Eating at the Bar

When dining out means bar stools for two.

“How come you never write about eating at the bar?” asked the Old Pro.

I said I never ate at the bar—unless I was in some Mainland city, say, San Francisco, by myself, in which case I found the nicest restaurant I could afford, say, Boulevard, grabbed a stool at the bar and had dinner.

The only time I ate at the bar in Honolulu was if I ate lunch at Murphy’s solo. In which case, I could talk to Jonathan the bartender and whoever else came in and seemed worth talking to.

“My point, exactly,” said the Old Pro. “If you’re alone, the bar’s the best place. Human beings hate to eat in solitude. At the very least, at the bar you’re surrounded by a hum of activity. You talk, you interact.”

So it only works solo?

“No, no, if there are two of you, the bar is even better. Just take someone you like talking to, because you want to spend hours, eat a little, drink a little, repeat the process. The bar’s the best seat in a restaurant. And you, you think you know restaurants, but you never write about it.”

I rose to the challenge. I said to the Old Pro, “You choose the place. I’m buying. But I’m not having chicken wings for dinner. I want real food. No place that doesn’t have decent wine. I’m not drinking martinis all night.”

“You really want to eat, I’ll take you to the best bar in Honolulu,” he said.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd.
Dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards, free or validated parking

The next thing I knew we were settling into the bar at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

The first challenge at Ruth’s Chris was not to fill up on the potato chips in the basket on the bar. They’re house made, spicy and addictive. “Push those down the bar. We’re not here to eat potato chips,” said the Old Pro.

We kicked off with glasses of the rich, unfiltered Saintsbury Carneros chardonnay, an elegant version of your standard California buttery oaky monster. It was a little pricey at $9.75 a glass for a $20-a-bottle wine. But the Old Pro is not one to pinch pennies, and Ruth’s Chris is no place for that, anyway.

As he sipped his drink, the Old Pro pointed out the only thing wrong with the bar at Ruth’s Chris. There’s one of those windshield-size flat-screen TVs over the back bar. “They didn’t used to have that. That’s a serious error.”

People watched sports, he said, but the only sport that mattered was enjoying your life, focusing on what’s going on around you, here and now. “What’s wrong with Americans, they have to have a television on all the time?”

He was only mollified that Ruth’s Chris had highly professional bartenders. Our bartender, Benjamin, proved his worth immediately.

The minute we mentioned food, he spread a red cloth napkin in front of each of us and laid out a whole place setting. The Old Pro and I were debating which of the scallop appetizers to order. I was about to fall for the fancy bacon-wrapped scallops when Benjamin pointed out, mildly, that they served good scallops. If it were up to him, he’d order them simply seared, so he could taste them.

Right he was. Out came four plump scallops on a Ruth’s Chris signature sizzling platter that simply sang with melted butter.

Encouraged, we ordered another round of chardonnay, this time accompanied by two jumbo crab cakes. In all due deference to the crab cakes served at almost every restaurant in Honolulu, these were the best, if for no other reason than they seemed composed primarily of blue crab meat, so much so that they seemed to flake apart.

“As I said, the good thing about eating at the bar,” lectured the Old Pro, “is that you can eat just what you like. You don’t feel compelled to eat a full meal.”

That’s what we proceeded to do. We split a Ruth’s Chop Salad, which arrives in a decorative cylinder shape, piled high on the plate. Salad might be a misnomer for this dish. Sure, there’s julienne lettuce, spinach and radicchio, some sliced red onions and mushrooms, even hearts of palm and chopped green olives. But there are also bacon and eggs, croutons and a bleu cheese dressing so substantial it serves as a meal by itself. The whole thing is topped with crispy fried onions.

You’d think we’d quit there. But this was a protracted evening. We’d fallen into conversation with the gentleman to our right, who we suspected of being vegetarian because he was eating stuffed mushrooms and asparagus. “Oh no, I’ve got a steak coming,” he said. “What would be the point of coming here otherwise?”

The gentleman to our left opined that he hated steak, but came anyway because his business, auto financing, thrived on the contacts he made here. Soon he asked Benjamin for some small plates and passed over tastes of his osso buco ravioli in a white wine demi glace. In return, we bought him a Citron martini.

“You sit at a table and it’s a little island of privacy,” said the Old Pro. “At the bar, it’s different. If you are like the guy over there”—he stopped and gestured right—“you’ve worked hard all day, you deserve something decent to eat. Or this other guy”—he gestured left—“he’s here because other guys he knows are here and the next thing you know he’s our friend, too.”

The marinated veal chop with hot and sweet peppers spices up the bar at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. photo: Olivier Koning

Inspired by the atmosphere, we sat for a while and decided we needed an entrée. We ordered just one—a large marinated veal chop with sizzling hot and sweet peppers.

You can’t expect us to be drinking chardonnay with veal. We’d graduated to pinot noir. The Old Pro was drinking the ever reliable MacMurray Ranch pinot noir from the Russian River Valley. I was drinking more than one glass of the Alma Rose pinot from the Santa Rita Hills.

I suppose you’re thinking that, after the veal, we’d quit. Oh, no. Dessert beckoned. The Old Pro proved his mettle once again. He tucked into a warm Granny Smith apple tart that oozed sugar and spice and everything nice, topped with vanilla ice cream.

“What to drink with this?” he wondered. After a consultation with Benjamin the bartender, the conclusion was obvious: a Maker’s Mark bourbon on the rocks. I tasted both, a match made in heaven.

I stuck to what I always have for dessert at Ruth’s Chris—the wonderful fresh berries in sabayon. For this, the best match is California’s most celebrated dessert wine, the silky, honeylike Dolce from Far Niente winery, full of candied apricots and toasted almonds on the nose. It costs $20 a glass, which seems fair, since it costs $70 a half-bottle retail.

Taking the Old Pro to eat at a bar is not a bargain experience. I signed a check for $280, including tip. As tuition payments go, it was a bargain.

Once I’d learned the lessons, I set out to eat at bars across the city. Well, not all of them. Even I couldn’t manage that. I settled on one new bar and one more classic.

Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd.
Open Tuesday through Sunday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday through Saturday until 4 a.m.
Major credit cards, free parking

I took friends to the new Pearl nightclub in Ala Moana. That broke the Old Pro’s rule that two was the limit for the bar. But, young and hip, they seemed perfectly happy to be there.

Pearl’s Y-shaped, dramatically lit room has three large bars, none with a television. It’s spacious, and doesn’t really fill up on weekends until about 8:30 p.m. If you arrive early, you have your choice of comfortable bar stools and the full attention of the staff.

The Old Pro probably would not have approved of Pearl’s elaborate cocktail menu. It was created by consultant Francesco Lafranconi, originally from Italy, now from Las Vegas. Lafranconi is an award-winning, world-renowned mixologist. Unfortunately—perhaps Pearl is aimed at a customer who is younger than I and more female—his cocktails strike me as uniformly too sweet.

I’d brought the right friends for the cocktails. Among their orders, I got to sample a Sangria Passion, which isn’t Sangria, but a melange of Ciroc Grape Frost vodka, brandy, crème de cassis, fresh sweet-and-sour mix and a sweet, effervescent Italian red wine, Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto D’Acqui (not a bad wine in context, as when you’re eating a sweet foie gras preparation).

However, this Sangria Passion came out the color and much the same flavor profile as, well, Zippy’s fruit punch. It was a really, really good fruit punch, with a nice kick to it, but, still, the resemblance was extraordinary.

There was also a drink named Vanilla Rose. It was beautiful, two-toned, with red ripe raspberries on top, but way too candy for me. It was concocted from vanilla-flavored vodka, fresh lime and rose nectar.

I was curious about the rose nectar. Our bartender, Yuki Izawa, said it had a wild back story. I Googled it later. According to the importer, the nectar comes from roses that are harvested just three weeks a year, from May 25 to June 10, in Bulgaria. The petals are picked between 2 and 10 a.m., while they are still wet with dew, and the nectar has to be extracted within two hours of picking.

“Let me taste some by itself,” I asked Yuki. She poured a little into a glass for me. One sip and it was synesthesia: The nectar tastes exactly like roses smell. “I’d like a vodka martini made with just this,” I said.

She made me the drink. I deemed it good, as did my companions. “Let me try it with gin,” said Yuki. She came up with a martini made of Tanqueray No. Ten, rose nectar and a dash of Angustora Bitters. The bitters and the botanicals in the gin gave it a complexity of adult flavors welcome on the palate. “This is great,” I said. “What are you going to call it?”

“A Rose Tattoo,” she said. It should be on the menu. I couldn’t help thinking the Old Pro would have loved, if not the drink, at least Yuki’s attitude.

If it hadn’t been for my companions, I would have never even considered the cocktail menu. Pearl has a short, but first-rate, wine list. Each wine has a nickname.

For instance, the excellent Trevor Jones chardonnay is called The Virgin, probably because it’s unoaked. I felt a little odd ordering up a Virgin (especially in a bar, which seems the wrong place altogether), but an unoaked chardonnay seemed like the right thing for oysters.

Oh, you thought we forgot about food?

The menu at Pearl was created by chef Donato Loperfido and, for a bar, it’s extraordinary.

Take the fresh Willapa Bay Kumamoto oysters. These oysters tend to be on the small side, and you only get four on a frosted glass tray. But Loperfido puts them on top of a granita—sort of an Italian shave ice, this one made out of a Bloody Mary, a concession to the notion of bar food. That’s not enough. Each oyster is topped with a cucumber sorbet and some beautiful golden tobiko, infused with ginger. Add it up and you get a balanced and powerful flavor combination—though we did find ourselves wishing we could have tasted at least one oyster with just a squeeze of lemon.

The next thing out of the kitchen was a crispy-skin onaga on a “puttanesca” sauce. Now, you wouldn’t normally drench a delicate fish like onaga in a highly spicy, thick tomato sauce. You’d never taste the fish.

However, Loperfido’s isn’t really a puttanesca. It’s not even cooked. It’s more a puttanesca-inspired salsa—diced fresh heirloom tomatoes, sweet onion and capers, some rare and delicious Gaeta olives. It’s brilliant, a standout on any high-end restaurant table in town.

“But we should have bar food,” said one of my friends. So we ordered the fritto misto, the Italian answer to tempura. At Pearl, fritto misto had both scallops and shrimp, but it was mainly that bar staple, fried calamari. But better than most, if only because it came atop a tasty, thick Italian red sauce, with a touch of heat.

Like the evening I spent with the Old Pro, this one stretched over hours. As our appetites revived, we ordered two entrées.

Pearl’s prosciutto-wrapped kurobuta pork medallions. photo: Olivier Koning

The prosciutto-wrapped kurobuta pork medallions were a thing of beauty, perfectly round slices, with a port sauce with sun-dried bing cherries, the tartness of the cherries offsetting the touch of sweetness in the sauce. The meat was arranged around a “risotto,” which wasn’t a risotto. Instead it was finely diced potatoes, enlivened with bacon.

But the dish that knocked me out was the Kobe beef burger. The burger came on a baguette with avocado. There was a side of fresh local greens and a geometric arrangement of steak fries around a little well of spicy aioli. This may have been bar food, but it was simply one of the best things I’ve ever eaten sitting on a stool.

Somehow, after some drinking and talking and reflecting, we got to dessert. Pearl has set itself up as a dessert spot. The desserts aren’t at the end of the food menu, where you might expect them. They’re not on the food menu at all. They are on the first page of the cocktail menu, as if to remind you that there are sweet things besides cocktails.

The menu includes Loperfido’s signature dessert, Nocciolato, a hazelnut and chocolate concoction that’s half warm chocolate cake and half souffle. There are some folded crepes with Gianduia chocolate, hazelnuts and warm Frangelico cream.

The best dessert sounded least promising. Grilled apple bananas, squiggled with chocolate and caramel sauces and served with a side of macadamia vanilla gelato and a sprinkling of hazelnut toffee pieces. I cannot describe why this was so good—the little green bite to the bananas, the incredible gelato, the crunch of brittle. I couldn’t stop eating it.

The bill, with tip, ran nearly $180. This was for three people, not two, and, in addition to a sizeable dinner included four cocktails and five glasses of wine. It took us four hours to consume all that. They were, and I’m sure the Old Pro would agree, four hours well spent.

Side Street Inn
1225 Hopaka St.
Lunch Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., bar open daily 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., food served 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Major credit cards, $3 valet parking

“Give me a Grey Goose martini, stat,” said the Man About Town, as he sat down next to me at the bar at Side Street. “I had to drive all around looking for a parking space.”

That was unnecessary, I said. The most salutary innovation at Side Street was that it finally had valet parking.

“Habit,” said my friend. “It doesn’t seem like Side Street if you don’t have to work to park.”

Outside of valet parking, Side Street makes no attempt to be upscale. “I just wanted a friendly bar, that’s all,” owner Colin Nishida always says.

The bar is chipped Formica. There are televisions everywhere, all fortunately on mute, nobody compelled to sing karaoke this early in the evening.

Instead of a fancy setup to eat at the bar, you get your silverware and a pair of wooden chopsticks wrapped in a paper napkin.

On the other hand, the food is upscale. Everyone always eats the pork chops and the fried rice. But it pays to explore the rest of the menu.

For instance, the oysters. For $7.50, you get a half-dozen plump New Zealand oysters. They come with a plastic ramekin of some zippy cocktail sauce. But all we did was squeeze on some lemon juice and savor the sweet-salty-mollusk flavors and the soft-yet-firm texture.

The Man About Town was still drinking his martini—“What else would you drink with oysters?” But I knew the perfect accompaniment for New Zealand oysters would be a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, of which the list had a perfectly fine example, a Nobilo Marlborough. It’s not one of those grassy, herbaceous, icky California sauvignon blancs. It’s full of passion fruit and melon flavors, yet crisp enough to complement shellfish.

We were on a shellfish roll. The next thing we ate was a traditional Portuguese dish that mixes clams and linguisa. Side Street uses, of course, local-style Portuguese sausage and names the resulting dish, with typical Island irreverence, Pocho Clams. The white wine, butter, garlic, in which the clams are cooked has a serious blast of red pepper. “Buggah’s hot,” said the Man About Town.

Indeed, it was one of those dishes you think is too spicy—and then, for some reason, you can’t wait to take the next bite. After you finish the clams and sausage, there’s a plate full of toasted French bread to dip in the broth.

We had a heaping Nalo greens salad, covered with crumbled bleu cheese, with good local tomatoes with real flavor, julienne carrots and beets on top for color. The salad seemed to call for steak.

Side Street has several steaks, including a 20-ounce monster. But the sizzling rib eye on a bed of grilled onions and mushrooms was the one for us, especially accompanied by a big, bad pinot noir from Frei Brothers on the Russian River. It’s a perfect steak pinot.

I actually had two glasses of wine, one red, one white, on the bar. I may have looked intemperate, but I had the pinot for the steak and a glass of the sauvignon blanc in reserve for the ono we ordered. It came as two generous fillets, in a spicy breadcrumb coating, perfectly cooked. Underneath was a suave miso butter, drizzled with a sweet-sour balsamic syrup. There are many restaurants in Honolulu that can’t do better.

The gentleman sitting next to us, who pointed out that we’d erred in not ordering the poke, took one look at our ono and ordered it as well.

Another innovation at Side Street: It now has a dessert menu. One of the desserts was invented by the bar manager, Earl Kalani. It’s called, innocently enough, a Creamsicle.

You get a full bottle of Henry Weinhard’s Orange Cream Soda and a mug filled with vanilla Haagen-Dazs, topped with Cointreau and Amaretto. You pour the soda and go to town with a long spoon, just like when you were a kid with a float.

The alcohol adds flavor: The Cointreau underscores the orange, the Amaretto gives a wonderful warm undertone. Earl’s whole concoction is a sinful nod to both childhood and adulthood.

The Man About Town abandoned his sophistication when we got the second dessert. It was just pound cake—but, get this, the slices of cake were sautéed in butter, then topped with crème anglaise, chocolate syrup, a big scoop of ice cream, and, what else, whipped cream and a cherry on top.

“You should have to have a note from your cardiologist before you can order this,” said the Man About Town. He then proceeded to devour it, muttering, “This is so good, it’s wrong.”

Another thing that was so good it was almost wrong: The tab was less than $100, and we’d done some serious damage. If you’re going to eat at the bar, this one has to be on the list.