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Dining: Upscale Asian

Asian cuisine is already a star in Honolulu. Does it need to get dressed up?

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The antique gates at E&O in Ward Centre.

Photo courtesy e&o trading co.

Picture a restaurant with an Asian menu—dim sum, maybe, or pho. What do you see? Bright flourescent lights, lineoleum floors, formica tables, bargain prices? That may soon be an outdated image.

We’re seeing a trend toward high-end Asian restaurants—restaurants with stunning interiors, full bars and wine service, restaurants that compete on food quality, ambiance, service and not just price alone.

This is good. In Honolulu, we’ve long known that Asian cuisine is not “ethnic food,” as it’s called on the Mainland. For us, it’s just everyday food. It deserves respect.

On the other hand, Honolulu is already the best Asian food city in America, at least in the sense that Asian food is easily found, often on every street corner. It tends not to cost much, and it’s often of remarkable quality. Here, you don’t have to hunt for good Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese or Vietnamese food; it’s just there. It’s like living in the middle of great buffet of noodles, tom yum, spring rolls and stir-fries with rice.

That makes it tough to do an upscale Asian restaurant. You don’t want to be in the position of charging $19.95 for a dish and having the customer say, I could get this better for $7.95 in Chinatown.

Tough environment or not, Honolulu suddenly has some stunning high-end Asian eateries.

E&O Trading Co.
Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd.
808-591-9555
Lunch and Dinner daily 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Free parking, major credit cards
www.eotrading.com

E&O Trading Co. looks like a million bucks, well, actually $2 million, according to news reports. It occupies the old Pacific Cafe space in Ward Centre, but looks nothing like it. Walk through the faux antique wrought-iron gates, and it’s all teak furnishings and walls the color of curry powders. To set this off, from the ceiling hang red lanterns, red umbrellas and, in the entrance, an oversized bamboo wind chime painted everything from orange to purple.

If you read E&O’s promo materials, the odd restaurant name, the decor and indeed the whole concept are “inspired by a legendary friendship between an English trader and an Indonesian spice merchant.” Not quite a legend. The restaurant is the brainchild of Punahou grads Kenwei Chong and Christopher R. Hemmeter, who already have three E&Os in Northern California. Hemmeter is the son of Island developer Chris Hemmeter, who has, in fact, become legendary.

The younger Hemmeter, having learned from the fantasy resorts created by his father, wrote a six-page script, about a completely fictional 19th-century Englishman, John Bailey, who traded European goods with the Orient (hence E&O) and whose warehouse became a culinary gathering place.

I’m always uneasy about theme restaurants. However, to be fair, E&O is a warm, inviting, even stimulating restaurant setting.

Like many upscale Asian restaurants on the Mainland, E&O’s food is pan-Asian. It’s not really fusion food. Instead, it’s Asian dishes, from a variety of cultures, that have the greatest haole acceptance: satay, ribs, calamari, fried rice.

Unfortunately, the food is uneven, and was unevenly served. We were a party of five (on purpose, to order a large variety of dishes). Everyone was ravenous, so as soon as we sat down, I ordered the satay sampler. “Start there and we’ll add more food later.” A failed strategy. The satay—two sticks each of salmon, chicken, mushroom and steak—arrived late in the meal, a circumstance the waiter blamed on the grill. It was, in fact, better quality than usual satay, especially the steak, although in Honolulu it was hardly adventurous fare, the way it might be at the E&O in San Jose, Calif.

What we got first was something we ordered much later, two orders of naan bread, one topped with roasted tomatoes and onions, the other stuffed with spiced lamb. Naan, an East Indian flat bread, is traditionally cooked by slapping it against the clay walls of a high-heat tandoor oven, where it cooks rapidly, getting puffy on the inside and crispy brown on the outside. You have to eat it right away.

E&O doesn’t have a tandoor oven. The tomato-onion naan came out like a thick pizza, and was far too salty. The lamb in the stuffed naan was tasty, but the doughy texture made me miss the real thing.

So it went. Some items were quite engaging: a salad of Napa cabbage, green papaya and fresh ginger. Duck in an udon pot full of broth and vegetables, redolent with tangerine, star anise and ginger.

Some things were disappointments: the too-sweet Thai ribs, the lackluster long beans in sesame and the rib-eye rubbed with Mongolian spices. We asked for the steak sliced pupu style. It came in three big chunks.“Oh, what’s wrong with those guys in the kitchen?” asked the waiter.

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,May

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