A Week of Lunches

Five excuses to skip the brown bag routine and actually leave your desk.


(page 2 of 3)

“Only Italians would put those two colors next to one another,” he said. The owners had done the build-out themselves. There’s real design sense at work, from colors to logo. The staff wore signature T-shirts that said, “My Own Mix, “Mix with Others.” Our waitress wore one that said, “Mix with Boys.”

Photo by David Croxford

Chef Bruno Iezzi whips up an omelet at Mix Café.

“I’d love to mix with you,” said my friend, the Italian coming out. Although the cooks behind the counter spoke Italian, the women spoke Korean. “We’re a mix,” said our waitress.

The food? You should have to beg to get one of the 15 seats in this little restaurant. The menu’s limited, mainly panini and pasta, the list of pastas taped to a mirror. My friend and I argued over selection. Finally, Bruno volunteered to make us two-thirds portions, so we could order three and pay for two.

We got gemelli—“the twins,” because it’s two strands of pasta twisted around each other. We got it three ways—with crumbles of housemade Italian sausage, with baked tomato and basil and with a sage-lemon cream sauce.

“These are perfect lunch pastas,” said my friend. “Nothing heavy at all, no big damn glop of marinara sauce.” Even the cream sauce seemed light as a caress, filled with citrus and herb flavors. We couldn’t decide which one we liked best.

In addition, we ordered a tray of antipasti, which, in defiance of tradition, we ate after the pasta. The proscuitto and melon were, well, proscuitto and melon. The marinated dark red beets, however, will change your mind about root vegetables.

I also went crazy for the butternut squash, steamed, dressed in olive oil and black pepper. My friend went crazy for the summer salad—potatoes, grape tomatoes, haricot vert, glistening in olive oil vinaigrette.

Lunch, and I doubt another pair of you can consume so much, was $37, including a couple of espressos and a generous tip for the “Mix with Boys” waitress.

* * * *

Downtown @ the HiSAM
Hawaii State Art Museum // 250 S. Hotel St. // 536-5900
Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
No parking, major credit cards

Unlike every other food critic in Honolulu, I’m not a fan of Town in Kaimuki. But Downtown, its culinary outpost in the Hawaii State Art Museum, is better in two ways. First, the service—and it better be, we’re talking lunch here, people need to get back to the office.

Second, Downtown is unpretentious. It’s actually two restaurants in one—a “grab-and-go” counter and a sit-down restaurant. I am fond of the grab and go. There you can get a salad or a panini with three or four sides of some excellent antipasti—Swiss chard braised with pinenuts and raisins, Tuscan white beans with tuna, or tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, food you can’t really approximate anywhere else, served in an ecologically friendly clamshell made from sugarcane fiber. All for about $8.

But the rest is a 70-seat sit-down restaurant. When HiSam designed the space, they made it half again too small. It’s turned into a remarkably hot lunch spot, combining the sort of ladies who lunch at museums plus a motley assortment of hip downtown types.

The Man about Town joined me, and nearly went stark raving mad about his mussels in a saffron broth. “These are perfect,” he said. “Are they from New Zealand?”

No, they weren’t green-lipped, more likely Canadian black mussels, plump, fresh, though not as clean and flavorful as New Zealand. It was the broth that made them perfect, loaded as it was with chorizo, roasted tomato and Kahuku corn.

I was not as enthusiastic about my first course—a Tuscan white bean soup. White beans aplenty, plus onions and celery, but broth even more boring than a four-hour meeting, as if all the savory stuff had leaked out the bottom of the stockpot.

The waitress noticed I’d barely touched it. “It was dull,” I said.

“I’ll take it off the bill,” she said.

I did better on the entrée—a Kulana filet mignon. Kulana Foods in Hilo sells naturally raised Big Island beef. Fed on grass, it has a sharper, more distinct flavor than corn-fed beef. It’s tasty, maybe good for you, but it’s tougher—this would remind you more of skirt steak than filet mignon.

On the side was what seemed like a whole head of green arugula in poppy seed dressing and a mound of cold, hard, precooked shoestring fries. So ambitious is Downtown’s kitchen that small flaws like the fries can undermine an otherwise excellent plate.

My companion had two filets of grilled opah. He’d ordered them because they came with “risotto cakes.” The little grilled cakes didn’t seem the least like risotto, no cheese, probably not even arborio rice. But small touches can make as well as break a plate: haricot vert and wax beans, room temperature and turned into a salad with red onion and organic carrots, dressed in a stunning vinaigrette. I’d never had this before and vowed to duplicate it.

The signature dessert at Downtown is not the churros and chocolate I always see people ordering. It’s the wedge of olive oil cake, topped with roasted fruit—this day, papaya and starfruit. Roasting the fruit concentrates the flavors and fruit sugars, and every bite is worth savoring.

The special dessert that day was a tangerine semifreddo. A semifreddo, roughly speaking, is somewhere between a mousse and an ice cream, often less interesting than either. But this tangerine half-frozen mousse was on a perfectly composed plate—acidic wedges of tangerine, and a few dabs of sweet, rich caramel. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Lunch wasn’t cheap, $62 with tip. You can bring wine here, but, alas, we were drinking water.

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