Tour de Eats: Take in Honolulu While You Eat at Three (or Four) Restaurants a Night
Food crawl around Honolulu with Kalapawai Cafe, Saeng’s Thai, Formaggio Grill, Yakiniku Don-Day, Sushi ii, City Cafe, Jinroku, L’Aperitif and Ailana Shave Ice.
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1. KALAPAWAI CAFE; 2-3. MAVRICK SMAU AT SAENG’S THAI; 4. PATRICK OKUBO AT FORMAGGIO GRILL.
PHOTOS: RAE HUO
Here’s an idea: You don’t have to have your full meal at one restaurant. You can eat one course, get up and go (don’t forget to pay!), and move on to the next restaurant. Call it progressive dining, or call it a food crawl. Master sommelier Patrick Okubo calls it “the best of everything—I get my favorite thing from every restaurant in one night.”
Okubo is one of the youngest master sommeliers in the nation, and one of only three in Hawai‘i. He’s currently the wine educator for Young’s Market Co., a wine and spirits distributor. I get the sense he would like all meals to be grazing events; at the farmers’ markets, he praises the prepared-food vendors who offer small bites, preferring to nibble here and there rather than committing to just one plate.
At a recent event, he mentioned that progressive dining is his preferred way to eat while traveling, so he can pack as many restaurants into a trip as possible, or on dates, as a fun activity, a break from the norm. It’s like speed dating for restaurants. Curious about Okubo’s stops on a progressive dinner, I asked him to take me on one. At the very least, I figured I’d drink well. He didn’t say no.
Tour No. 1: Windward Trek
We focused on Kailua, where Okubo used to live when he opened Formaggio, before he quit to focus on his sommelier exam. A week before our dinner, Okubo sent over an itinerary:
5:30 Kalapawai. Charcuterie plate.
6:30 Baci Bistro. Veal scallopini.
7:45 Saeng’s Thai. Ikura quail egg sushi.
9:00 Formaggio. Dessert.
At Formaggio Grill, Rick Takashima serves Patrick Okubo a moscato sunrise.
photo: rae huo
I wouldn’t have been surprised if the schedule were in military time; Okubo is also part of the National Guard. Usually I’m the dinner dictator; It’s nice to put the pressure on someone else for a night. Also, sushi at a Thai restaurant? I am intrigued.
Tip 1: Weeknights are best, and start early, no matter what. Restaurants are less likely to be busy, making it easier to slip in for an appetizer.
At Kalapawai Cafe, we start with a glass of Tilia chardonnay from Argentina, which has a pleasant acidity that gets my appetite going, and a Côtes du Rhone blanc, a Viognier blend from Guigal winery, with more body to stand up to the charcuterie platter, which consists of prosciutto, bresaola, salami and duck prosciutto. The duck prosciutto is a standout—velvety, with just the right salty finish. Sitting outside, sipping two glasses of wine, nibbling on cured meats, we all too quickly lag behind in our schedule. This is dining as sport; we need to get back on track. Okubo calls Baci to let them know we will be a little late.
Tip 2: Okubo will usually make reservations for the middle restaurants because they might be busy by the time he gets there. He’ll tell them he’s only coming in for one course so they can plan reservations around that.
Baci Bistro feels preserved in time, with its vintage wallpapered, sloping ceilings, green drapes, crystal chandelier and Bill Duvall, the friendly owner greeting every guest. Its menu, too, is classic: Italian-American dishes that have fallen out of favor with the new, ingredient-obsessed Italian restaurants opening these days, here and across the country. Okubo and I share the Vitello alla Baci—veal pounded thin, dredged in flour and sautéed with capers, sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, all adding a touch of acidity and sweetness. To drink: Masi Campofiorin, from Italy’s Valpolicella region, with deep red cherry tones, and yet low tannins, pairing well with the mild veal.