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.


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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

 

Read More Stories by Martha Cheng

 

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