Dining: Eat, Memory

Sometimes the newer the restaurants are, the more familiar they seem.
Sapori Enoteca/Birreria and Belladonna Restaurant

I set out this month to catch up with newly opened restaurants. I often do, I feel it’s my duty.

Restaurants are, perhaps unfortunately, a fashion business. People are constantly asking me, Any new restaurants out there? As if the old ones no longer produced anything worth eating, and something new needed to open up, soon, before they starved.

However, a funny thing happened this month. I went to three new restaurants, all of which, deliberately or not, reminded me of restaurants where I’d eaten before. I set out to find the new and found, instead—how should I put this?—some updates.

 

The Ranch House
499 Kapahulu Ave.  // Hee Hing Plaza  // 737-4461   //
Dinner nightly 5 to 9 p.m.  // Major credit cards  // ranchhousehawaii.com


Eeee-ha! The Ranch House features a Western theme.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Someone finally did a retro restaurant right.

With the advent of Hawaii Regional Cuisine came a trend toward bustling display kitchens. Still, there’s always been a cadre of diners who insisted they wanted the old restaurants back, you know, the kind of restaurant where the menu was covered in leather and the kitchen stayed quietly behind closed doors.

There’ve been a number of attempts to recreate those old-school, high-end restaurants in Honolulu, without a great deal of success. The legendary Bistro on Kapiolani was dazzlingly and expensively reborn in Century Center, and didn’t take hold.

The original Sergio’s had cozy, little, over-decorated dining rooms on a Waikiki side street, all watched over by the overdressed propriétaire. Sergio himself is long gone. Sergio’s the restaurant has been reborn—as a far more tasteful, serious, high-end eatery in the Hilton shops, but with hardly the same spirit.

It turns out that the retro restaurant Honolulu was hungry for was a Spencecliff. Starting in 1941, Spence and Cliff Weaver grew their chain to 28 restaurants on Oahu, prospering when people in Honolulu weren’t as fussy about food as they are now.

In the 1980s, as tastes changed and options multiplied, Spencecliff found itself in financial trouble. The chain was sold to a Japanese investor, who left his 24-year-old son in charge of the company.

Total disaster. Nowhere was that disaster more obvious than at one of the chain’s best loved restaurants, the Ranch House in Aina Haina.

In 1986, under the new ownership, the Ranch House was renovated. What started as a $1 million project turned into $3 million worth of imported European tiles, Italian marble, chrome and neon. When it was done, the Ranch House had been transformed into two theoretically trendy restaurants, Metro and Rockchild’s. People hated both. They closed in 1988.


The moi steamed Chinese style, stuffed with tomatoes and lup cheong.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Twenty-two years later, with the blessing of Chantal Weaver, Spence Weaver’s daughter, the Ranch House is back. Think of it as Ranch House 2.0.

We had to go. I used to eat at Ranch House 1.0 all the time with my wife—she wasn’t even my wife then, just my 20-something, hot new girlfriend. We could (barely) afford it, and, besides, there were hardly any other restaurants in East Honolulu. We ate prime rib and, if I remember correctly, caroused with carafes of pink wine.

To Ranch House 2.0, we dragged along our grad-school-age daughter, who was born too late, alas, ever to have sampled the original, though she once sat in a high chair at the glitzy, doomed Metro.

When we approached the new location, the old Sam Choy’s space on Kapahulu, my wife said, “It’s not the same. Where’s the wagon wheel outside?”

My daughter rolled her eyes. “Maybe inside, Mom.” Yes, inside were not only wagon wheels but horseshoes, saddles, saddle blankets, plus an assortment of memorabilia from the old restaurant. 

 

 

 


Chicken-fried steak is a stick-to-your-ribs specialty of the south.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Yippee oh ki ay.

The new menu goes on for pages and pages, value-priced local favorites mainly: kalbi, huli-huli chicken, meatloaf. There it was, just like I remembered: prime rib, in  both the kane- and wahine- size portions.“I get the prime rib,” said my daughter, seeing some redeeming qualities to the expedition after all.

Hungry, we kicked off with a trio of sliders—pulled pork, beef and meatloaf with Hamakua mushroom gravy, all tasty, especially the pulled pork.

You can add either soup or salad to your entrée for $2.95—a move we regretted. The soup was flat-tasting, though far better than the canned soups at the old Ranch House. The salad was burdened with a distressingly sweet papaya-seed dressing.

Didn’t matter, because also gracing the table was a basket of hot, buttery, garlic rolls, the kind that made you grab for more. “Write down that these are some bad-ass garlic rolls,” instructed my daughter. “They’re better than the garlic-butter balls at Antonio’s Pizzeria.”
We resisted the offer of more because the entrées had arrived. My daughter was not inclined to share much of the prime rib, though what little I tasted was just like I remembered it after decades.

My wife, perhaps plunged into a country and western mood by the décor, ordered a chicken-fried steak. “Just like the time we were in Texas,” she said.

Chicken-fried steak is “local” food—in the South. You slather the beef in an eggy-flour batter, fry it golden and douse it with what’s called milk gravy.

Normally, you chicken-fry a steak so you can get away with cheaper cuts of beef, like cube steak. That’s why the Ranch House’s chicken-fried steak was off the hook—it was really a steak, pounded rib-eye, perhaps, tender and toothsome on its own. I regretted not having ordered it myself.

I did not, however, regret my own order, which was something the old Ranch House would never have served—a whole moi steamed Chinese-style, stuffed with tomatoes and lup cheong, piled with onions and cilantro. Later, our young waiter noticed my plate held only the fish skeleton. “Sir,” he said, “that moi didn’t stand a chance.”

Entrées at Ranch House 1.0 always came with rice and corn, canned. It shows how far we’ve come in a couple of decades. At Ranch House 2.0, the corn is fresh Kahuku corn and actually worth eating.

The Ranch House 2.0 is the old Ranch House, but better. I remember dinner being about $15 a head in, say, 1982, which, given inflation, works out to about $34 a head now, almost exactly our check.

“I’d come here with you guys, but not my friends,” said my 20-something daughter. “It’s for old people.” For her, that’s a category that includes anyone much over 25.

Old or not, the place was packed, humming. The dining room was enlivened by a gentleman named Kimo Todd, who by day teaches music at Holy Nativity. Todd played his guitar and sang his way through a mixed set of Hawaiian, hapa-haole and Elvis tunes. By the time we were leaving, he was at a large table, playing requests. Everyone at the table was singing along.

“I think they did a great job with this. The whole thing has a perfect, classic Hawaii feel,” said my wife. To my daughter, she said, “It may be old people. But it’s old people party time.”
 

 

The asparagus salad at Sapori Enoteca/Birreria boasts Montasio cheese, a sunnyside-up egg, asparagus and speck, which is like bacon but actually dried strips of pork leg.

Photo: Oliver Koning

Sapori Enoteca/Birreria
1341 Kapiolani Blvd.  // 955-3582  // DTuesday to Friday 4:30 p.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 5:30 p.m. to midnight   //
  saporihonolulu.com

“Oooh, oooh, oooh,” said one of my friends. “Little fishy french fries!”

To be more accurate, little french-fried fishes.

We were, much to our surprise, happily munching on fried smelt at Sapori.

Sapori is chef Donato Loperfido’s new incarnation, in the same Kapiolani space that once held Elua, Loperfido’s partnership with Philippe Padovani. The room looks much the same, a bit formal-looking for what it has become—a tapas-style, casual, drink-with-friends kind of place.

I’ve been following Loperfido since the early ’90s, when he was in the kitchen of the old Baci Due on Waialae Avenue. So Sapori (the word means flavors, tastes) is for me Donato 3.0, maybe 4.0.

I have to say, though, the fried smelt was new.

With his new tapas menu, Donato has done a great job of avoiding the obvious. We just started ordering dishes that sounded good—and, at the last minute, I added smelt. I didn’t expect much, but I can seldom resist ordering something I haven’t had before.

There are any number of fish called smelt—in Italian, bianchetti, and in Japanese, shishamo. These were tiny, silver, 3- to 4-inch saltwater fish that Donato brings in fresh from California, cleans up a little, then coats in seasoned flour, head and all. Rather than deep fry them, he sautés them in olive oil. You eat them whole. They were just crunchy enough, just salty enough, just seafood-y enough.

“These are delicious,” we told our waiter. He looked dubious, as you, too, might be when confronted with Fishy French Fries. “Try one,” we said. He turned his back on the dining room and crunched one down. (Donato, you’re absolutely not allowed to fire him for this.) “Oh,” he said, shocked. “They’re good.” You’ll agree.


Chef Donato Loperfido makes this stracciatella, because even if it’s not featured on his menu, people know about it and demand it anyways.

Photo: Olivier Koning

If the smelt weren’t the best thing on the menu, that’s only because there’s a parade of pleasurable things—like Donato’s celebrated stracciatella. This isn’t exactly new for Donato, but he’s the only one crazy enough to make it.  First, he has to make fresh mozzarella, no picnic. He ties the strands of mozzarella into knots and chills them. Then he reheats them, and, when they’re so hot he can barely touch them, unties the knots and shreds the cheese.

It’s already sort of creamy, but he marinates it in cream, dots it with lightly dressed cocktail tomatoes. A little basil, a squirt of basil oil. Can you taste this yet?

Donato says that, if it’s not on the menu, people demand it anyway. Coupled with a nice, dry white wine, it tilts your palate toward bliss. Thinking we should have some greens, we ordered an asparagus salad—a dish that here might more properly be called bacon and eggs with a little asparagus. There’s a sunnyside up egg with a slice of pale yellow Montasio cheese melted on top. The bacon is not precisely bacon. It’s speck: baconlike strips cut from the leg rather than the pork belly, and air-dried. This particular speck is smoked over bay leaves. You won’t miss bacon.

 

 

The cozy bar area of Sapori Enoteca/Birreria, which offers craft and European beers.

Photo: Olivier Koning

But that’s leaving the best for last—spezzatino. Spezzatino is usually translated as stew, but in Donato’s version, anyway, it’s closer to a French cassoulet, mixed meats and beans simmered forever, topped at the last moment with bread crumbs and cloves of roasted garlic.

The menu claimed this was made with beef short ribs. Dubious, I asked Donato later: No, he uses a cut of beef called the flat loin, which sits on top of the steaks. He adds some lamb loin, some housemade Italian sausage, some big, speckled Berlotti beans, braises it with plenty of red wine.

This was so heartwarming that even before we finished the first bowl, we’d ordered a second. Said the other friend who joined me, “This is comfort food from an Italian childhood I never got to have.”

Desserts were not even in the same league as the rest of the food. In retrospect, I would have skipped them and ordered one more dish. But our friend, who applauded the little fish fries, is highly dessert-oriented. In her honor we ordered three desserts, including one that was three small desserts in one.

The only dessert that really worked was a lemon pana cotta topped with fresh fruit. The pear tarte tatin was not a real tarte tatin—the too-thick pear slices were simply arranged on top of a prebaked, now cold and unappealing crust.

Whatever you do, do not order the coconut tapioca. The table next to ours sent theirs back. We just didn’t eat it.

On the other hand, the beverages were delightful, not counting the Bellini, which was made with peach juice rather than peach purée. Especially good wines: the M. Picard Vouvray and the juicy and enjoyable Barbera d’Asti from La Meridiana.

Donato is also importing beer, so there’s a separate list of craft and European beers. On many tables there was nary a wine glass, just a forest of beer bottles. My friend, the one yearning for an Italian childhood he never had, drank a beer called—I couldn’t make this up—Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter. It seemed darker than espresso. I tasted it and wished that American craft beer makers would learn that too many hops do not make for a distinctive beer; they merely blitz your tastebuds.

All told, however, we had endless fun, which is always a good thing, especially when you are dropping $220 for three. Dessert aside, it was money well spent.
 

Belladonna Restaurant
3605 Waialae Ave.  // 426-3552   // Dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. 

Belladonna is truly new. Still, I felt I’d been there before. There’s a long tradition, especially in Kaimuki, of first-time, not heavily capitalized restaurants with fine-dining aspirations. Often, until they get a liquor license, they are BYOB—which gives them quick acceleration with people who like to go out nice and keep costs down.

Belladonna took over the C&C Pasta location and made it look even more urban, installing a loft and hanging cylindrical light fixtures so hip I wanted to climb up on the bar, unscrew them and take them home.

The space is contemporary; the menu, thoroughly retro. The restaurant’s signature item is beef Wellington, which is so old school that many of its younger patrons may think it’s new. Actually, it’s been around at least since the early 19th century.

I’ve often had philosophical differences with beef Wellington. Why exactly would you take a perfectly good tenderloin of beef and wrap it in puff pastry, which then gets soggy?

Still, I admit, Belladonna’s makes a nice presentation, individual pieces, roasted medium rare and then served cut open, so you actually see the beef. Before being wrapped, the meat’s coated with a mushroom duxelles. Duxelles isn’t complicated: finely chopped mushrooms cooked in butter with shallots and so forth. It’s been around since the 17th century.

At Belladonna, this is nicely executed, well-presented, atop a traditional bordelaise, a red wine-demiglace sauce you’ve eaten many times without knowing the name. This evening I’d taken a friend out for her birthday—and when this dish arrived at her place, she felt suitably fêted.

My entree was simpler, though also wrapped. It was a seafood spaghetti al cartoccio, the Italian equivalent of en papillote. It’s boiled spaghetti, sauced, popped into a parchment-paper pouch and baked. Whatever your thoughts on baking pasta, this makes a great presentation, because the pouch browns a little and puffs up. When the waiter opens the bag at the table, you get a blast of aroma. Otherwise, this is just a competent seafood pasta in red sauce. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my birthday.

We’d preceded all this with appetizers—a fresh mozzarella vegetable wrap that was a disappointment after Donato’s mozzarella, and some pleasant enough chicken liver pâté on some remarkably good toasted baguette. The star appetizer was a beef carpaccio, beautiful rare slices arrayed on a platter (not virtually glued to it, as often happens), nicely seasoned with sea salt, pepper, shallots, chives, and then topped with grilled Portobello mushroom slices.

Since it was a birthday, we ended big, with a chocolate mousse that seemed to have been folded into a thick whipped cream and topped with yet more whipped cream, plus chocolate shavings, plus a strawberry.

The other dessert that I couldn’t resist ordering—once again because it sounded out of the box—was a chocolate-bleu cheese gelato. The birthday girl thought it a bit weird but OK. I thought it was perfectly balanced between the sweet of the chocolate and the sharp bite of the bleu.

This was a satisfying dinner—and priced well, $130 with tip. Of course, that didn’t count the wine I brought in, since Belladonna was still BYOB. Thanks to Nick Keeler of the wine shop Simply Grape for recommending the Midnight Cellars Pinot Noir ($26).          

John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.