Dining: Eat, Memory
Sometimes the newer the restaurants are, the more familiar they seem.
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But that’s leaving the best for last—spezzatino. Spezzatino is usually translated as stew, but in Donato’s version, anyway, it’s closer to a French cassoulet, mixed meats and beans simmered forever, topped at the last moment with bread crumbs and cloves of roasted garlic.
The menu claimed this was made with beef short ribs. Dubious, I asked Donato later: No, he uses a cut of beef called the flat loin, which sits on top of the steaks. He adds some lamb loin, some housemade Italian sausage, some big, speckled Berlotti beans, braises it with plenty of red wine.
This was so heartwarming that even before we finished the first bowl, we’d ordered a second. Said the other friend who joined me, “This is comfort food from an Italian childhood I never got to have.”
Desserts were not even in the same league as the rest of the food. In retrospect, I would have skipped them and ordered one more dish. But our friend, who applauded the little fish fries, is highly dessert-oriented. In her honor we ordered three desserts, including one that was three small desserts in one.
The only dessert that really worked was a lemon pana cotta topped with fresh fruit. The pear tarte tatin was not a real tarte tatin—the too-thick pear slices were simply arranged on top of a prebaked, now cold and unappealing crust.
Whatever you do, do not order the coconut tapioca. The table next to ours sent theirs back. We just didn’t eat it.
On the other hand, the beverages were delightful, not counting the Bellini, which was made with peach juice rather than peach purée. Especially good wines: the M. Picard Vouvray and the juicy and enjoyable Barbera d’Asti from La Meridiana.
Donato is also importing beer, so there’s a separate list of craft and European beers. On many tables there was nary a wine glass, just a forest of beer bottles. My friend, the one yearning for an Italian childhood he never had, drank a beer called—I couldn’t make this up—Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter. It seemed darker than espresso. I tasted it and wished that American craft beer makers would learn that too many hops do not make for a distinctive beer; they merely blitz your tastebuds.
All told, however, we had endless fun, which is always a good thing, especially when you are dropping $220 for three. Dessert aside, it was money well spent.
3605 Waialae Ave. // 426-3552 // Dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.
Belladonna is truly new. Still, I felt I’d been there before. There’s a long tradition, especially in Kaimuki, of first-time, not heavily capitalized restaurants with fine-dining aspirations. Often, until they get a liquor license, they are BYOB—which gives them quick acceleration with people who like to go out nice and keep costs down.
Belladonna took over the C&C Pasta location and made it look even more urban, installing a loft and hanging cylindrical light fixtures so hip I wanted to climb up on the bar, unscrew them and take them home.
The space is contemporary; the menu, thoroughly retro. The restaurant’s signature item is beef Wellington, which is so old school that many of its younger patrons may think it’s new. Actually, it’s been around at least since the early 19th century.
I’ve often had philosophical differences with beef Wellington. Why exactly would you take a perfectly good tenderloin of beef and wrap it in puff pastry, which then gets soggy?
Still, I admit, Belladonna’s makes a nice presentation, individual pieces, roasted medium rare and then served cut open, so you actually see the beef. Before being wrapped, the meat’s coated with a mushroom duxelles. Duxelles isn’t complicated: finely chopped mushrooms cooked in butter with shallots and so forth. It’s been around since the 17th century.
At Belladonna, this is nicely executed, well-presented, atop a traditional bordelaise, a red wine-demiglace sauce you’ve eaten many times without knowing the name. This evening I’d taken a friend out for her birthday—and when this dish arrived at her place, she felt suitably fêted.
My entree was simpler, though also wrapped. It was a seafood spaghetti al cartoccio, the Italian equivalent of en papillote. It’s boiled spaghetti, sauced, popped into a parchment-paper pouch and baked. Whatever your thoughts on baking pasta, this makes a great presentation, because the pouch browns a little and puffs up. When the waiter opens the bag at the table, you get a blast of aroma. Otherwise, this is just a competent seafood pasta in red sauce. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my birthday.
We’d preceded all this with appetizers—a fresh mozzarella vegetable wrap that was a disappointment after Donato’s mozzarella, and some pleasant enough chicken liver pâté on some remarkably good toasted baguette. The star appetizer was a beef carpaccio, beautiful rare slices arrayed on a platter (not virtually glued to it, as often happens), nicely seasoned with sea salt, pepper, shallots, chives, and then topped with grilled Portobello mushroom slices.
Since it was a birthday, we ended big, with a chocolate mousse that seemed to have been folded into a thick whipped cream and topped with yet more whipped cream, plus chocolate shavings, plus a strawberry.
The other dessert that I couldn’t resist ordering—once again because it sounded out of the box—was a chocolate-bleu cheese gelato. The birthday girl thought it a bit weird but OK. I thought it was perfectly balanced between the sweet of the chocolate and the sharp bite of the bleu.
This was a satisfying dinner—and priced well, $130 with tip. Of course, that didn’t count the wine I brought in, since Belladonna was still BYOB. Thanks to Nick Keeler of the wine shop Simply Grape for recommending the Midnight Cellars Pinot Noir ($26).
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.
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