Eat Fine Dining Dishes in the Produce Aisle of Kōkua Market
Chef Sharif Wagdy hopes to help keep Kōkua Market open with a pop-up restaurant and new deli menu.
Photos: Sarah Burchard
Restaurant consultant and chef Sharif Wagdy has cooked in places including Sicily, London, Dubai and Cairo. He has served the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bruce Willis and Robert Redford.
His latest project? Kōkua Market.
Wagdy is joining shareholders’ continued efforts to prevent Honolulu’s oldest and only natural foods cooperative from closing. He has stepped in temporarily as a food and beverage consultant. “I’m attracted to the challenge,” he says. “Kōkua has so much potential. With the right approach, the right people, right support, we can turn this baby around.”
One new strategy to boost revenue is a pop-up restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. On a recent evening, I ordered a Mediterranean salad ($12), a take on tabbouleh featuring quinoa instead of bulgur, plus avocado, cucumber, tomatoes and red onion. It was underseasoned, but the ingredients were fresh, and it came with a delicious side of sliced, grilled baguette smothered with olive oil, thyme and garlic.
My entrée, on the other hand, was not shy on flavor at all. An Everest-sized mountain of mashed potatoes exalted the succulent, grass-fed Kunoa veal Osso Buco ($22) braised in white wine, mushrooms, thyme and roasted veal stock. A bright-red oil infused with tomato and chile flake flowed between the crevasses of the mashed potatoes, begging me to dive in. It was the sort of dish you might find for twice the price in a fancier setting—instead, I was eating it in the produce aisle of a natural foods co-op, with college kids manning the front counter and hip-hop playing on the sound system.
For dessert, I ordered the cream pie ($8), a satisfying, not-too-sweet, silky, vanilla-bean custard enveloping sautéed bananas and pineapple and topped with whipped cream and darkly toasted coconut flakes.
Wagdy started cooking professionally in Sicily at age 13. He has opened several Four Seasons Hotels as a food and beverage director, and eventually started his own hotel and restaurant group, SJZ Lions, in Cairo. After the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Wagdy’s businesses in Cairo suffered, leading him to close all operations, including a new restaurant in Minnesota. He picked up and started all over again in Honolulu. Now, as one of his projects, he’s injecting a bit of the Four Seasons into Kōkua. “I think it can be the neighborhood gem where you get good food, organic and grass-fed meats that you get for $50 in restaurants … for a cheaper price,” he says.
You can also taste Wagdy’s food at Kōkua’s deli ($10.99/lb.), where I recently scored lamb shanks—after plunging a pair of tongs into a rich bath of mahogany lamb demi-glace studded with chunks of ruby-red tomatoes, I retrieved a colossal lamb bone with unctuous meat hanging onto it for dear life, threatening to return at any moment to the gravy pit below.
As I sat outside in the market’s sunny courtyard in a tank top and slippers, one bite transported me to a candlelit French bistro with a linen napkin draped across my lap. (You just have to ignore the plastic silverware.) If you are up for a quirky experience, dinner at Kōkua Market is quite charming. You can BYOB or purchase wine by the bottle from the store—unsurprisingly, organic wine sales are up at Kōkua, according to general manager Laurie Carlson. The fate of Kōkua Market is still uncertain, but for now, it looks like the weekend dinners are already bringing in more people looking for good food and Kōkua’s good vibes.
The Deli at Kōkua Market is open 8 a.m.–7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Dinner service is available from 5:30–8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Kōkua Market, 2643 S. King St., (808) 941-1922, kokuamarket.com
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