Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good for the Soul

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 25, 2010

Sean Priester offers a few of his Soul restaurant specialties, clockwise from the bowl of Shrimp and Cheesy Grits in his hands: Jambalaya, Sweet Potato Chips, BBQ Spare Rib Southern Sampler and Chef Sean's Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Southern Spiced Sweet Potato Pancakes.

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I think a lot of people were surprised when Sean Priester left his long-standing, lofty perch at The Top of Waikiki to roll out his lunchwagon Soul Patrol.

There was more to it than Southern soul food; Soul Patrol started as a mission to help nurture and feed hungry and homeless souls in Waianae a few days a week, and soon afterward, took on a life of its own.
Once lunch crowds got a taste of his honey-topped cornbread, fried chicken and jambalaya, there came requests for him to put down some permanent roots, and the lunchwagon proved to be just a pit stop en route to finding a home at the base of Waialae and St. Louis Heights.

These days, the Soul Patrol truck still makes the occasional guest appearance at community events (for locations, follow @pacificsoul on, but with two babies on his hands, Soul restaurant, and a newborn daughter, Priester has a lot to juggle.
Even so, those who see him at the restaurant will find him to be ever warm and gracious, and ready to talk about food.

The restaurant occupies humble quarters, with a couple of tables outside if you don't mind next-door shave-ice seekers hovering over you. Don't get too comfy when you're seated because you'll have to stand up again when placing your order at the outdoor counter. It will take time to make your decision, though. How do you choose from such soulful favorites as buttermilk-fried chicken and chili ($12) and crabcake po' boys ($14)?

That's not to say it's strictly Louisiana style, which has its limitations. Priester has been in the islands too long for that, and injects his recipes with what he calls "aloha and spice." So, you may find a dice of daikon in his Sassy Southern Vegetarian Chili ($12), probably unlike any other chili you've had, made with black-eyed peas and only a modicum of spice. (It's good for vegetarians, but typical chili fans might look elsewhere.) Or, order the gumbo, accented with sweet potato and slices of spicy Kukui Portuguese sausage ($14).

Ordering jambalaya always gives me pause. The name is more exotic than what the rice dish delivers, even when in New Orleans. I typically end up disappointed. Not here, however. Soul's flavorful jambalaya ($20), or Creole paella, is generous with its layer of shrimp atop rice shot through with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and seasonings, plus chunks of chicken and sausage.

This turned out to be my favorite dish ... on this particular day, anyway. On another day, it might be Priester's fried chicken, plain and simple, served with buttermilk cilantro cole slaw, cornbread and Ma'o Farms collard greens.

Oh, wait. Then there's the irresistible combination of mac-and-feta cheese with cornbread au gratin ($7/$11 with crab meat), piled so high it was oozing over the side of the dish. For all the cheese flavor, the crab presence is negligible in the upgrade version, so I'd stick with the plain if you need to save money. If not, go for it.

No doubt Priester will be adding more local-inspired specials with time. For starters, in addition to crabcake and catfish po' boys, you can also get a kalbi-braised short-rib po' boy with creamy kim chee ($16), heavy on sweet-soy sauce flavor and studded with sesame seeds. Wrangling the sandwiches can get messy, so make sure you're prepared with plenty of napkins.

One of the best days to drop in is Sunday, when it's a little slower in the evening, and you can take advantage of an all-day Sunday brunch menu. That means additional options such as Crab Cake Benedict with seasonal Kaimuki mango hollandaise ($14), chorizo scrambled eggs with the Sassy Southern Vegetarian Chili sauce ($12), or Southern-spiced sweet potato pancakes with bananas and maple butter ($8), which is something I'll have to try next.

You're welcome to bring your own bottles, and if not, there's Southern sweet iced tea ($2), which is not quite as sweet as that served Panhandle-Arkansas way, where one of my exes is from.

I was asked if I wanted dessert, but the tea already fit the bill, and besides, I told our server, I just needed to polish off the cornbread that comes with most plates. Sure enough, when I looked at the menu, there was cornbread as a dessert special as well, this time topped with butter pecan-mac nut ice cream ($7).
The experience was good for my soul, and multiplied over hundreds of diners weekly, that's got to be good for Priester's spirit as well.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Big Isle beef key to Honolulu Burger Co.

Nadine Kam photo
Burger lovers have been flocking to Honolulu Burger Co. for 100 percent Big Island grass-fed beef burgers, milkshakes and garlic, truffle and sweet potato fries since opening day last Thursday. It's located at 1295 S. Beretania St

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 18, 2010

Honolulu Burger Co. owner Ken Takahashi offers his Loco Moco Burger, Blue Hawaii Burger and french fries.

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By the time I stopped into Honolulu Burger Co. a few days after its opening, another food writer about town was on her second visit and, being mostly on the same page about food, I found she'd come to the same conclusion as me, proclaiming a "New No. 1" burger in town.

Those are gonna be fightin' words for many.
That was on first impression. On second, I came away thinking it could be the best burger in town, with a little more consistency. You see, I always hedge if I think some curmudgeon is going to have a vastly different experience, as I did on my first and second visits.

It's a matter of trust. There are some restaurateurs I will go out on a limb for because I trust them. Even if the diner doesn't ultimately agree with me, I don't worry about it as long as I believe a particular restaurateur will do his/her best to get everything right.

I do have faith in owner Ken Takahashi. It's his young staff I worry about. If Takahashi is in the kitchen you'll get a perfect, moist, flavorful, medium-cooked, third-pound burger with no fillers. If not, the same burger will be compact, tough and dry, indistinguishable from any other frozen patty in town.

That's a shame, because Takahashi is certainly starting at the right place. He's created the first burger joint in Honolulu devoted to serving 100 percent Big Island free-range, hormone-free, grass-fed beef burgers. Other offerings may not be 100 percent local -- "We mix it up on the sandwiches," he said -- but the burgers are a guarantee. A dash of salt is all that's needed to showcase the superlative beef.

He's not sure if supply will be able to keep up with demand, but said: "If I have to close for a day, so be it. I am not going to run out to the store."

Ditto with the potato fries, hand cut every morning, served plain ($1.99/$2.99), with garlic ($3.99), truffled ($4.99) or with blue cheese ($4.49). He refuses to serve the frozen variety.

Takahashi grew up in Hilo, eating Big Isle beef and taking it for granted. Nobody gave much thought to whether it was grass- or grain-fed or hormone free. The more people have learned about what goes into factory-raised animals, the more diners are welcoming alternatives.

Of course, the cost associated with smaller production is higher, so the beef has more typically been available in mid-tier to upscale restaurants, out of reach of those who just want to enjoy a simple burger when they go out.
Takahashi's making up for lost time with a spate of classic burgers and cheeseburgers, a roster of seven HBC favorites, and build-your-own options.
The basic single burger is $6.79, going up to Triple XXXL at $10.79 for a triple-patty construction. Classic cheeseburgers run $7.79 for a single patty to $11.79 for the triple. Cheese options are cheddar, gorgonzola, provolone, gruyere, pepper jack, Swiss and mozzarella.

First-timers might want to start with the classics, for the burger at the most stripped down form, served with lettuce, tomato, sauteed onions and a housemade ketchup-garlic-chipotle aioli. After that you can venture into a Mushroom-Mushroom Burger ($8.95), which doesn't have as many mushrooms as the name implies; Blue Hawaiian Burger with bacon and gorgonzola, a Loco Moco Burger ($8.79), and an ultimate Hilo version, topped with bacon, Spam and over-hard egg.

Takahashi is big on multimeat combos, including topping another burger with kalua pork ($8.49) and building sandwiches such as the "Hot Rod" Chicago Style ($8.29) with two Portuguese-style hot dogs from Hilo, or "The Bull" ($9.29) comprising top sirloin, corned beef and pastrami in strips, not a big stack as some might expect.

The best of the sandwiches is the meaty, cheese-oozing Philly ($7.29). Otherwise, it's clear the burgers are the stars of this operation, paired with the hand-cut fries and an old-fashioned vanilla, chocolate, strawberry or malt shake ($2.79 to $2.99).

As for the french fries, I'm recommending the garlic version. I tried to get the truffle version, which was devoid of truffles or truffle oil. Again, the kids were in the kitchen and I know they didn't forget, so either they don't know how to use it or were trying to cut corners.

Other nice Big Island touches are Atebara chips and the kind of small-town hospitality that had Takahashi distributing goodie bags full of snacks to customers on opening days.

And his aim is to source local products wherever possible, including use of Patisserie breads, alaea salt from Kauai, and produce from isle farms. "The whole thing is we work together locally to help each other," said Takahashi, whose motto is "Grown, bred, fed local."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sightless dining challenges tastebuds at Formaggio Grill

Formaggio Grill in Kailua offers blindfolded meals that force daring foodies to focus on flavors and textures

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 11, 2010

Shanae Kamakawiwoole, above, prepares to take the blind wine-tasting challenge at Formaggio Grill in Kailua.

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It's said that if you lose one sense, other senses make up for it. That turned out to be true at Formaggio Grill in ways expected and unexpected.

The restaurant has been testing a fun monthly series called Dining in the Dark, which has proved to be a hit with culinary adventurers willing to put their tastebuds to the test by eating dinner blindfolded for a very sensual, multisensory experience.

Dining in the Dark at Formaggio Grill

» Where: 305 Hahani St.
» When: 7 p.m. first Monday monthly; next meal on Sept. 6
» Cost: $75 per person, with wine; menu varies
» Call: 263-2633
» Also: Groups of eight or more can be accommodated on weekdays, provided the private room is not booked.
That does not suggest it's romantic in any way. Instead, the dining room is more like a laboratory and you're a blind scientist poking and prodding at your plate to figure out what substance is in front of you, whether animal, vegetable or mineral.

The concept started not as a commercial gimmick, but as a social awareness movement in Europe about five years ago to benefit agencies serving the visually impaired. People were served by blind waiters in complete darkness to experience what it's like to be without sight.

Once it crossed the pond, it became another form of entertainment. A whole organization has sprung up around Dark Dining Projects (, with related dance and artistic projects based on nonvisual perception.

Of course, the competitive nature of our society has also turned dining in the dark into a challenge to see just who really knows their foodstuffs.
I thought that guessing the ingredients would be a breeze, but Formaggio Grill owner Wes Zane said people get basics wrong all the time. After erring himself, he said the experience made him realize how, with his busy schedule, he's forced to eat quickly, without really focusing on what he's eating. He said it's made him realize how important it is to slow down and savor meals.

I thought we'd at least be able to set our sights on the surroundings, but instead, we were blindfolded in the main dining room and led by hand into a back room. (For sanitary reasons, your blindfold goes home with you.)

The walk and being seated is the scariest part of the experience as you feel your way around table and chair to avoid plopping your butt on the ground. Next, we felt our way around the tabletop, so as not to knock over wine glasses set there for tastings that accompanied each dish.

Staffers promise nothing "scary" on the menu, but scary is relative. That's why this kind of meal tends to attract brave diners. I usually don't get turned down for dinner dates, but on this one I learned how much people value their sense of sight and knowing exactly what they're eating.

What was strange was that other diners, because they couldn't see, seemed to think others around them were deaf, so they were yelling across the table to each other. Everyone had to increase their decibel levels accordingly to be heard, so by evening's end the conversations were deafening. Without blindfolds and the excitement connected with guessing what is on their plates, people tend to converse more sedately.

No one is told what is going to be on the menu during a particular event, but while taking reservations, staffers note allergies and dietary restrictions to make substitutions where needed. They also make sure everything on the plates is edible, avoiding such hazards as fish with bones.

Then, at the end of the meal, the blindfolds are whipped off for the big reveal of the room, the other diners and plates showcasing the meal just eaten. I don't know if the restaurant purposely tries to trip people up, or if any meal would be challenging when blindfolded. I suspect a little of both. In figuring out the various dishes, it helps to think beyond your traditional concept of what a dinner entails.

For instance, the first bite was an amuse bouche that I correctly identified as a chocolate truffle with Pop Rocks, which ordinarily might have served as a delightful mignardise, or bite-sized dessert, at the end of the meal. Tricky!

Waiters did their best to guide us in approaching the various dishes. For this dish, for instance, they announced a small bite at the center of the plate, indicating we could pick it up with our fingers. The first approaches were difficult. You have to determine whether you do want to touch, at the risk of gravied or sauced fingertips, or whether to properly apply fork and knife, or to go caveman and stab it.

I usually poked around a while to get a sense of texture and size, and how easy or difficult it might be to cut.
THE NEXT DISH was also tricky. The first bite tasted strongly of pork, but the texture was wrong. It was squishy, not meaty. That got me thinking it was rare-seared fish, but then there was the undeniable pork flavor. Then I figured it was fish wrapped in some kind of pork strip that might have been bacon, but with more of a ham flavor, and I settled on prosciutto. It was served on some kind of puree that I stubbornly decided was garlic-truffle mashed potatoes, although, given its more watery nature, it turned out I should have reflected on this a bit more.

The dish turned out to be prosciutto-wrapped ahi with a celery root puree and truffle nage.
Next up was another stumper, some kind of chewy bread. "Why?" I thought. There were also blueberries and sliced strawberries, which started me thinking about breakfast and French toast. On top of it was unmistakably foie gras. Some people couldn't figure this dish out because they'd never had goose liver before, and certainly not on French toast. Luckily, they liked it, because it's not for everyone, whether for dietary or ethical reasons.

It's funny how small the piece of foie gras was, at about 2 inches, when I got a chance to look at it after the meal was over. As rich as it is, while I was eating it, it felt palm-sized.

The next dish was obviously braised shortribs on mushroom risotto, but what tripped me up was something like a succotash of tiny diced veggies sitting on top of the shortribs. Some pieces were very crunchy and some were squishy, so I guessed broccoli stems and corn. These turned out to be carrots and asparagus. I was surprised I didn't get the carrot flavor because I really dislike the sweetness of cooked carrots. Maybe I missed it because I always avoid eating them.

A friend later asked me how I could miss the distinctive asparagus flavor. I'm thinking that cut as small as it was, and stirred with the carrots, it didn't have the pungency you'd experience with the whole stalk. Anyway, she's one to talk. She was one of those who turned down the opportunity to test herself.

Dessert was obviously a creme brulee, but I was not successful with the specifics. It was creamy on top and combined with the flavor of the brulee, I was thinking it was coconut cream, but it turned out to be a pistachio brulee topped with whipped cream.

Here, I'm thinking artificial notes in the pistachio tasted like coconut, in the way that artificial flavors rarely come close to the real thing. But, once the blindfolds came off and I was told it was pistachio and could see the pale green color and taste it, pistachio was obvious. That seems to demonstrate how much we rely on multiple clues in our everyday lives to shape our perceptions.

Dining in the Dark turned out to be quite an eye-opening experience.