Tour de Eats: Food Crawl around Honolulu
Take in the city, three (or four) restaurants at a time.
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.
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.
Tip 3: If you prefer to be more spontaneous and not make reservations, restaurant bars are good places to share a dish.
We sit at the sushi bar at Saeng’s Thai Cuisine. Yes, this Thai restaurant has a sushi bar. Apparently, Saeng’s owner loves sushi, and he recently converted the liquor bar to serve raw fish and rice instead. It is surprisingly good, in no small part because of the charismatic sushi chef, Mavrick Smau, a Waimanalo boy with a love affair with Seattle. He serves us a Post Alley roll (named after a Seattle street) which combines fresh, generous chunks of hamachi, ahi, unagi and avocado, served with ponzu for dipping instead of shoyu.
But we have come for the ikura nigiri sushi topped with quail egg—Okubo describes the egg as emulating ikura’s popping quality, while adding richness. Sadly, they are out of ikura … as well as uni (Okubo’s second choice for the quail egg). So instead, we try quail egg on tobiko sushi, which is fine. As if to tease us with what we can’t have, Smau tells us of fresh, local uni that he harvests—he looks for the black-grey ones, shakes them in a wire basket until the spines fall off, then cracks them open and scoops out the insides. Come back in October, he says, around the full moon, when the uni are best. I will.
Formaggio is right next door, and when Okubo enters, the staff and owner Wes Zane greet him like a son returning home for the holidays. They fill him in on events (Zane has sold his other restaurants to focus on Formaggio in Kailua) and bring him food (the day’s special, fried chicken livers). We are so full, we can only muster one bite.
Dessert, on the other hand, I always have room for. It’s a light, not-too-sweet lilikoi chocolate mousse cake, but I recognize it as a cake from JJ’s French Pastry. Half of the dessert menu is JJ’s desserts, brought in. The other half, they are all out of.
I have more fun with our drink: a moscato sunrise, which Okubo introduced to Formaggio’s menu when a drunk friend accidentally poured pinot noir into his girlfriend’s glass of moscato. It arrives with the red wine floating on top of the white—a Kailua sunrise you can have anytime of the day. I drink this far too quickly, and realize, too late, that I have consumed three glasses of wine and half a carafe of sake. Town suddenly seems very far away.
Tip 5: If you plan on drinking, cab or walk.
Total for two: Kalapawai: $34 + Baci Bistro: $40.03 + Saeng’s Thai: $29.06 + Formaggio: $26.70 = $129.79
>> Kalapawai Cafe, 750 Kailua Rd., 262-3354, kalapawaimarket.com.
>> Baci Bistro, 30 Aulike St., 262-7555, bacibistro.com.
>> Saeng’s Thai, 315 Hahani St., 263-9727.
>> Formaggio Grill, 305 Hahani St., 263-2633.
A progressive dinner is like a neighborhood scavenger hunt; in looking for my next course, I’m exploring a neighborhood, which is why it’s a great way to travel. But even at home, it gives me an opportunity to delve into our city’s streets. So for the site of my other progressive dinners, I choose dense areas to explore by foot. That, and I can drink more.
Tour No. 2: Keeaumoku Crawl
Keeaumoku and its side streets is one of the best areas for progressive dining—it’s compact and places are open late. (Sorabol and Like Like Drive Inn are famous 24-hour joints, but lesser-known gems are open until at least 2 a.m., like Pandora Café, where you can get sushi from a chef who works at Mitch’s.) I love it because it has a vibe of authenticity, particularly the Korean places, where often I feel like I’m the only non-Korean.
Seafood at Sushi ii is so fresh, some of it is literally alive. Baby abalone arrive at the table squirming. My husband, who has accompanied me on this crawl, gives me a look, and I know that this dish is my burden to bear, like the time I ordered lamb kidneys in London.
When confronted with these writhing abalone, my sense of adventure suddenly falters. It’s as if I suddenly realized that my food had a life before it was set in front of me … or in this case, continues to have a life. I eat all of them, but feel a bit like Lewis Carroll’s Walrus, shedding tears while feeding on oysters. But you want to know how they taste, not of my angst? Sweet and crunchy, extremely firm. A better dish, with less guilt and more tenderness, is the Kona baby abalone sautéed in garlic butter. Heat has rendered them more pliable. They are wonderful.
The abalone are pleasant diversions from what we really came for: the sashimi. Order a large platter, which will contain ruby red slices of ahi; buttery salmon to rival the hamachi; sweet, thick slices of scallops; amaebi, translucent and also sweet. I am swooning before I even get to the more interesting seafood on the platter, which changes based on what Sushi ii gets in. This night, it’s mirugai, or geoduck; torigai, similar to clam, but not as firm; hirame, sprinkled with salty cured cod roe; shako, or mantis shrimp, a sort of prehistoric-looking shrimp that apparently has one of the fastest strikes in the animal kingdom. If a bowl of this had arrived at my table alive, I wouldn’t have the fingers left to write this.
Truthfully, it was hard to tear ourselves away from Sushi ii. We could have kept eating; items from the kitchen, like fried moi, can rival the pristine sashimi. It’s only with the promise of equally good things to come that we manage to tear ourselves away.
Tip: Sushi ii is BYOB; bring sake for the sushi chef. You won’t regret sharing.
You can’t do a food crawl in Koreamoku (the nickname for Korean-eatery-saturated Keeaumoku) without stopping in a Korean restaurant. Yakiniku Don-Day, taking the place of Orine Sarangchae, is one of the newer establishments on this street, and in my opinion, the best for yakiniku. It’s partly because of the outdoor seating (the only outdoor yakiniku in Honolulu that I know of), which, despite being in a parking lot, is surprisingly charming, and being outside helps lessen the smell of charred meat in your clothes. The Lite Brite lighting and huge, gorgeous tree that shelters the tables makes Yakiniku Don-Day a more down-home, local version of The Beach Bar under the banyan tree at the Moana. When servers (who invariably look like members of a K-pop boy band) clear off the tables, they dump water from the cups into the tree’s roots, which have broken through the concrete.
It’s tableside yakiniku (almost all the dishes have burn marks on them from touching the tabletop grill), but not exactly do it yourself. The servers swoop in at the last minute to turn slices of marinated pork belly, like thick bacon studded with rosemary, thin slices of beef brisket, beef tongue, tender kalbi, so that the meats have a perfect char while remaining juicy inside. They even grill kimchi, giving it a roasted, concentrated flavor.
The temperature of the grill can make or break your experience. On a previous visit, we saw a party leap out of their chairs as flames shot up from their grill. They touched their faces to make sure they still had eyebrows. This time, the flame under our grill peters out; we call someone over, she fiddles a bit with the fuel canister, the flame roars up, and we are back on our meaty way.
This progressive dinner is probably best done with at least three people. Two orders of meat or the combo is the minimum order here, which, for two people, after a large plate of sashimi, was too much.
After all that meat, fire and smoke, only one dessert can complete the night: shave ice at City Café. This isn’t a syrup-drenched affair, but rather, Taiwanese-style shave ice, which is all about the toppings. The custard, creamy and smooth, is a must. From there, you can choose from more than a dozen toppings. Some are familiar—tapioca pearls, mochi and red bean, some more exotic—sweetened, stewed taro and peanuts and grass jelly, which have an herbal, Chinese medicinelike quality (eating it makes me feel healthy). For Taiwanese-style shave ice, City Café ladles brown sugar syrup on the ice, which provides the perfect backdrop to the goodies.
This cute, bright snack shop is open until 9 p.m., which means your crawl may start and end early.
Total for two: Sushi ii: $48.17 + Yakiniku Don Day: $53.45 + City Cafe: $5.50 = $107.12
>> Sushi ii, in Samsung Plaza, 655 Keeaumoku St., Suite 109, 942-5350.
>> Yakiniku Don-Day, 905A Keeaumoku St., 951-1004.
>> City Cafe, 1518-F Makaloa St., 398-7598.
Tour No. 3: Waikiki Walk
Waikiki is where I go to pretend I’m in a big city. Maybe more of a Times Square in New York City type of experience than East Village, but still, a city. It’s more spread out than Keeaumoku, but the ocean and wide sidewalks make for pleasant ambling when restaurant hopping.
Waikiki is where restaurateurs pour money into their restaurants, and for a relatively small admission fee, I get to enjoy the spectacle. It’s where I can dine and not feel like I’m in an office building with a bunch of tables in it, which is often what it feels like, or literally is, to dine in Honolulu. I love Formica and dingy holes-in-the-wall, but sometimes, I want something grander.
There’s hardly a better place to seek luxe treatment than at Halekulani, and our crawl here starts at L’Aperitif, a new bar concept inside La Mer. (And what better place to get an aperitif, a pre-dinner cocktail, than at a place called L’Aperitif?)
The first thing you notice at L’Aperitif are the menus. They are tabloid-newspaper size, the cocktails listed on thick, yellowed paper, as if the menus have been around since the turn of the century. L’Aperitif draws on the past—France’s Belle Époque. The Halekulani brought on Colin Field, the head bartender of the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Hotel Paris, to come up with the cocktail menu. Cocktail descriptions are whimsically baroque. Take the Hemingway Old Fashioned:
“Imagine making a true thick sauce of sugar and bitters of Trinidad, mixed with the juice of half a lemon and orange, then adding plenty of beautiful ice and marry Maker’s Mark bourbon. Stir for 12 seconds and you say… ‘oh my God!’”
I start a Waikiki progressive dinner at L’Aperitif partly for the quality of the drinks and because it takes the place of theater before dinner: Everything’s a bit showy, from the careful mixing of the drinks to the oversize rose perched on my Esprit Chanel to the ice itself. Order the cognac over ice, and the bartender will bring out the $1,000 spherical ice-making contraption, which shapes a cylinder of ice into a perfect sphere right before your eyes. It’s a marvel.
The Esprit Chanel combines Lillet, a French aperitif wine, and Citadelle gin for a surprisingly light cocktail with just a touch of sweet. The main drawback at L’Aperitif, though, is the price: $20 a cocktail. What makes it a little more palatable: Each drink comes with a one-bite pairing. For the Esprit Chanel, a foie gras with rose petal marmalade on a brioche chip, for the Hemingway Old Fashioned, an olive and blue cheese croquette.
One thing to note: L’Aperitif requires a long-sleeved, collared shirt for men.
I find some of the most authentic Japanese food in Waikiki. So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I find terrific okonomiyaki in a little eatery tucked into a hotel, on a side street that we are wandering down, looking for our next course. Sit at the bar to watch the three griddle cooks, working with a flat-top and spatula, cook everything in front of you.
The okonomiyaki, a cross between an omelet and savory pancake, can take 20 minutes to cook, but it’s worth the wait. The mochi shiso okonomiyaki arrives topped with a sweet and savory sauce reminiscent of Worcestershire and shaved bonito, fluttering from the heat of the pancake. Mochi offers chewiness, cabbage crunchiness. The pickled ginger and shiso add enough bite and herby intrigue to keep the okonomiyaki interesting to the end.
Order takoyaki while you’re waiting, little doughy pancake balls crisp on the outside and filled with chopped octopus.
Ailana Shave Ice
Waikiki is like a choose-your-own dining adventure. There are endless ways to fill your stomach, whether you want to eat a little, or eat a lot, spend a little, or spend a lot. Dessert illustrates this: we end up at Ailana Shave Ice, hidden in the basement food court of Waikiki Shopping Plaza. Another night, another shave ice? Yes, for the nights have been hot and humid and walking (especially for my husband in his L’Aperitif-appropriate attire) has necessitated a cool-down. Relief comes in the form of Ailana’s homemade syrups and special bowls such as the Tropical Trio, with mango, papaya and haupia syrups, a scoop of ice cream buried in the middle and the whole thing drizzled with condensed milk. The mochi is also made in-house—discs the size of dimes adorning the Uji Kintoki bowl, ice drenched in green tea syrup, covered in azuki beans, like lava flowing down a volcano (a volcano with an ice-cream center, that is).
I am full, but I can’t help flipping back the pages in our choose-your-own-adventure wondering what I have missed: popovers at BLT Steak, soba at Matsugen, bananas Foster at Hy’s. Next time.
Total: L’Aperitif: $41.88 + Jinroku: $43.98 + Ailana: $5.24 = $96.34
>> L’Aperitif, inside La Mer in the Halekulani, 923-2311, halekulani.com.
>> Jinroku, 2427 Kuhio Ave., 926-8955.
>> Ailana Shave Ice, Waikiki Shopping Plaza, 2250 Kalakaua Ave., 349-9827.