Dining: Taking Suggestions
This month, our restaurant critic let other people decide where he should eat.
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Mariano didn’t want to melt cheese on top of his pork loin. Instead, he’d constructed a log of Gorgonzola, butter and panko, sliced off two sunny yellow disks of it and warmed them at the last moment atop the pork in the oven, ending up with a nice, restrained cheese layer on an equally nicely pan-seared, thick slice of pork, golden-brown on the edges.
My friend objected to the faint blush of pink in the meat’s center. I agreed with Mariano that if you don’t cook pork medium, it goes all dense and tough, and this was tender.
The chicken was even better. Like the pork, it was relatively simple in concept. The breast had been butterflied and stuffed with a spinach, mushroom and bacon mix done up in béchamel sauce, which kept it moist and added flavor. As with the pork, it came atop a mash of Okinawan and Molokai sweet potatoes. (“You have to use both to get the blend right, said Mariano.) The potatoes were surrounded by a jus made from cooking down chicken bones. “Great flavor, but kind of salty,” I said.
“You’re supposed to eat it with the potatoes,” said Mariano, rolling his eyes. “It balances.” He was right; it was sweet and savory.
We had by this time equipped ourselves with a drinkable, though slightly coarse bottle of Argentinean merlot (it was $28 and it was all George had behind the bar anyway). We just relaxed, like we were the only people in the restaurant, which we were.
Did Mariano make the desserts? we inquired. We make everything, said George. And so we ordered a light mango cheesecake, a big, oozy chocolate cake, and one thing I tried to keep my friend from ordering, guava chiffon cake.
As far as I’m concerned, guava chiffon cake is Hawaii’s contribution to the world of lame desserts, ranking up there with New England’s Indian Pudding. But this was not the usual. First, it was real cake, with some body to it, despite being whipped into egg whites like a chiffon; second, it had dense whipped cream between the layers; and, three, real guava purée instead of some suspect pink stuff poured over the top.
We had five appetizers, two entrées, three desserts, a couple of drinks and a bottle of wine for $130, with tip. You could eat well here for about $30, so I’d urge you to do that, and soon.
“I like to give local people a five-star experience that’s affordable,” says Mariano. Go make him happy, he deserves it.
A Taste of the Bayou
740 Kapahulu Ave. // 732-2229 // Lunch Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. // Good luck on parking, major credit cards // www.tasteofthebayou.com
Several people suggested I check out the new Cajun restaurant on Kapahulu. None of them had tried it themselves. The thinking seemed to be: You first, John.
A Taste of the Bayou bills itself as “the leading Cajun-Creole restaurant in Hawaii,” a title it may claim by definition, since it’s the only one. I won’t go into the differences between Cajun and Creole, since in New Orleans everyone eats both and the definitions have gotten blurry. Just remember that New Orleans is the only place in the country besides Hawaii with a great cuisine all its own.
There were four of us at dinner, which was good because I wanted to try everything. Two of them were members of my immediate family, which was good because I was bossy about what to order, including alligator, which raised a few eyebrows.
“The alligator’s fishy, Dad,” complained my daughter. It’s only an appetizer, I pointed out, and the correct word is gamey, not fishy. It was tender, not always true of alligator, simmered in a soul-satisfying tomato sauce filled with bits of peppery and garlicky alligator sausage.
The other appetizer was easier to sell: fried green tomatoes with a thick panko crust, touched with remoulade, a spicier and much more appealing New Orleans version of tartar sauce.
But the entrées were the big hit. Taste of the Bayou’s chef-owner Dillard Faulk grew up in the tiny town of Stark, La., learned to cook from his mama, though he eventually attended KCC. Apparently, his mother could cook.
His file (that’s fee-lay, ground sassafras leaves, added at the last minute to keep from thickening the soup too much) gumbo is essentially a thick seafood soup, served over a mound of rice. Gumbo is built on layers of flavor: the New Orleans trinity of onion, celery, bell pepper; the nutty brown roux made by slowly cooking flour in butter. It had bright notes of black and red pepper and came flecked with file. The triumph here was the deep, rich shrimpy goodness in the broth, not to mention shrimp, scallops and crab in the soup itself.