Dining: Upscale Asian
Asian cuisine is already a star in Honolulu. Does it need to get dressed up?
Picture a restaurant with an Asian menu—dim sum, maybe, or pho. What do you see? Bright flourescent lights, lineoleum floors, formica tables, bargain prices? That may soon be an outdated image.
We’re seeing a trend toward high-end Asian restaurants—restaurants with stunning interiors, full bars and wine service, restaurants that compete on food quality, ambiance, service and not just price alone.
This is good. In Honolulu, we’ve long known that Asian cuisine is not “ethnic food,” as it’s called on the Mainland. For us, it’s just everyday food. It deserves respect.
On the other hand, Honolulu is already the best Asian food city in America, at least in the sense that Asian food is easily found, often on every street corner. It tends not to cost much, and it’s often of remarkable quality. Here, you don’t have to hunt for good Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese or Vietnamese food; it’s just there. It’s like living in the middle of great buffet of noodles, tom yum, spring rolls and stir-fries with rice.
That makes it tough to do an upscale Asian restaurant. You don’t want to be in the position of charging $19.95 for a dish and having the customer say, I could get this better for $7.95 in Chinatown.
Tough environment or not, Honolulu suddenly has some stunning high-end Asian eateries.
E&O Trading Co.
Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd.
Lunch and Dinner daily 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Free parking, major credit cards
E&O Trading Co. looks like a million bucks, well, actually $2 million, according to news reports. It occupies the old Pacific Cafe space in Ward Centre, but looks nothing like it. Walk through the faux antique wrought-iron gates, and it’s all teak furnishings and walls the color of curry powders. To set this off, from the ceiling hang red lanterns, red umbrellas and, in the entrance, an oversized bamboo wind chime painted everything from orange to purple.
If you read E&O’s promo materials, the odd restaurant name, the decor and indeed the whole concept are “inspired by a legendary friendship between an English trader and an Indonesian spice merchant.” Not quite a legend. The restaurant is the brainchild of Punahou grads Kenwei Chong and Christopher R. Hemmeter, who already have three E&Os in Northern California. Hemmeter is the son of Island developer Chris Hemmeter, who has, in fact, become legendary.
The younger Hemmeter, having learned from the fantasy resorts created by his father, wrote a six-page script, about a completely fictional 19th-century Englishman, John Bailey, who traded European goods with the Orient (hence E&O) and whose warehouse became a culinary gathering place.
I’m always uneasy about theme restaurants. However, to be fair, E&O is a warm, inviting, even stimulating restaurant setting.
Like many upscale Asian restaurants on the Mainland, E&O’s food is pan-Asian. It’s not really fusion food. Instead, it’s Asian dishes, from a variety of cultures, that have the greatest haole acceptance: satay, ribs, calamari, fried rice.
Unfortunately, the food is uneven, and was unevenly served. We were a party of five (on purpose, to order a large variety of dishes). Everyone was ravenous, so as soon as we sat down, I ordered the satay sampler. “Start there and we’ll add more food later.” A failed strategy. The satay—two sticks each of salmon, chicken, mushroom and steak—arrived late in the meal, a circumstance the waiter blamed on the grill. It was, in fact, better quality than usual satay, especially the steak, although in Honolulu it was hardly adventurous fare, the way it might be at the E&O in San Jose, Calif.
What we got first was something we ordered much later, two orders of naan bread, one topped with roasted tomatoes and onions, the other stuffed with spiced lamb. Naan, an East Indian flat bread, is traditionally cooked by slapping it against the clay walls of a high-heat tandoor oven, where it cooks rapidly, getting puffy on the inside and crispy brown on the outside. You have to eat it right away.
E&O doesn’t have a tandoor oven. The tomato-onion naan came out like a thick pizza, and was far too salty. The lamb in the stuffed naan was tasty, but the doughy texture made me miss the real thing.
So it went. Some items were quite engaging: a salad of Napa cabbage, green papaya and fresh ginger. Duck in an udon pot full of broth and vegetables, redolent with tangerine, star anise and ginger.
Some things were disappointments: the too-sweet Thai ribs, the lackluster long beans in sesame and the rib-eye rubbed with Mongolian spices. We asked for the steak sliced pupu style. It came in three big chunks.“Oh, what’s wrong with those guys in the kitchen?” asked the waiter.
Most things were just pretty good. Given the expectations created by the setting and service, that may not be enough, especially since there’s little on the menu that isn’t generally available all over town. Desserts, with the exception of the rich tapioca pudding, are Western and restaurant quality. The best, to my taste, was fresh fruit, largely berries, warmed with a custard-y sabayon sauce.
The E&O “legend” has fictional trader James Bailey importing British ales to the Orient. The San Francisco E&O opened with its own brewery.
The Honolulu E&O is more wine-oriented, with a short, upscale list, a little pricey by the glass. Confronted with a riot of different flavors, I did what I always do, ordering prosecco, the light Italian sparkling wine, which seems to go with everything and is never terribly expensive.
Dinner ran $300, with tip. Remember that’s for five: seven appetizers, three entrees, and five desserts. More restraint will get you away for less, though it seems to me E&O runs the risk of people saying, It’s a nice place, but I can get the same dishes for less at a lot of other restaurants.
Ala Moana Pacific Center,
1585 Kapiolani Blvd.
Dinner nightly 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Free and valet parking, major credit cards
Shokudo is an intriguing concept. It’s a Japanese restaurant designed for America, not by Americans, but by a Japanese company, Dream Dining Corp., which hopes to open 50 of them across the country in the next decade. The Honolulu Shokudo is the first, the prototype.
So far so good. The 180-seat restaurant is a dazzler, high-ceilinged, glass on two sides. On one side there’s a tiered dining room so the tables descend from level to level like theater seats. A large bar holds down the center. Over the main dining room hangs a—I don’t know what to call it, a sculpture, perhaps, a flying saucer?—huge concentric red rings attached by chains to the ceiling.
For all that, Shokudo is reasonably casual, reasonably priced, the sort of place that’s supposed to be packed and humming, not hushed and reverential. The menu’s designed for casual dining as well, a choice of 50-plus items. There are bar snacks like deep-fried chicken wings, but also tofu, sushi and noodle dishes, salads.
The house specialty seems to be ishiyaki—a hot stone cookery originally developed by the fishermen of Northern Japan. Ishiyaki dishes come on hot stone plates or bowls that continue cooking at the table. For instance, the ishiyaki unagi comes with an appealing wedge of eel atop a portion of rice. But the server immediately mixes the unagi into the rice and the rice keeps cooking, getting crispy on the bottom.
We tried seven dishes, from fresh housemade tofu (more texture than flavor, but the texture’s great) to a grilled chicken (only the skin of which was seasoned with the yuzu and pepper that made the flavor come alive, the rest being pretty dull). The food was far from flawless, but endlessly fun. The most elegant dish was tomato no kimchee—a tomato peeled, cut into wedges and then reassembled and served with a red-pepper dressing that tasted exactly like kim chee.
It was a pleasure to go from minced chicken cooked in bamboo to garlic ahi seared on a hot stone, accompanied by chilled Otokoyama, a dry sake with a 340-year pedigree. Samurai traditionally drank it after battle, and it shows up in some famous Ukiyoe prints.
Despite our adventure through the menu, we managed desserts, a green-tea syrup shave ice (more sweet syrup than green-tea flavor, I thought) and honey toast, which deserves some explication. Two very thick slices of bread are toasted, the crust cut off, the bread diced into bite-sized cubes. Then, its thoroughly drizzled with honey and topped with vanilla ice cream. Your first reaction is “huh?” Your second reaction is to gobble it down immediately. If only they sprinkled it with a little cinnamon.
Menu items run about $7 or $8 and the dazzling tomato kim chee is only $3.75. Shokudo seems to be even better than the sum of its parts. The atmosphere, the food, the young, not particularly well-trained, yet cheerful wait staff—all seem to add up to a good time. Grab a bunch of congenial friends and see if you couldn’t have one yourself.
Discovery Bay Center,
1778 Ala Moana Blvd.
Lunch and dinner daily, Sun. -Thu. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. till midnight
E&O is the product of a California restaurant chain; Shokudo is the first step toward a nationwide chain. Shanghai Bistro is a local production, though it does belong to a family of local restaurants that includes Hong Kong Harbor View.
Even up against competition like E&O and Shokudo, Shanghai Bistro looks great—a stylish curved bar, a dining room of teak walls, bamboo floors, teak tables and just enough light, a lounge area filled with comfortable pillow-strewn couches and stone coffee tables. It’s one of the best-looking restaurant interiors in Honolulu.
It was boys’ night out. By the time I got there, the boys were lounging on one of the couches, risking their palates with martinis. I sat down, ordered a pleasant Mark West pinot noir (Shanghai Bistro sells wine by half bottles in decanters, sometimes the two halves costing less than a whole bottle, don’t ask me why). We started ordering pupu and more pupu and then some entrees—and never left the lounge. It was just too comfortable.
Shanghai Bistro bills chef Chih-Chieh Chang’s food as fusion. I don’t think so. It’s Chinese—not perhaps traditional Chinese, but it’s what happens when a talented Chinese chef begins to incorporate modern influences into his own cuisine. After all, you can’t expect Chinese food to stand still any more than you can expect French cooking to stay stuck at Escoffier.
We went through a half-dozen of the appetizers (most of which only cost $5, though we needed two of the small ones to feed four). Notable were the “golden seafood treasure bags”—a mix of shrimp, scallops and cream cheese—in a pastry bag tied with noodles and deep fried, served with a mango aioli and a side of noodle salad. Quail was stuffed with a shrimp-garlic-black pepper mix. Honey walnut prawns came in a martini glass. The crab-meat dip with a sesame flat bread came in an artful swooping basket.
Our only regret was not getting to the entrees faster. The kung pao chicken sounds like something you could get anywhere; this one was alive with flavor and color, bell peppers, onion, red peppers. Even the peanuts were great.
For the black pepper shrimp steak, the chef chops shrimp, dusts it with potato starch and cooks it twice, deep-fried and sauteeed. He serves it like a burger atop garlic fried rice, surrounded by broccoli.
And you could go on forever about his crispy whole sea bass. The boys cheered when it arrived at the table. Through some art, the fish is cleaned and skinned along the body, but arrives still whole, head, tail and fins intact, golden with a light batter. You pick this apart with chopsticks, dipping in a choice of six sauces: things like wasabi cream and sweet Thai-style chili sauce. My favorite was the simple salt and garlic.
There was even a Chinese-style dessert: pink mochi balls dusted with bright green sugar. We finished off with an elaborate, flower-infused tea service in an glass pot over a burner. Dinner cost $245 with tip, but the boys aren’t a cheap date. A more conventional dinner and fewer martinis will cost you less; individual items were quite reasonable. We were amazed as we got up that nearly four hours had flown by since we arrived. It was that much fun.