Three new restaurants: 678 Hawaii, Greens and Vines, HASR Bistro

Carnivores, vegans and wine, oh my!


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The spread at 678 Hawaii.

Photos: Linny Morris

678 Hawaii

1726 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 101, 941-6678
$43.99 to $54.99 for a combo that feeds two to three

Does Honolulu really need another Korean barbecue restaurant? After trying 678 Hawaii, it turns out the answer is the same as whether you should order the pig skin: yes.

The pig skin arrives translucent, already cooked and infused with sugar and chili. After charring it further on the grill, it emerges as pig candy—crisp edged, sweet and chewy from collagen … and yes, fat. Our server, while grilling, threatens to abduct it, such is its addictive lure. It is, however, hard to shake the idea that you are basically chewing fat. I can only handle two pieces, okay, maybe three, okay … four.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 678 Hawaii features more than pseudo pork desserts. The first thing you should know about it is Gangnam Style artist Psy is NOT the guy whose likeness is scattered around the restaurant. It’s another Korean celebrity, comedian Kang Ho Dang, who has Korean restaurants in Korea, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

His Honolulu location across from the convention center is clean, modern, new and technologically advanced—the city of Seoul encapsulated on the corner of Kapiolani and Atkinson. While the convention center stands desolate and lonely, even as conventioneers mill about inside, 678 Hawaii has been perpetually bustling ever since it opened at the end of last year.

The technology is noteworthy. Remarkably efficient hoods drop down over each table like vacuum hoses: This is the first Korean barbecue restaurant I’ve been in where I don’t smell my dinner in my clothes a few hours later. Each table comes with a call button. Push the button, and the servers’ watches buzz with your table number. The servers, who all look like they have side gigs in K-pop boy bands, quickly and cheerfully replenish banchan and swoop in to flip your meats for an even sear.

 

The combos come with seafood soon dubu, as well as extras like corn cheese.

The grill is unlike any other Korean barbecue restaurant in town. It’s surrounded by a moat with compartments: one with beaten egg that sets up like a custard as the grill heats up, another with corn and cheese. Different grills are brought out for different meats: a wire grid for bulgolgi and kalbi, one with slats for pork jowl and brisket.

678 in Korean sounds like “quality meat.” For your first time, get either the pork or beef combo to sample the different cuts. I like the thick, tender meats and prefer the pork belly and unseasoned short rib (the seasoned is a little too sweet in its marinade), whereas a dining companion hogs the beef brisket, like thinly sliced beef bacon. But all of us are in awe of the pork skin. Two young, female friends at the table could not have squealed more over it than if Psy himself had come in and done his horse dance.

Food here is not so perfectly seasoned as at other Korean barbecue restaurants, but the whole experience is too fun to dismiss 678 entirely. When the grill really gets going, when it’s covered in various meats on the verge of the perfect char, when the banchan are varied and sweet and salty and spicy and vinegary foils to the rich meat, I think of how much I love Korean barbecue. The flavors smack your tastebuds around, and the multisensory experience is exciting. These days, modernist restaurants around the world, having transformed food into unfoodlike forms, contrive to reintroduce smells with puffs of smoke and interactivity with odd plates and centerpieces. But at a great Korean barbecue place, which 678 is, the interactivity, sights and smells are visceral, natural and effortless.
 

Greens and Vines

909 Kapiolani Blvd., Unit B, 536-9680
Entrées: $9.25 to $12.25


Greens and Vines' Spicy Kung Pao Veggies with diced papaya and cashews.

Sylvia and Pete Thompson never wanted to open a restaurant. The couple preferred dining at restaurants, at only the best, all over the world: New York, Paris, Burgundy. They adored sushi and foie gras. So they probably never imagined that one day, they would open Honolulu’s first raw and vegan restaurant, banishing from the kitchen all meat, dairy, grains, sugar and open flame (in a raw food diet, nothing is heated above 118 degrees). But health has a funny way of changing our minds, of shifting our lives, our priorities, especially when it comes to what we eat.

Ten years ago, Pete had a heart attack. The couple transitioned into a vegan diet. Sylvia put in six weeks at a raw, vegan school and then opened up ’Licious Dishes, a take-home meal service with a base of operations hidden in Dole Cannery. ’Licious Dishes fed the health-minded for five years, and before the holidays last year, Sylvia opened Greens and Vines, on the highly visible corner of Kapi‘olani and Ward, in full, defiant view of Jack-in-the-Box. She was spurred by an ‘Ilima award that she says finally convinced Pete her food was good enough to pair with wines, apparently the only proof he needed to consider a full-service raw and vegan restaurant a viable business.

 

When Greens and Vines got its liquor license, it debuted a menu with three times the number of wines than food items. Most of the wines are red wines (including a $290 bottle of Sassicaia 2009 from Tuscany), which surprises me: given the meatless entrées, I would have expected more whites.

But this is a testament to Greens and Vines’ food: flavors that can hold their own against some of the lighter reds, like the Garnet pinot noir. Without heat to temper the bite of garlic, the zing of ginger, the kick of onions, some of the dishes light up the brain in their vibrancy.


Greens and Vines' pad thai with kaffir miso sauce.

Take the pad thai sauce, a kaffir miso blend that offers a punchy mix of ginger and miso, rounded out by kaffir leaves that impart a floral, citrusy aroma. It’s tossed with a rainbow of veggies—bean sprouts, red cabbage, bell peppers, carrots—and sea-kelp noodles. It’s my first time with these noodles made with seaweed, but I’ve come to love their springy, crunchy texture.

There are a handful of appetizers (not-tuna-salad is my favorite, bright and unfettered by mayonnaise) and only four entrees—the pad thai, a garden burger on onion “bread” that tastes more like an onion fruit roll-up; a daily special, which might be kung pao veggies or zucchini linguine with alfredo sauce; and the Living Lasagna.

Living Lasagna, twelve layers of raw vegan goodness.

The Living Lasagna is Greens and Vines’ signature dish, which has about as much in common with the starchy cheese bomb we know as Honey Boo Boo does with Jessica Chastain. It’s a vegetable terrine with 12 layers of thinly sliced zucchini, spinach, a rich macadamia nut ricotta, sundried tomato marinara, fresh tomatoes and basil pesto.

It’s usually around the Living Lasagna that people will raise an eyebrow at the prices. Its portion size is equivalent to a stack of credit cards, for $12.25. Eating raw and vegan is not cheap, but neither are the organic vegetables and ingredients Greens and Vines sources and prepares as carefully as a Michelin-starred restaurant. Decades of dining at such restaurants meant the Thompsons weren’t going to be happy just gnawing on carrots and lettuce. Entrées can be multi-day processes (they just involve blenders and dehydrators instead of stoves and ovens). Almost everything is organic, from the vegetables down to the spices and the non-GMO, wheat-free tamari (similar to shoyu but thicker and darker). The kitchen eschews sugar, stocking instead agave nectar and maple syrup powder. Banned are wheat and all grains, which Sylvia thinks of as “filler, stuff that puffs you up like the Pillsbury dough boy.” What’s perceived as healthy can be a moving target—Sylvia had recently switched out hijiki, a type of seaweed, for California sea palms, fretting about arsenic—but I think most of us don’t want to muck around in the details of what’s healthy and what’s not. It’s a relief to eat where someone else is thinking of those things.

 

HASR Bistro

31 N. Pauahi St., 533-4277, hasrbistro.com
Appetizers $10-$21, Entrées $24-$36


 Sitting at the bar inside HASR Bistro.

Roll back the years to 2004, when Rodney Uyehara was chef at the Bistro at Century Center, before all the new places served small plates, before vegan restaurants infiltrated our meat-loving town. Do you miss that time? Then go to HASR Bistro.

Uyehara has returned. Previously known for updating classic Continental dishes such as osso buco and steak Diane at the Bistro, his creativity was kept mostly under wraps when he started working at the Moana Surfrider’s Beachhouse, a play-it-straight steak and seafood restaurant. But now, at HASR Bistro, he’s picked up right where he left off.

HASR Bistro is in the old Grand Café and Bakery space, sharing a courtyard with HASR Wine Co. Terry Kakazu owns both (as well as Terry’s Place, a dive bar with live music nightly in Chinatown Cultural Plaza). HASR stands for Highly Allocated (aka hard to get) Spoiled Rotten (referring to Kakazu, for getting those highly allocated wines). Kakazu opened HASR Wine Co. eight years ago, occasionally hosting wine dinners in the courtyard. When Grand Café vacated last year, she jumped at the restaurant space. After all, what is wine without food?

Uyehara’s food is a perfect match for wine: rich, hearty, meaty dishes. He’s a master of slow-cooking. His cassoulet is a stew of veal, duck confit, sausage and beans, the ultimate meat-lovers chili by way of the South of France. For the osso buco, he uses veal cheeks instead of the traditional lamb shank (the dish’s name refers to the marrow hole in a cross-cut shank bone). The cheeks practically melt into the bed of mushroom risotto, and while the dab of applesauce on top seems odd, I like its added sweetness to cut the richness.

 

Beef and Reef: filet mignon and lobster.

Kakazu’s vision for HASR Bistro was originally French classics, but Kakazu’s not one for sticking to original visions, nor just one, for that matter (hence the dive bar and the upscale wine shop in her portfolio, the future plans for a crab and chardonnay night, all-you-can-eat fried chicken night, an Excalibur-themed dinner—wait, what?). So that’s why there’s osso buco, that’s why there’s cioppino—because Kakazu loves it. HASR’s rendition of this San Francisco classic is easy to love: a medley of seafood in a tomato clam broth that we can’t leave alone until we’ve drained every drop. I would have liked it with some crusty sourdough to sop it all up; instead, it came with rice, a reminder that you are not in San Francisco, but Chinatown, Honolulu.

The kitchen can clearly cook, but sometimes insecurity creeps in. There’s cheese on everything, as if the kitchen were using it as a crutch. What’s it doing on the cassoulet, the duck pot pie, the crab sandwich? Mostly it muddies flavors and drags down an already heavy dish. When the dish calls for cheese to rise to the occasion, such as with the French onion soup, it suffers from stage fright. What should have been a nutty cheese such as Gruyere or Emmental loses to a four-cheese blend in which a flat mozzarella dominates.

But it’s a little thing, to be quibbling about too much cheese. “Soaker clams” offers plump clams soaked in garlic butter, with bursts of freshness courtesy of cherry tomatoes and arugula. The striploin comes out impressively charred yet still medium-rare, accompanied by a creamy pasta (though with spaghetti, not the egg noodles promised). Green peppercorns in the sauce cut the richness. But really, if we’re talking about cutting richness, nothing did that better than the Carrefour cabernet franc we picked up next door (the bistro waives the corkage fee if you bring in wine from HASR Wine Co.). The osso buco in particular, that wine, the cold, drizzly night outside all made for a comfortable, cozy bistro experience.

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