You Can Only Try This Exclusive Local Menu at Forty Carrots in Honolulu
Most locations of the chain restaurant Forty Carrots are identical, but the new one that just opened in Bloomingdale’s at Ala Moana Center is different, thanks to chef Jon Matsubara.
Forty Carrots’ over-the-top version of the loco moco features Keāhole lobster and foie gras.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Bloomingdale’s opened its signature café Forty Carrots in 1975 to appeal to health-conscious customers with low-calorie soups, salads and sandwiches served right in the department store. Anything to get shoppers to linger.
At each Forty Carrots—whether on the seventh floor of Bloomingdale’s flagship location at 59th and Lexington in New York City or tucked away in the department store that anchors the 13-million-square-foot Dubai Mall—the menu is the same. The same smooth carrot soup, the same classic tuna sandwich, the same Astoria spinach pie paired with the same Greek salad. It’s this consistency—and, to be honest, Bloomingdale’s crazy-popular frozen yogurt—that has made Forty Carrots a destination for work lunches or breaks between shopping sprees.
In 2007, though, the department store expanded its concept to include a more chef-driven menu featuring designed salads and sandwiches on artisan breads. The core elements and menu items, though, remained the same.
Then came Hawai‘i.
With much fanfare—including a hula performance and Chinese lion dance—Bloomingdale’s opened in Ala Moana Center’s new ‘Ewa Wing in November, serving as the centerpiece for a major expansion of the mall. The store boasts three levels and 165,000 square feet of retail space with a curated assortment of luxury goods and coveted brands. And hidden on the third floor, surrounded by shelves of Villeroy & Boch plates, Kate Spade stemware and golden birdcages, is the café, a replica of the Forty Carrots spots in Bloomingdale’s around the world. The green-and-orange décor, the bright space with glossy white tables and orange-framed mirrors—the brand recall is instant.
But take a closer look at the menu and it’s obvious this Forty Carrots is decidedly different. Instead of a grilled salmon club sandwich, there’s a French dip made with slow-cooked Ni‘ihau lamb. Replacing the signature chopped salad is an ocean-inspired version with Kona lobster, Kaua‘i shrimp, ‘ahi, and greens grown at Hirabara Farms in Kamuela on Hawai‘i Island.
The menu was created by award-winning local chef Jon Matsubara, who left his post as chef de cuisine at Japengo at the Hyatt Regency Waikīkī to helm this new eatery at Bloomingdale’s.
“We knew we wanted to work with a master local chef and Jon’s background and passion perfectly aligned with our goal of offering an upscale take on local cuisine,” says David Starr, operating vice president and director of food services for Bloomingdale’s. “Chef Matsubara brought a wealth of knowledge to create an unprecedented Forty Carrots menu that has delivered on our initial aspirations and expectations.”
It’s a menu, Starr adds, you won’t find anywhere else.
“Hawai‘i is extra special,” he says.
So special that Bloomingdale’s is even allowing Matsubara to rename the eatery Restaurant Kaona, though it hasn’t been made official and only appears on the menu as part of names of dishes. Matsubara says the name translates to “peaceful eats.”
The name is fitting for this casual, 40-seat café, where I’ve never felt rushed. When you’re seated, it feels like you’re relaxing in a garden gazebo—except, instead of being surrounded by colorful bougainvillea bushes and Meyer lemon trees, you’re amid well-dressed mannequins and expensive cookware.
Kaona Bowl ($19)
Photos: Steve Czerniak
On one recent weekday for lunch—the busiest time for Forty Carrots here and nationwide—the restaurant was half full, with slender moms eating salads with chopsticks, and well-heeled professionals gossiping over bowls of yogurt. Our server rushed over to get our drink orders—freshly brewed Hawai‘i-grown coffee, iced and sweetened with liquid sugar—and went over the daily specials. The soup de jour was a miso soup flavored with pork and kim chee (a trade secret, Matsubara says). The daily juice special was made from liliko‘i grown at Frankie’s Nursery in Waimānalo thickened with plain yogurt.
About 80 percent of Matsubara’s menu is locally sourced, with ingredients that include Shinsato Farm pork and sea asparagus from Kahuku.
The dishes are diverse, too. There are several appetizers—under the category of ‘Ekahi—that range from fresh local oysters on the half shell with toasted bonito and yuzu ($3.50 per piece) to a unique combination of smoked-trout caviar with nori-dusted potato chips and wasabi-lemon crème fraîche ($15). It’s a play on a dish that pairs Osetra caviar with Utz potato chips and crème fraîche that Matsubara learned while working in New York City. “This is how the cooks ate ‘real’ caviar,” he says. “I wanted to re-create the simplicity of this by using the affordable smoked-trout caviar. It’s funny, people think it’s fake ikura (salmon roe), even though we tell them it’s not.”
Matsubara’s unexpected take on familiar dishes, commitment to sourcing locally and a creative approach to flavor combinations set this Forty Carrots apart from others. In fact, this spot isn’t just for mall shoppers; it should be a destination for any locavore looking for something new and different.
“I’m trying to keep the spirit of Forty Carrots … but with a local flair,” he says.
One of the most popular dishes is the Kaona Bowl ($19), Matsubara’s version of a poke bowl. Instead of a simple preparation of cubed ‘ahi tossed with shoyu, limu and inamona, this hefty bowl features a mix of ‘ahi and hamachi, tender kālua pork, lomi lomi ‘ōpae (not salmon) with diced tomatoes, thinly sliced radishes and a generous portion of house-made kim chee, all topped with locally grown microgreens and tossed with garlic-soy vinegar. Somewhere under this mound of food—which my husband calls “the best parts of a baby lū‘au”—is a bed of white rice. It’s a dish Matsubara, who grew up in Hawai‘i Kai, says he can eat every day.
“This dish represents my culture and my style of cooking—using the best products for simple dishes,” says Matsubara, who, on two separate occasions, raved about the poke and pasteles from Alicia’s Market in Kalihi.
This is where his years of cooking in some of the best restaurants here and in New York City translate into kitchen experience: The Kaona Bowl, like other items on the menu, duplicates ingredients from other dishes, which keeps his costs down.
The kālua pork, for example, also goes into the popular Bloom-Mi ($15), a banh-mi-inspired sandwich with porchetta-style pork from Shinsato Farm. The pork is roasted with garlic, herbs and white wine, then shaved and paired with pickled carrots and daikon—so Ba-Le!—cilantro and house-made pâté. The sandwich bread is grilled with escargot butter, which gives it a smoky, crispy element. Then he smears on some spicy sambal mayonnaise and serves it with a pickled chili dipping sauce on the side. It’s all the best parts of a Vietnamese sandwich, only better.
A popular starter here is the smoked-trout caviar—not salmon roe—with nori-dusted potato chips.
Matsubara is also serving Ni‘ihau lamb, which started showing up on menus at Alan Wong’s, Square Barrels and 12th Ave Grill last year. He gets 60 pounds of this free-range lamb from Makaweli Meat Co. on Kaua‘i delivered once a week and slow roasts the meat in white wine, garlic and herbs. Using lamb is a slight departure from the original Forty Carrots concept, which doesn’t serve red meat or anything deep-fried. That said, the French Dip ($19) here, using the lamb and locally grown kale, has quickly become one of the restaurant’s best-sellers. The meat is perfectly seasoned, tender and so juicy the dish comes with a packet of wet wipes. The natural jus—not too oily and just salty enough—ties it all together.
But the most buzzed-about dish here is the over-the-top Local “Lobster” Moco ($45), a sumptuous version of the classic loco moco dish with Keāhole lobster tail, sautéed foie gras, mushrooms from Hāmākua and toasted bonito rice, topped with a perfectly cooked local egg. Matsubara cooks Italian black truffles in a Madeira sauce to perfume it, adding another layer of richness to an already-decadent dish. (The original dish included filet mignon—priced at $65—and is now only offered as a special, usually on the weekends.)
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Another talked-about item is the a‘a (black lava) tea, grown in an ‘ōhi‘a forest on Hawai‘i Island and considered some of the rarest in the world. The tender leaves are picked, fired and rolled by hand, resulting in a smooth and balanced tea with notes of honey, vanilla and apricot. Teapot service is $30—pricey, considering a cup of any other tea here is $4—but it sells well, Matsubara says. This special black tea, produced by The Tea Chest, is only served here.
Lunch is busier than dinnertime, especially on weeknights, and the menu doesn’t change for the evening crowd. But there’s always a steady flow of customers at the grab-and-go counter, where the restaurant sells pre-packaged sandwiches, salads, frozen yogurt and fresh juices.
The juices are made to order, with combinations using carrots, green apples, celery, parsley, spinach, cabbage, kale, oranges, cucumbers, ginger and the largest beets I’ve ever seen, pulverized in Robot Coupe or Vitamix blenders. The Kaona Juice is the daily special using some of the exotic fruits grown at Frankie’s Nursery in Waimānalo.
But it’s the froyo that most people seek out. The special formula hasn’t changed in three decades. And why should it? The original Forty Carrots restaurant has sold more than 3.2 million servings to date, with its tart, low-fat plain flavor topping the list.
This Forty Carrots serves the staple flavors of plain, chocolate, strawberry and coffee, with toppings that range from local honey to crushed Oreos to chocolate-covered kakimochi.
You’re in Bloomingdale’s, so expect to pay a bit more for lunch or dinner, which is served by thoughtfully attentive staff in a space that’s carefully constructed to be relaxing and casual. A meal for two here—including the can’t-skip froyo—can easily start at $60. But you’re dining on dishes crafted by a skilled chef who knows how to prepare and showcase local ingredients, who loves to play with preparation and flavors, who puts on a chef apron in a department store eatery and elevates it to something beyond soups and salads. For that alone, it’s worth braving the parking at Ala Moana Center.
TAKEAWAY: Splurge with the Kaona Bowl and froyo for dessert. Go before noon or after 2 p.m. to avoid the lunch rush, or opt for dinner. Parking outside Bloomingdale’s in the makai lot is rarely crowded.
Meet the Chef
Hometown: Hawai‘i Kai
High School: Punahou School
College: University of Puget Sound, with a bachelor’s degree in Native American history; some law school; French Culinary Institute in New York City
Family: Married with three daughters, ages 10, 8 and 6
Got his start: Washing dishes at both Alan Wong’s and Roy’s Restaurant
Work away: Jean-Georges, Tabla and Bouley Restaurant in New York City
Sept. 11 memory: Matsubara spent two straight weeks cooking meals for rescue workers and volunteers, working 20 hours a day. “Everything you thought was important just wasn’t that important anymore,” he says.
Last post: Chef de cuisine at Japengo at the Hyatt Regency Waikīkī
Plans for Forty Carrots: To install a beehive upstairs and an aquaponics system in the restaurant
Dinner he cooks most often for his family: Spaghetti. “I would spaghetti challenge anybody!” he says.
Guilty pleasure: Pigs’ feet. “I make my own,” he says.
Bloomingdale’s, Ala Moana Center, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. 800-3638.