Chasing the Buzz
Three hot new restaurants, but only one winner- Kevin Hanney's 12th Avenue Grill.
I did a little traveling the past few months. When I got back to town, there was lots of buzz buzz buzz on the restaurant hot line. I've learned over the years that you can't always trust the buzz on new restaurants. Nonetheless, I felt obligated to check it out, to find out for myself whether there's any good news behind the hype. I chased the buzz this month, with mixed results.
Tudo de Bom (rough translation: always good) opened this summer in an upstairs space at the McCully Shopping Center, which has housed first an Italian and then a Spanish restaurant. This time it is a Brazilian restaurant. Ah, the romance. Bebel Gilberto songs begin to play in my imagination.
However, here's the reality. Once you subtract all the exotica-the lilt of the samba-inspired romance, the Brazilian tradition of roasting meat over open fires on the pampas, the dashing waiters sweeping by your table to carve right from the barbecue skewers onto your plate-once you get past all that, Tudo de Bom is an all-you-can-eat restaurant, no more, no less. Dinner is $18.95 on weeknights, $21.95 Friday through Sunday and on holidays.
Like all all-you-can-eat restaurants, it's no place to bring your friends who are light eaters. And, for heaven's sake, don't bring anyone who's vegetarian. A vegetarian can fill up on the colorful muqueca, a fish stew with coconut milk, and the undistinguished salad bar (unripe tomatoes, those pre-cleaned baby carrots, that sort of thing). However, the whole point of Tudo de Bom, and all Brazilian barbecue restaurants, is the endless procession of animal proteins.
What animal proteins? That depends on what's rotating on the rodizio grill when you arrive. You sit down and the waiters start arriving with skewers of meat. We were treated to top sirloin and then the exact same top sirloin seasoned as garlic steak and pepper steak. There was chewy tri-tip, and well-done lamb. Most of the meat was cooked medium, but what you get depends on the luck of the slice.
I was underwhelmed. To me, the most enjoyable selections were the poultry-the turkey wrapped in bacon, the little airline-cut chicken thighs, which were served sizzling and still moist.
At the end of the table was a robot (that's the right word, I looked it up). This robot was not a mechanical humanoid. It was a little wooden cylinder painted green on one end and red on the other. Green keeps the churrascaria-as this style of "continuous dining" is called-coming. Flip it over to red and it stops.
We flipped it to red relatively soon, I thought. I could be wrong. You eat only a few slices at a time. "You know, if they piled it all on a plate at once," said one of our sated number, "you'd say I could never eat all that."
We felt full even though we had gone light on the starches-french fries, mashed potatoes, flavored rice, pasta in cream sauce and so forth. The only thing that really caught our fancy among the side dishes were the fried bananas. We kept unsuccessfully asking the kitchen to make more. "The bananas rock," we kept telling the waiters, to no avail.
The desserts also rocked. The minute the dessert cart swung by, everyone forgot they were full and started ordering things such as ice cream truffles, gooey chocolate cake with whipped cream and, my favorites, a mango sorbet frozen into a real mango half and a coconut sorbet in a coconut shell. I am guessing these are not housemade, since I have seen them in other restaurants. Whatever their source, they were good, though not included in the all-you-can-eat price.
As a food experience, you could probably skip Tudo de Bom. But in all fairness, it's got a party atmosphere and the crowd, mainly young, seemed to be having a good time.
The restaurant has already set up its Ipenema Bar bar, as in The Girl from Ipenema. When we were there, it still lacked a liquor license. Says the menu: "You are welcome to bring your own spirited drink at this time with no corkage fee." People could bring in their own beer and wine, perhaps adding to the festive atmosphere.
The BYOB policy may change once the bar opens, so call to see. Of course, once the bar opens, you'll no doubt be able to order a caipirinha-a traditional Brazilian cocktail made with limes and the sugar cane liquor cachaça. Ah, the romance.
I have always been a big fan of Hula Grill on Maui. It's right on Kaanapali Beach, with a good-natured, kitschy beachhouse atmosphere, tiki torches burning along the edges of the outdoor bar. The kitchen there, under the direction of Peter Merriman and Bobby Masters, turns out simple, great food. It's a go-to place for perfectly cooked fresh fish, a nice glass of wine, the kind of unpretentious dinner that makes you happy you live Hawai'i.
Consequently, I was delighted to hear that a branch of the restaurant was coming to Waikïkï, so that O'ahu residents could savor the Hula Grill experience. However, here's the reality. The new Hula Grill Waikiki seems indifferent to local business. If you drive there, you can't park, at least not at the hotel where it's located, the Outrigger Waikiki. The $3 validated parking is at the Ohana East, four blocks away, with entry from the now-under-repair Kuhio Avenue.
In addition, the Waikiki restaurant is not the same as the Maui one. Oh sure, it's got the wood walls, retro art, pineapple print upholstery. But it still seems like a dozen other second-floor-terrace hotel restaurants, this one over a noisy pool deck. The view includes palm trees, the ocean, Diamond Head, though you've probably seen much of the same view before.
It's casual, but not inexpensive, with appetizers $7 to $10, entrées $25. For that price level, the food was just OK. I had the wild shrimp cocktail, which was pretty sedate. The shrimp had been marinated in lime, lemongrass and ginger, giving them a bit more flavor than usual. Otherwise, they were just laid out on a ti leaf next to a pleasant but conventional cocktail sauce. Why was this a "wild" shrimp cocktail? Because it was made from ocean-caught rather than farm-raised shrimp.
The Nalo greens in the salad were seriously overdressed in a roasted garlic dressing that, to my palate, was too sweet. The pork tenderloin had a touch of five-spice, but it was overcooked and served on an uninspired plate, with a lump of mashed potatoes and five stalks of grilled asparagus.
The "screamin' sesame opah" was better, two round opah fillets slathered with a thick sesame-chili pepper coating and topped with a generous sprinkling of black sesame seeds and green onions. I suppose it's too much to complain you couldn't taste the fish since the coating was throat-searingly spiced; at least it wasn't boring. On the plate was a scoop of white rice with bits of wild rice and an Asian-style slaw. The dish reminded me of Alan Wong's food, without the finesse.
Dessert was a pineapple-upside-down cake. It was dry and had no flavor, not even of pineapple. Better was a crème brûlée, served in a pineapple bottom.
The check, which included one glass of very good chardonnay (Au Bon Climat), one glass of not-so-good pinot noir (Louis Latour), two cups of coffee and a tip, was $120. You can do much better for that kind of money, even in Waikïkï.
The buzz was starting to disappoint me, since it had steered me to two not particularly delicious dinners. But hope springs eternal, and my diligence was rewarded at 12th Avenue Grill.
What kind of restaurant is 12th Avenue Grill? Since I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about restaurants, I have a theory about eateries like this one.
Ten to 15 years ago, when we got the first wave of chef-driven Hawai'i regional cuisine restaurants, they seemed like casual neighborhood dining compared to the big-ticket Waikiki restaurants of the time, restaurants such as The Third Floor, Bagwell's 2424 or the old Michel's.
Now that those restaurants are gone or transformed, the formerly casual HRC restaurants-Alan Wong's, Roy's, 3660 On The Rise-have become our special occasion, big-night-out restaurants. As a result, we are seeing a second-tier of HRC-influenced, display-kitchen restaurants that are a little less expensive,
a lot more casual and have much more of neighborhood feel. Think Lucy's in Kailua. Or think of it this way, as the new BluWater Grill is to Roy's, just down the street, so 12th Avenue Grill is to 3660, just around the corner.
I loved how unpretentious 12th Avenue Grill was. It's not even on 12th Avenue, or really street front. It sits along the driveway of the city parking lot between 12th and Koko Head avenues. It used to be a thoroughly bad and not particularly clean Mongolian barbecue restaurant. It has been redone with more taste than money-a blond wood floor, a coat of black paint to hide the industrial ceiling, some nice wood booths and track lights from City Mill. Simple, nice, very neighborhood, a great place to take your family, which I did.
Like the décor, the food is simple but tasteful. Not too simple, despite the prevailing opinion that it's somehow retro American cooking. There's been imagination and effort poured into the menu, along with a healthy dose of HRC-inspired local flavors and ingredients.
We ordered four of what the menu calls small plates and three large. Among the appetizer-size portions, we had a kim-chee steak. "Where's the kim chee?" asked my wife. Not on the plate. This was skirt steak, a close relative of flank steak. Like flank steak, it's got good flavor, but it can be kind of tough. You need to marinate it, and the marinade is where the kim chee comes in. Then you grill it quickly, slice it on the bias. Good enough, though not as incendiary as its name might imply. In fact, much of the flavor punch came from the other things on the plate-a sweet-sour cabbage and a relish of caramelized onions and smoked red peppers.
Remarkably, the steak was the least dramatic of the small plates. There was a crispy polenta (think toast made from Italian corn meal), topped with Maytag blue cheese and those wonderful meaty Big Island mushrooms and set off by arugula and Hau'ula tomatoes. The baby spinach salad was all local style, down to the corn sprouts, topped with goat cheese that had been crusted with macadamia nuts and lightly grilled. My teenage daughters suddenly realized they liked goat cheese.
Speaking of the girls, they spotted the most retro American thing on the menu, macaroni and cheese, and immediately ordered it. This was essentially a cream-based pasta with fresh herbs, a toasted crust and smoked Parmesan. This looked good. I wouldn't know how it tasted, because the girls ate it all while I was working on the polenta and mushrooms. If you are willing to take their word for it, they said it was better than Wolfgang Puck's at Disneyland, which was up until that moment their measure of great mac and cheese.
The entrées were not particularly refined, and the restaurant's idea of presentation seemed to be to stick an entire twig of rosemary onto every plate. Still, everything tasted good. Grilled salmon atop braised escarole and white beans, a trifle soupy, but full of deep flavors, including a touch of truffle oil. A hunter's chicken braised in red wine, the chicken having that heavy texture of commercially raised poultry, the braising sauce worth sopping up every bit. Finally, a dark-beer-braised short rib, nothing as magical as Roy's braised ribs, but once again in a braising liquid worth quite a few umms and ahhhs and yeahs.
Finally, desserts, created by that wondrous creator of things sweet, Lisa Siu, who came up with the Kakaako Kitchen brownie and bread pudding and 3660's harlequin crème brûlée. Here Siu's desserts have an appealing homemade look, not the usual pastry-chef gloss. The table went crazy for the peanut butter pie with chocolate crust and the simple, direct apricot crisp with freshly whipped cream. The most refined of the desserts was a play on the Almond Joy candy bar: a coconut ice cream bar coated with chocolate and dotted with slivered and whole almonds.
Amazingly, the check for this dinner for four was less than $120, which, in addition to patrons being able to bring their own wines without corkage, may account for the place being packed. Here's the bad news: You can't make a reservation. There's a line outside at 5:30 when it opens and the room fills up by 6-ish, so if you are trying to time the turn of the tables, you might arrive about 7:30 p.m.
I know, I know, I too hate standing in line on the sidewalk when I'm hungry. Still, you may find the dinner worth the wait.