A Week of Lunches
Five excuses to skip the brown bag routine and actually leave your desk.
(page 3 of 3)
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Dat One Persian Restaurant
801 Alakea St. // 791-1616 // 536-5900
Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
No parking, cash only
Now for something completely different. “Persian plate lunches?” said my friend, a programmer who spends her time doing arcane things to Web sites. “I guess I’ll try anything once.”
For a plate lunch place, Dat One is actually comfortable. Tables with tablecloths, though with those clear plastic protectors on top. Ceiling fans. Walls painted and hung with rugs and travel posters.
It’s still a place where you order at the counter. Standing at the counter, we didn’t have a clue. Ghormez sabzi, khoresh bademjoon, khoresh karafss, khoresh aloo, fesenjoon—which would you choose?
You are supposed to order two of these on a plate with rice. Instead, I ordered bowls of all five. My friend, who is diminutive, insisted she’d never be able to eat half. Don’t worry, this isn’t a meeting of the Clean Plate Club. Besides, I spent only $24, cheap as educational expenses go.
We carted the five bowls of food to a table. In addition, perhaps because we ordered so much food, they threw in a small cup of Persian salad and another of herbed yogurt.
Persian food is not as spicy as I expected. (At least not this Persian food, which is the sum total of my experience.) It is full of herbs and citrus—and, like many Middle Eastern foods, puts together combinations that you don’t anticipate.
Take, for instance, the khoresh aloo, so brightly colored it looks like a fruit salad. It’s actually chicken, with orange carrots, and potatoes turned vivid gold with turmeric. There’s fruit as well, prunes. The whole thing was great, except unexpectedly sweet.
Similarly, the fesenjoon. This looked like chicken stew in brown gravy, but the gravy was a walnut and pomegranate sauce. I liked the walnut undertones, the tang of the pomegranate, but, really ... sweet chicken stew? I couldn’t surmount the culinary cultural barrier.
I did better on the khoresh karafss, a salty beef stew loaded with celery. I hated the first bite. “Too sour,” my friend agreed, and made a face. The stew was loaded with lemon juice. But somehow I adjusted. At least citrus and celery didn’t outrage my cultural flavor clusters. I found myself consuming a surprising amount.
The dish we liked best was no surprise—khoresh bademjoon, a more-or-less familiar combo of beef, tomato and eggplant.
We also both finished the Persian salad. “What is this, namasu?” asked my friend. Not quite, it was chopped onion, cucumber and tomato, with lots of mint. Equally wonderful was the herbed yogurt. You have to love the Mediterranean. There, yogurt is a thick, soft comfort food, as high-fat as possible, unlike the horrid emaciated stuff for sale at the American supermarkets.
The only drawback: no dessert. The Persians’ great contribution to world cuisine was inventing stacked thin layers of pastry the French call millefeuille. In America, it’s most familiar as Greek baklava.
Dat One has none. However, the wonderful little Kafé Europa, just around the corner, sells homemade baklava drenched in Greek honey for only $2. Stop on the way out.
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1131 Nuuanu Ave. // 587-7877
Lunch Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner nightly 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.
No parking, major credit cards
It was one of those Fridays when everyone feels festive at the office. Suddenly I found myself taking four people to lunch with me. At Epic, which filled me with trepidation.
I had not had much luck there, either in its first or its present incarnation. At my last visit, we’d focused on sushi rolls, which were just like Roy’s—not as good, though, and just as expensive.
Epic was packed. The surprised staff looked alarmed. To make sure we didn’t starve, I ordered appetizers before we even got settled. Sichuan baby back ribs on Asian slaw, another Roy’s borrowing, though braised within an inch of their lives and lacking flavor.
The grilled prawns were at least firm and flavorful. But they came on an odd plate, propped on a vegetable sushi roll. Scattered about were a corn and eda-mame succotash (a borrowing from Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas) and some diced Portuguese sausage. This seemed random—but how far astray can you go with shrimp and Portuguese sausage?
One of my young office mates wanted escargot. One, she liked it, and, two, she very much enjoyed coercing her friends into sampling snails for the first time. These snails were sautéed with wild mushrooms in a demiglace, augmented with blue cheese crumbles, all atop a very cheesy polenta. That combination of ingredients teeters on the brink of disaster, but doesn’t go there. I remember realizing in my 20s that escargot was edible. It was great to see the same light dawn in three out of my four dining companions.
Then ensued a pause—a really long pause. Finally the entrées arrived, and they were a mixed bag. A big rectangle of steamed tofu was topped with lomi tomatoes and seaweed, remarkably palatable. The bouillabaisse wasn’t bouillabaisse—it was udon in curry sauce topped with clams. The large, juicy cheeseburger had an interesting innovation. Instead of being topped with bacon strips, which always slide out of a sandwich, the bacon was chopped into an aioli and spread on the bun.
But the winners were, first, local-style ravioli in won ton wrappers, stuffed with spinach, ricotto and mushrooms, and sauced with a sauce that took no chances. Sun-dried tomatoes plus pesto plus truffle oil plus Alfredo sauce. “Awesome,” said the young lady who ordered it.
The catch of the day was monchong, crusted with both wasabi and horseradish, served over mashed potatoes with a citrus ginger beurre blanc dotted with both green onion and wasabi oil.
“If the ravioli are awesome,” said the otherwise proper young woman who’d ordered it, “this is friggin’ awesome.” She stopped, considered: “Have you ever used that in a review before?” I admitted it had never occurred to me.
There were five of us, and five choices on the dessert menu. So I ordered the whole menu, filling the table with sweet, professional looking desserts.
I was not blown away by any, but the whole table seemed to rock with joy—panna cotta with berries, an apple tart with ice cream, a crème brûlée that was supposed to be lemon and orange, but tasted to me like spice cake.
The acclaim went to the Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake with Bushmills butterscotch sauce, a dish that to me carried neither the zing of alcohol nor the depth and texture of real cheesecake. The best was fresh strawberries in mascarpone whipped up with a little Grand Marnier and sugar.
Epic, although it looks a million miles from the Chinatown streets on which it rests, isn’t quite the Class A restaurant it pretends to be. However, like Downtown, it’s doing food at lunch no one else is doing. It’s not numbingly expensive. The bill was $100.
Wait a minute, I said.
“I comped the desserts to thank you because you waited so long for your food,” said the manager. Plus, in one of those weird Hawai‘i turns, he’d gone to elementary school with one of our party. Everyone was so young, elementary school to them was not prehistoric.
The desserts would have added $35 to the bill. The final reckoning, no drinks except iced tea, $120 with tip, a bargain for what became a spontaneous party. Nobody was eager to get back to work.
John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.