Two in a Row:
Spices and Bistro Sun
It piqued my curiosity: Two new restaurants with the same street address, 2671 S. King St.
The address belongs to the Mo'ili'ili Market, a rapidly fading, one-story building just Diamond Head of Kokua Market. The 1931 building is now subdivided into a shave ice store, a beauty parlor and two small restaurants, one called Spices and another called Bistro Sun.
Both restaurants seat only 30 to 40, with tiny kitchens partitioned off in the back. Both share an eight-stall parking lot and an outdoor restroom. Both lack a liquor license, so they are byob.
The most remarkable thing they share? Both are far better than they have any reason to be. They are real restaurants, with personality and passion.
Tuesday through Sunday,
I knocked on the closed door of Spices to get the attention of the thin Asian man wearing shorts and slippers. Without my realizing it, he was the chef, Somphong Norindr, who everyone calls Pony. "What time do you open?" I asked.
"Five, no, five-thirty," said Norindr, a look of near woe spreading over his face. "You better come early. There are lines. Can you believe it? Lines."
"You must be working hard," I said.
"So hard," he said. "And can you believe it? My partners are in Thailand. They're on a buying trip, though, so that's all right."
Norindr wasn't kidding about the lines. Spices may be at the moment the hottest little restaurant in Honolulu. When I returned at 5:30, there were eight or nine people outside, waiting for a table. Why? I wondered.
Because Norindr is an amazing chef, turning out his entire Pan-Southeast Asian menu from scratch. Spices replaced Monthien Thai and wanted to keep some familiar Thai menu items. But Norindr himself is from Laos, and grew up in France. He went to school in Switzerland-originally to become an architect to please his father. Hotel school was more his speed and, after a long journey, including stops in Washington, D.C., and California, he ended up in the tiny kitchen of Spices.
Many Thai chefs in Hawai'i are Laotian, but Norindr was different, because he wanted to cook Laotian as well as Thai food.
|The Laotian curry at Spices. Its the dill and tiny, bitter eggplants that make it Laotian. Photo: Olivier Koning|
The food, wherever it's from, bears Norindr's own stamp. Against my advice, my 16-year-old daughter insisted on ordering that tired Thai restaurant appetizer, stuffed chicken wings. These arrived, five propped up into a little pyramid. They were stuffed with chicken, not the usual pork mix, deep-fried but not greasy, far better than the usual.
I liked the less common appetizers even better. The light, simple, grilled eggplants, slathered in a sweet chili sauce, had a vibrant lemongrass front end and a nice chili afterburn.
I'd never seen Laotian sausage on a menu, so I had to order it. Norindr makes his own pork sausage, with that same one-two punch of lemongrass and chili pepper, plus a surprising shot of dill. The dipping sauce packed a blast of pungent saltiness that seemed to really set off the heat of the sausage. Lime juice, chilies, fish sauce-a Laotian peasant sauce designed to add protein and flavor to a restricted diet.
We'd already had three appetizers for three people. I suggested one curry, but since we couldn't agree on which one, we ended up with two. I'd argued against the pork Penang because Penang curries in Honolulu always taste like peanut butter. But the Spices version was a heady mix of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime peel, coriander, cumin, pepper, maybe a little fish sauce-and was sweetened ever so slightly with brown sugar and topped with holy basil. It wasn't until I drank the remaining sauce-it was that good-that I discovered the few chopped peanuts.
Even more unexpected was the pale-yellow Laotian curry. It was filled with startling flavors-the sharp citrus edge of kaffir lime, the bitterness of tiny Laotian eggplants and more than a little dill, even a whole bouquet of it as garnish.
"It's the dill that makes it Laotian," Norindr told me later. "Everyone in Laos eats dill, it's the Laotian coriander or basil." I said that, because of the dill, I'd ordered the curry made with seafood. "It goes with meat, vegetarian. Dill goes with everything!" he insisted.
We'd already gotten too much food. My daughter-who is not about to be bullied in her food choices by her father-wanted a platter of tofu fried rice. Fried rice is often leaden and oily. Norindr's was light, almost fluffy, and redolent with garlic, onion, fresh mint, edged with fresh cucumber and tomato. Full as I was, I ate some. She ate some, extolling its virtues, but most went home in a take-out container, which she kapu'd until she could eat it for breakfast.
Thai restaurants aren't big on desserts. There's only so much tapioca with coconut milk Westerners can eat happily. Norindr decided he'd make his own ice cream. Now, even with four Cuisinart ice cream makers, he can hardly keep up with the demand for his Southeast Asian flavors. There's green apple-curry, ginger, durian. His best may be his lemongrass-chili pepper, the burn of the chilies mellowed by the sweetness and creaminess of the ice cream. Equally remarkable is the bright-green pandan. Pandan is often called the Vietnamese vanilla, but doesn't taste the least bit like vanilla. The taste is poised somewhere between green leaf and toasted coconut. Still, it makes for a remarkable, perfume-y ice cream.
Dinner for three cost $95, including the tip and $2.50 corkage for the unimpressive bottle of Washington state riesling I'd bought at Costco. Next time I think I'll bring an Italian dry rosé.
Wednesday through Monday,11
a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Wednesday through Monday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Two doors down from Spices is another, even newer restaurant. It doesn't have the lines out the door that Spices does. But sooner or later, people looking for Spices are likely to stumble upon Bistro Sun.
Bistro Sun is in its own way as cross-cultural as Spices. It's a Japanese restaurant to the extent that it answers its phone in Japanese. On the other hand, it's the offshoot of a 35-year-old Osaka restaurant, which, like many restaurants in Japan, serves a Japanese version of Italian food.
Italian food belongs to the world, Japan included. But after eating at what seems like dozens of Italo-Japanese outlets in Hawai'i, many since departed, I've decided that Italian food should taste like Italy, or, at the very least, like a good Italian neighborhood in New Jersey.
However, the food at Bistro Sun startled me. It doesn't pretend to be doing straight Italian food, though its chef, Hitoshi Shibaraki, trained in Italy as well as Osaka. The restaurant waited patiently until he could get immigration clearance to be the long-term mainstay of its King Street kitchen.
It's just very good food, with some interesting cross-cultural switcheroos. For instance, consider two of the appetizers. In the first, Bistro Sun serves 'ahi as a carpaccio-which is originally, of course, a preparation for raw beef, pounded flat and seasoned with garlic vinaigrette. At Bistro Sun, 'ahi gets the same treatment, adding a little tomato and basil.
If, in the first appetizer, 'ahi gets treated like raw beef, in the second, raw beef gets treated like 'ahi. The beef is served tataki-that is, lightly seared around the edges and sliced. Like a tataki made from 'ahi, the beef is served with a citrus-y ponzu sauce. Bistro Sun's 'ahi carpaccio is respectable, but it's the beef tataki that's the star, a huge pile of extremely rare beef served with lettuce and watercress, and slices of toasted garlic.
|The Sicilian pilaf at Bistro Sun: Part risotto, part paella, part ishiyaki. Photo: Olivier Koning|
The portion is so large that you're better off ordering the beef tataki as a small meal or to split among a table full of people. There were only two of us, but fortunately, one was my friend, the famished blonde. She not only polished off both appetizers, but also demanded a bowl of Italian onion soup before proceeding to the entrées.
At Bistro Sun, onion soup becomes Italian by using chicken rather than beef stock and by not covering the soup in that sometimes difficult-to-get-through crust of bread and cheese. There's cheese in the Bistro Sun version, a discreet amount in among the onions.
We finally got to the entrées. First a rice dish, Sicilian pilaf, Sicily being the first place in Europe to cultivate rice. This is a first cousin to a risotto, begun by cooking the rice first in a little oil or butter, then working in broth and other ingredients. It's like paella as well, topped with seafood-squid, octopus and a couple of garlic-butter mussels. And there's a little hint of ishiyaki as well, since it's sizzled in a paella pan until the rice gets cooked just enough to make it crusty and crunchy. We ate every bite.
Then came the pasta of the day, topped with a sauce made of fresh tuna and fresh tomatoes. It didn't look like much, a bit watery. But the pasta was al dente, clearly cooked to order, and the sauce much better than it looked. I took one bite, then another, then another, and soon I was fighting over it with the famished blonde. "Why is this so good?" she asked. I didn't know. Because someone in the back could cook.
We were, by this time, too full for dessert, but quite happy. We'd had a good time in the little, oddly decorated restaurant, with diaphanous fabric draped over the track lights and a weirdly ornate clock on the wall. We got attentive service from the manager, Michael Franzen, who, like the menu, is bilingual. The outgoing Franzen worked a few years in Japan as a computer programmer, and then switched careers because he liked restaurants better. "Fun kine," he says, in the pidgin accent he acquired growing up in Phoenix, Ariz.
The bill for this rather large dinner for two was $81, including tip and $3 corkage for the bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River chardonnay the famished blonde had thoughtfully provided. It didn't particularly go with the food, but it sure was good.