Dining: Gathering Places
Three new additions to Honolulu's dining scene focus on cozy, neighborhood-friendly experiences.
People love new cars, the shine, the sparkle, the heady aroma of urethanes and polycarbonates in the interior.
I like new restaurants better.
A new restaurant has sparkle, shine—and hope. The staff always wears tentative, yet determined smiles that always remind me of the first weeks of school—those weeks when you promised yourself, this year you’re going to do great, no cutting class, no skipping homework. It’s going to be a great year, you’re even going to get a date for the prom.
Assaggio Bistro Kahala
4346 Waialae Ave. // 732-1011 // Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // assaggiohi.com
Most new restaurants aren’t exactly new. They are simply modifications, large or small, of the restaurant that previously leased the space. So it was a pleasure, indeed, to walk into the new Kahala Assaggio, which anchors a spanking new retail center built on the site of a former Chevron station by Assaggio owner Thomas Ky.
Not only is the restaurant new new: It’s the brightest, most spacious and comfortable of the now half-dozen Assaggio’s. Polished wood, frosted glass, wonderfully private, angled booths, a gleaming, backlit wine rack, comfortable, upholstered chairs, a staff with those wonderful first-weeks-of-school smiles.
Once you get over the shock of the new, however, Assaggio Kahala is Assaggio everywhere: Hawaii Kai, Kailua, Mililani, Ala Moana and Kapolei. Ky was sent at age 13 by his Chinese-Vietnamese family to America, grew up in foster homes and worked his way tirelessly from dishwasher to restaurant mogul. Somewhere along the way he hit on a brilliant formula for Assaggio. Why change it?
Ky’s restaurants offer exactly the kind of food people in Hawaii expect when they order Italian, but that’s hardly unique, since much of the standard Hawaii-Italian menu was pioneered by New Jersey transplant Cass Castagnola in the ’80s and has been replicated all over town.
What Assaggio does brilliantly, and consistently, is deliver a high-end restaurant experience at a moderate price. You get a white linen tablecloth and a real rose on the table, an attentive wait staff and a wine list—at a place where entrées range from $14 to $25. You never feel like you dropped by an Assaggio to grab a bite, you feel like you’ve been out to dinner.
Still, like us, you’ve probably been to an Assaggio so many times that you don’t even have to read the menu. We always order exactly the same thing, the chicken anchovy olio linguine, a large portion in hopes of having some left over for lunch the next day, two lunches, really, because otherwise we fight over who gets it.
This dish is a splendid bit of Italian rustic aglio e olio e a’lice, supplemented by crispy, grilled chicken thighs. It’s powerful music in your mouth.
“It’s a new restaurant. For once we should try something different,” I said. Asparagus with grilled garlic to start, even though it was pricey at $10.90. It arrived a nice jade green, but was probably not locally sourced.
For the entrées, we had sausage, peppers and potatoes, a rather meek and mild rendition of that classic trio. Much better was the osso buco, two large veal shanks braised in tomato sauce, served with a nice, high-end restaurant touch, a little spoon for digging out the marrow.
“You ordered the osso buco with vegetables,” said my wife, surveying the mound of oversize bell-pepper pieces.
She did not applaud my healthy choice. Instead, she turned to the waiter and ordered a side of pasta.
One thing seemed different at Kahala: the wine list. Perhaps in a gesture to its upscale neighborhood, the offerings included Dom Pérignon at $190 a bottle (hardly the highest price I’ve seen on a Honolulu wine list).
More welcome at a weekday dinner were the Italian by-the-glass offerings: Bollini chardonnay, much more food-friendly than a California chardonnay, and the Fontanafredda Barbera “Briccotondo,” which is a remarkably rich, yummy red for its low price tag.
We finished by splitting a tiramisu, the real thing, with ladyfingers instead of cake and actual, fine ground espresso. Then we sighed. Dinner for two was $100 with tip, rather more than we usually spend at Assaggio, but, then again, we’re usually eating the aglia e olio and maybe a salad.
I have no fear that the Kahala Assaggio will fly in the face of the recession. Remarkably, the Kāhala area is short of nice sit-down restaurants, and this one’s a beauty, complete with a 30-seat party room and a pleasant, roomy bar. As we ate dinner, we saw more than one friend rush in to get takeout, so it works that way as well.
Sheraton Waikiki // 2255 Kalakaua Ave. // 922-4422, 921-4600 // Breakfast daily 6 to 11 a.m.; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. // Free validated parking, major credit cards // sheraton-waikiki.com
It’s vast, the Sheraton Waikiki’s new Kai Market, 300 seats, with a buffet that spreads its way all along the back of the room. That’s not to mention the walls sprouting live herbs—thyme, rosemary, chives, several basils, chocolate mint.
When the hotel planned Kai Market, no one foresaw the Recession That Ate Tourism. The night we arrived, despite enough diners to populate a more moderate-size restaurant, Kai Market looked desolate and empty.
Except the buffet—which was the most appealing I’ve ever seen. It’s spacious, well lit, with nicely designed little signs, printed on recycled paper, marking every dish.
The salads were on ice and ti leaves, the seafood dishes on ice and ogo, and the entrées, in cast-iron pans on a matte black cooktop. Somebody worked at this. The food, unlike that at scores of other buffets I have shuffled through, looked good enough to eat. And I haven’t even mentioned the candlelit pyramids of desserts. I was still settling at our table when my wife and daughter were up, checking out the desserts. “Let’s forget all this other stuff,” said my daughter, gesturing dismissively at the rest of the buffet. “Let’s start right here.”
Looking at the “other stuff,” however, made skipping directly to dessert less appealing.
The syntax is the same as at any other buffet. You start with salads, except that Kai Market has a whole salad section. It’s billing itself as a farm-to-table restaurant. Hardly a novel notion in 2009, but Kai Market pulls it off reasonably well.
The salad bar was Waimanalo greens, Hāmākua tomatoes, Big Island hearts of palm, fresh local cucumbers, seaweed and Hāmākua mushrooms (though they sure looked like enoki mushrooms to me).
There was an array of local-style salads, as well: a reasonably spicy shrimp salad with tomatoes; a Honda tofu and watercress salad with sesame oil-based dressing; and what billed itself as a cucumber salad with Surfing Goat Dairy feta, but was actually an excellent edamame salad, sharpened with cheese from Maui’s famous goat farm.
But what had us all oohing and ahhing was the potato salad. Kai Market had encouraged people to submit family recipes, and their restaurant manager, Shaun Ono, had submitted this recipe from his mother, who passed away last spring.
Even if it hadn’t come with a touching story, this was amazing, stuffed with onion and tuna, slightly underdone potatoes, and plenty of Best Foods and chopped egg on top.
It was all I could do to keep myself from filling up on it. But eating at a buffet requires discipline. We still had to go to the cold dishes: sashimi, ahi poke, tako poke with a restrained amount of kim chee in it.
Also hot dishes: Kahuku shrimp cooked up head-on, Chinese salt-and-pepper style. I’ve had this dish many times, but never with large, quality shrimp like these.
Another Chinese restaurant special: Sun Noodle crispy cake noodles with shrimp, squid, baby scallops, baby corn, vegetables in the usual cornstarch-shoyu sauce.
A creditable chop steak stuffed with tender beef, a touch of black bean sauce perhaps, bright with multicolor bell peppers and onion.
Some baby back ribs, dry rubbed with Kona coffee—which lacked a certain zing in the barbecue sauce.
And vinha d’ahlos, a dish that arrived in Hawai‘i with the Portuguese. There are scores of vinha d’ahlos recipes; some of them call for marinating pork for three to five days in wine, garlic and vinegar, plus any number of any other spices, red chili pepper and black pepper prominent among them.
At that point, recipes diverge. Some people fry the pork with potatoes, others brown and braise it with the potatoes. I would go with braising, and I would not cook it quite as dry as Kai Market did. A little remaining pan liquid would have brought out the vinegary flavors. (On the other hand, this was someone’s family recipe, as well, so I won’t quibble.)
As you may have guessed by now, Kai Market’s thing is to offer to guests who may not have a clue about—or even care—the foods that everyone in Hawai‘i eats all the time. “Food from seven cultures!” our waiter said repeatedly, though his cultural grip slackened a bit when he insisted vinha d’ahlos was Filipino food.
Of all the cultural offerings, the one that worked best was the Chinatown roast duck, which tasted exactly as it would if you bought it from a stand in Chinatown. It came complete with hoisin sauce, slivers of green onion, a steamer full of bao and some of the best cilantro I’ve ever tasted. I was hoping it was plucked off the wall covered in fresh herbs, but apparently it was micro cilantro from Nalo Farms.
I suppose the haole were well-represented by the prime rib at the carving station and the Japanese by a two-foot fillet of sea bass (hapu‘upu‘u) that tasted for all the world like miso butterfish, with that tasty half-sweet glaze on top.
Even the sides were beautiful: an array of oven-roasted vegetables tossed with herbs (hopefully from the wall), plus some creamy and not terribly garlicky garlic mashed potatoes, and a big wok full of fried rice. It wasn’t bad fried rice, and it supposedly contained Kukui Brand kim chee and Portuguese sausage, but it was awfully bland—a criticism that might be applied to much of the buffet. It was Hawai‘i food, all right, but lacking the flavors that make our food stand out.
Still, Kai Market is trying. To let one detail speak for the rest, the vegetables in the fried rice were fresh, but they were carefully cut to look like they’d come out of the bag frozen, like most of the fried rice you get all over town.
At this point, I set down my pen, notebook, fork and chopsticks, thinking I was pau. Foolish man. My wife and daughter were ready for dessert, and, in fact, passed up the small plates at the dessert buffet and instead equipped themselves with the bigger plates used for entrées.
Our table was soon laden with sweets of all cultures and varieties. I have been at buffets where the desserts looked pretty good, but all tasted pretty much the same. These were all different and all good. Too many to mention, but fresh, really fresh, coconut mochi, passion fruit flan, chocolate pot au crème with whipped cream and raspberries, gooey rich pao doce bread pudding, and—I’m sorry, Anna Miller’s, and don’t even mention Ted’s Bakery to me—the best, richest, freshest chocolate haupia pie I have ever tasted.
That’s not to mention the assortment of Satura Cakes “cupcakes,” which have so much whipped icing piled on top, they come in cups, like ice cream.
On top of that, Kai Market was an incredible bargain. Make a reservation, not that you need one in a restaurant this large, but it gives you a chance to tell them you live here. The buffet costs $49, but kids under 12 eat free. (One child per paying adult). However, if you’re a local resident, you get 25 percent off, so the buffet is only $36.75. And soft drinks and parking are free.
Alcohol isn’t, of course. For some reason, after all the planning, the hotel stuck the service bar out by the new infinity pool. After a considerable delay, the waiter returned with my glass of pinot noir—“Sorry, sir, I have to go a long way to get this.”
I told him he might mention to the bartender that red wine isn’t usually served warmed, as in a half-dozen degrees above room temperature. To his credit, after another longish interval, the waiter arrived with a slightly cooler replacement glass. “The bar’s outside, sir. It gets very hot out there. The sun.”
That aside, you will probably want to put Kai Market on your list. You may remember the Parc Café, the former buffet restaurant in the Waikiki Parc. It was perfect for those situations in which people in Hawai‘i often find themselves. You are taking an extended family out to dinner. You want a place nice enough that everyone feels they’ve been out to dinner and is comfortable for a wide range of ages, from babies to oldsters. You need a variety of foods (perhaps lots of it). Since you’re going to get the check, you need to know what it’s going to cost you going in.
Parc Café is no more, having given way to Nobu Waikiki. But Kai Market is bigger, newer and better. Assemble the ohana and get there before the Sheraton comes to its senses and abandons the kamaaina discount.
Wild Ginger Asian Cuisine
3441 Waialae Ave. // 738-1168 // Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards
Wild Ginger isn’t new new. It replaced a Chinese seafood restaurant more than a year ago. It was still new to me. I’d been planning to get there for months because I was intrigued by the notion that it was pan-Asian: contemporary, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese.
By the time I got there, the pan-Asian claims had been downsized a little. There’s not much trace of Japanese on the menu and only a hint of Malaysian. It’s Chinese food with diversions into Thai, but, for all that, an interesting menu.
An interesting place, as well, done up in Chinese-restaurant opulent: blonde wood, flower arrangements, curtains, chairs and table coverings in brocade, although the latter two are covered with plastic. It draws a casual neighborhood clientele.
There were four of us at dinner, all hungry. Someone ordered crispy wontons, over my protests. I ended up eating more than my share. They were just like all the other crispy wontons I’ve ever encountered, except the usual red sweet-and-sour sauce was jazzed up with chili peppers, which seemed to redeem the whole concept.
To start, I’d ordered the Wild Ginger Combo; a loosely constructed spring roll; a standard summer roll (why are there never fall and winter rolls?); a crab cake that was unlike any I’d had before, a flat pancakelike thing nicely golden brown, with the texture of fish cake inside; and something done extraordinarily well, a soft-shell crab, lightly battered and still hot from the fryer, a few bites of exceptional fun.
Always curious, I’d ordered a seaweed salad, to protests round the table. It turned out totally unchallenging—a fairly standard green salad topped with some marinated wakame. It held strips of mango as well as tomatoes, cucumber and so forth—all of which should have added up to something and sadly didn’t.
We’d ordered three main dishes: a thoroughly disappointing kun pao shrimp, I’ve had better in dozens of Chinese restaurants, and a Szechuan pepper beef, which was lacking in both pepper and inspiration.
Part of the problem was that, when the waitress asked me whether we wanted the dishes hot, I asked, Chinese hot? Or Thai hot?
“Thai hot,” she said. Knowing better than to challenge a Thai kitchen, I ordered medium. But, hey, the spice scale here is Chinese, not Thai; order spicy.
The third dish, however, made up for all the rest: a considerable quantity of whitefish fillets, lightly dusted (cornstarch?) to get crispy in the sauté pan, double sauced, with a red sweet-sour-chili concoction and a coconut-based Thai curry sauce. This doesn’t sound like it would work, but, boy, does it. It’s sort of a proof of concept for the restaurant, which I wish would push the envelope a little farther and come up with more of these things.
Also astoundingly good, the fried rice with egg, vegetables and green onion. I am at a loss to explain why it was so good—perhaps it made the journey from wok to table almost instantly. Suffice it to say we finished the first platter and ordered a second.
I asked the diminutive waitress to clear an empty platter, then realized she had in her other hand a heavy, full water pitcher. “Can you handle both?” I asked. “Of course, sir,” she said. “I’m a professional.”
The service was, in fact, professional. When the pepper beef was much delayed coming out of the kitchen, we didn’t complain. We were slowing down anyway, nibbling up whatever remained on the platters. But when I got the check, they’d knocked off 10 percent because they were so slow. Dinner for four was a remarkable $90 with tip, not counting the bottle of unoaked chardonnay I’d brought, no corkage.
That may explain why the place was humming on a Sunday night.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.