Sunday, November 4, 2007

A crowd-pleasing mix

Mix Cafe owner Bruno Iezzi tends to the line of customers at Mix Cafe. He and his wife, Kim Induck, offer a wide variety of unique sandwiches, salads and pasta during the busy lunchtime rush at their South Beretania location in Chinatown
The success of the Downtown Honolulu Culture and Arts District can be attributed to the "mix": the cosmic alignment of art, cuisine, multiple cultural traditions, fashion and people.

Mix Cafe

35 S. Beretania St. / 537-1191

Food:  *** 1/2
Service: *** 1/2
Ambience: **1/2
Value:   ****Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays

Cost: Less than $10 per person.
Acknowledging this powerful combination, MixMix recently opened at 1133 Bethel St. to bring European clothing designs for men and women to the streets of Honolulu, while up the street and around the corner, Mix Cafe addresses a hunger for comfort cuisine that's part Italian, part Hawaii-American. Any current patron will tell you, that's a good mix.

I first heard about Mix Cafe from a co-worker who is hardly excitable when it comes to food. In all the years I've been writing this column, he's never come up with a recommendation. I didn't even think he liked food. But after coming from Mix Cafe, he was like a kid.

"You have to go there," he said. "The food's great! I just came back from lunch, and I'm going back for dinner!"

Shortly after that, I went to New York. Then Vegas. Mix Cafe would have to wait, all the more time to sort out any grand-opening gaffes.

Three months later, I have the feeling Mix Cafe will always be new, in a way. Chef-owner Bruno Iezzi just strikes me as a tinkerer who isn't satisfied unless he's tweaking his recipes and experimenting with fresh seasonal ingredients. In other words, this is not a place for the sort of rigid personality who always orders the same thing and expects it to be exactly the same each time.

Iezzi is a perfectionist who can't even let go of takeout without fretting over how long your drive will be, whether you want him to heat a sandwich or whether you will do it yourself, and if you are going the DIY route, whether you have the proper facilities at home. A microwave, after all, is no way to warm a sandwich. Only a full-size or toaster oven will give the bread the toasty crunch it deserves.

Before coming to Hawaii in 2000, Iezzi owned a New York East Village restaurant called Yola. Although I had never seen him before, I was familiar with his work at a Wahiawa restaurant combining Italian and local fare. The partnership didn't suit him, so now he's gone solo in a far more visible setting.

Kim Induck, wife of Mix Cafe owner Bruno Iezzi, prepares food at Mix Cafe.
MIX CAFE is currently a place for quickie breakfasts, lunches and light or takeout suppers. Iezzi is currently working on differentiating the menu, as well as the space, for a more traditional dinner. He's thinking softer lighting, and more extensive seafood entree and pasta offerings, in about a month.

For now, diners can content themselves early in the morning with Bruno's omelet ($5.75) of his choice of ingredients, or scrambled eggs with a choice of sausage or bacon ($4.50).

During lunch and early dinner hours (current closing time is 7 p.m.), you'll find an array of sandwiches and small selection of pastas for $6.50 to $7.75. Selections vary depending on the chef's whims and availability of ingredients. On one visit, for instance, he had pomegranates ready to be sliced and added to his sandwiches, though he had run out of time to actually do so.

One thing in short supply in Honolulu is a fast-food restaurant serving fresh roast turkey sandwiches; typically, only deli turkey is available. Beyond Thanksgiving you can count on finding your turkey here as Iezzi prides himself on roasting turkey and pork, as well as a variety of veggies for his Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
Things to order now include a roast pork sandwich ($6.50), sliced thin as if it were pho-ready, sprinkled with sea salt and layered with Stilton cheese.

Two veggie-infused meatballs are topped with provolone and served on small rolls in a single meatball sandwich order ($6.50).

Sandwiches are served with a side of mesclun, also dusted with sea salt and a no-fuss dressing of balsamic vinegar and oil. As I always say, fresh ingredients need little assistance. You might also find on your plate a handful of tortilla chips topped with caramelized onions.

On another outing you might try farfalle, or bow-tie pasta, tossed with a light marinara sauce and fine, nonfatty ground, homemade Italian sausage ($7.50). It made me wonder why we don't see farfalle more often on island menus. It holds up well to heavier sauces and ingredients yet is much easier to coat than penne.

Also offered was a creamy pasta with portabello ($7.50), but the mushrooms were simply the white supermarket type. That worked out well enough. All the mushroom flavor was there, and the dainty slices were more attractive than portabellos usually are, with their dominant gills.

Drinks include homemade lemonade ($2.95) and delicious banana-berry juice ($3.50). For dessert, Iezzi makes up something new every day. It might be a moist apple spongecake or ice cream. I don't know about you, but I like this kind of surprise.

Note: After reading last week's review of Tio's, reader Rusy Hubbarth wonders if anyone can remember a restaurant, circa 1974, called Casa Medina, in the heart of Kailua, what happened to it and where its owners might have gone. Lemme know if you do.
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants.