A Week of Lunches
Five excuses to skip the brown bag routine and actually leave your desk.
In these degenerate times, I often find myself eating at my desk. My own cooking, even microwaved the next day, seems preferable to a lot of the food my younger co-workers go out and purchase.
Then I drew this assignment: Eat lunch out every day for a week, downtown. Sounded like I could handle it. I skipped the usual suspects: the steak (or even better, the lamb shanks) at Murphy’s, the buffet at Indigo. No, I was going to have a different midday culinary adventure the whole week through.
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Soul de Cuba Café
1121 Bethel St. // 545-2822
Lunch Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
No parking, major credit cards
Forget mojitos, that trendy Cuban cocktail. Honolulu’s only Cuban restaurant also serves the traditional drink of Brazil, the caipirinha.
“Since when do we drink at lunch? On a Monday?” said the friend who’d joined me.
Exceptional circumstances, I argued. “This is a caipirinha made with real cachaça, not vodka.” Cachaça is distilled from sugar-cane juice, not molasses, like rum. It’s heady stuff. Combined with fresh lime wedges and a little sugar, it’s a samba in a glass.
“Whoa,” said my friend when he tasted it. “There goes the afternoon.”
Photo by Ryan Siphers
And what to drink with this fricase de pollo? A caipirinha, of course.
I’d tried Soul de Cuba when it opened last year, and been put off by both the small portions and the outrageously tame flavors, especially for a Caribbean cuisine.
Perhaps our experience was colored by the caipirinhas, but, this time, we managed to enjoy lunch. On the sampler platter of aperitivos, what went first were the grilled shrimp, in a black bean sauce with a touch of heat, a seriously accomplished dish.
Then we sat and stared at the devil crab. Not deviled crab. A crab-vegetable mix had been deep-fried inside a croquette that was pointed at both ends. Cut in half and set upright on the plate, it looked like devil’s horns.
The croquette batter was so heavy, this dish reminded me of a corn dog. But it tasted fine, especially with the salt-chili-vinegar dip. The dip beat the pants off the orange sauce on the ho-hum empanadas, which tasted like a mix of mayo and catsup.
For some reason, we both wanted to try the sopa de garbanzo. Improbably, this turned out to be good—a powerful chicken broth flavored with sautéed chorizo, simmered with whole garbanzos.
After all that, prudence would have suggested ordering only a single entrée. But at the outset of the meal, we’d asked the waitress which two platillos principales she would order. The ropa viejo and the fricase de pollo. The chicken fricassee was two small, not particularly distinguished chicken thighs. But the chicken was marinated in garlic, citrus, onion, bell pepper, and bay leaves, and simmered in with tomato sauce and olives. This lit up our mouths.
Unlike the ropa viejo, a shredded beef dish whose name means “old clothes.” Ropa viejo is supposed to be suffused with sofrito—an olive oil paste with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, garlic, cumin, oregano and bay.
No. “It’s like the kitchen ran out of flavor when they got to this dish,” said my friend. We didn’t eat much of it. I took it home, sautéed it with shallots, doctored it up with red and black pepper, and cooked it with eggs and shredded cheese, but that’s a whole other story.
Taken by the plantains that came with the entrées, my friend ordered house-made plantain “butter rum” ice cream. He pronounced it fabulous, I thought it was just sweet. I was tempted to order another caipirinha, but sanity prevailed.
Lunch was $84 with tip. We ordered more food than two people should eat, since I took home a whole entrée in a clam shell. Warning: caipirinhas cost $8. You shouldn’t be drinking at lunch, anyway. Leave it to the professionals.
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35 S. Beretania St. // 537-1191
Open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
No parking, major credit cards
I told a multilingual friend to meet me at Mix Café. When I got there, he was chatting in Italian with the owner. “This is Bruno!” he said. “He’s from Abruzzi! This is fabulous!”
My friend was so excited, he couldn’t stop talking in exclamation points. “This! Looks! Just! Like! Italy!” He pointed out the open stainless-steel shelving, the array of antipasti behind the counter, even the colors on the walls—a stunning juxtaposition of lime green and starfruit yellow.
“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.
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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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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.