts of cream and eggs. Google the recipe and you, too, can be an egg master. But while you’re at Bills, get them in the full Aussie breakfast, the Down Under version of the Denny’s Grand Slam with sourdough toast, miso mushrooms, fennel sausage, cumin-roasted tomatoes and bacon. (A note on the menu: it hasn’t been Americanized, so it’s yoghurt for yogurt, rocket for arugula, and bacon for ham. Expats have this in common with vegetarians: They both miss streaky, “American” bacon.)

And, finally, what about those pancakes? Bills’ ricotta hotcakes are fluffy and moist, just barely sweet, served with medallions of honey-marbled butter and slabs of banana. I would not wait two hours for them, but since I don’t have to, I have only praise for them. For those who prefer a more traditional buttermilk pancake, with a bit more heft, you can get them in the more casual downstairs cafe. Just like upstairs, they are available day and night. Hooray for pancakes for dinner!

Bills is really two spots in one—a bakery and cafe on the first floor, a full-service restaurant on the second. Across from Luxury Row in Waikiki, it’s a far cry from the original neighborhood restaurant Granger opened. I don’t mind, but it’s a shame that its Waikiki location and parking situation—validation only after 3 p.m., and it’s still $6 then—will prevent many people from stopping in as frequently as they will Koko Head Cafe in Kaimuki.

For Koko Head Cafe is the sort of place where you continue the party from the night before, where you go on a day off before you hit the beach. This is brunch food reinvented, brunch that is as much an event as it is sustenance. Koko Head, for all its remade diner touches, feels like a special occasion, whereas Bills is lighter, more straightforward, the idealized version of a healthy, home-cooked meal, in the beachhouse of your richest friend.

Breakfast and lunch plates $8 to $16, Dinner $16 to $32, Bills Sydney, 280 Beachwalk Ave., 922-1500, billshawaii.com

 

 

The Stack Up

Koko Head Cafe vs. Bills Sydney

 

Pancakes

Hawaiian-style (with tropical fruit) or with bacon and creamy black-pepper maple syrup. Tall like birthday cake, moist like tres leches. Ricotta gives it tang and tenderness.

Winner: Ricotta hotcakes (upstairs) and buttermilk pancakes (downstairs) with fruit and yogurt or pineapple and ham. The ricotta cakes are incredibly light and barely sweet, the buttermilk ones a little heavier, but still fluffy.

Eggs

Winner: At least 10 dishes with eggs—poached, baked, scrambled. Pick: the frittata of the day, such as a recent reuben frittata with pastrami and kimchee sauerkraut.

Lovely scrambled eggs (the secret: lots of cream). Get them in the Full Aussie Breakfast, with cumin-roasted tomatoes, fennel sausage and sourdough toast.

Coffee

Illy espresso and coffee, and a pour-over Kona coffee option.
 

Winner: An Aussie coffee menu—long black (an espresso with water), flat white (similar to a latte), piccolo (a baby latte)—made with Stumptown coffee.

Other Knockout Dish

Winner: Cornflake French toast.

Sweetcorn fritters.

Verdict: Draw

 

Read More Stories by Martha Cheng

 

Subscribe to Honolulu