New Chef, New Dishes at Honolulu Museum of Art Café
Don’t worry, the piadina is still on the menu.
The grilled shrimp on penne pasta is one of the new menu items at the Honolulu Museum of Art Café.
Photos: Lavonne Leong
The Honolulu Museum of Art has seen a lot of change recently. In the last decade, the museum has undergone three changes of director, a major recession and a merger that turned the staid-but-lovely Honolulu Academy of Arts into a larger, more comprehensive and more dynamic art museum.
But through it all, one thing stayed the same: the menu at the tranquil Beretania campus café. Through good times and bad, patrons of this ladies-who-lunch mecca could get their piadina (flatbread sandwich) and their grilled shrimp salad with Nalo greens and dine surrounded by art, sunshine, cool breezes and the sound of falling water.
You can still order a piadina, but for the first time in nearly two decades, the menu has undergone a quiet evolution under chef Jacob Silver, whose unusual culinary pedigree includes both the Hawai‘i Convention Center and the Michelin-starred restaurant empire of Alain Ducasse.
Silver, who has been at the café for two years, is taking it slowly. “This is a special place, and a special restaurant,” says Silver. “It’s been so consistent for so long, and we have such a loyal audience of people who come here. So we’re doing it in stages.”
The first stage, says Silver, was to “shave the menu of all the things that were least popular.” The café kept popular classics from the sandwich/salad-heavy menu but made room for more composed plates. If you haven’t been to the café in a while, or weren’t wedded to certain dishes, you might not notice the changes at all. The menu still feels like it belongs to a museum café: Here’s the chicken, the salmon, the steak, the turkey, the shrimp, the vegetarian dishes.
But Silver cooks with a restrained hand, keeping flavors fresh and simple. He’s traded half a roasted chicken on the old menu for an herb-grilled chicken breast with maple bacon, avocado and fontina. The steak sandwich is gone, and in its place, a charbroiled Angus strip steak is served with creamy herb polenta and roasted shallot bordelaise ($26). A pan-seared North Atlantic salmon fillet ($22), our table’s favorite, comes with a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives and farro, an ancient grain that’s been around since Mesopotamian times. Nalo greens, which Silver says can often be bitter, have been replaced throughout the menu with young, sweet Waipoli greens from Maui ($21), grown hydroponically under controlled conditions. Grilled shrimp on penne pasta ($22) is simple but flavorful: olive oil, white wine, capers and heat.
The steak sandwich has been replaced by this charbroiled Angus strip steak and is served with creamy herb polenta and roasted shallot bordelaise.
The pan-seared North Atlantic salmon fillet comes with a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives and farro.
One thing you’ll notice after the first bite is that each ingredient is treated well, and individually. Food from a restaurant whose atmosphere is its main selling point too often looks pretty but tastes overcooked. Here, the steak arrives perfectly medium-rare. Shrimp and salmon are tender, cooked just to the point of doneness and not a second longer. The penne is actually al dente, and so is the farro.
Dishes that don’t require any cooking still have an extra layer of refinement; the delicious burrata ($12), an Italian cheese made with mozzarella with cream, comes ringed with green and yellow Hau‘ula tomatoes, drizzled with a balsamic reduction and scattered with tiny, vivid edible Egyptian star flowers. Even the plain Caesar salad ($20) was a good plain Caesar salad, tender-leaved and well-dressed. You can still get the classic, cold piadina ($18), a beloved café staple, but Silver is trying to wean customers onto his grilled version, where mozzarella and honey-lemon goat cheese melt into the prosciutto and roasted red peppers on a warm flatbread.
The wine list has evolved in tandem with the lunch menu, and right now, Silver is refining a museum Sunday brunch, which debuted last weekend. After that, he’ll turn his attention to the dessert list. I hope he reviews the drinks list too—the only sad part of my visit was getting a mouthful of shaved ginger that had sunk to the bottom of an otherwise tasty ginger lemonade.
The Honolulu Museum of Art Café’s new menu feels like someone is paying attention, and that’s always a good thing. “We want the museum to become a world-class destination,” says Silver, “and the restaurant is part of that. We want to be at that level.”
900 S. Beretania St., (808) 532-8734, honolulumuseum.org/394-museum_cafe