Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Organic oasis

Delicious, healthful fare is the reward for those who journey to Waianae's Kahumana Cafe

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 29, 2010

Chef Ranjith Ramanakumar plates Ginger Garlic Mahimahi at Kahumana Cafe. Behind him is café director and manager Robert Zuckerman.

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Last year, a ringed-neck parakeet flew into my life, and, long story short, I found him an excellent home in Waianae where he now lives with his new mate in a large outdoor flight aviary. On visiting with him, I asked his new family if they had heard of an organic restaurant nearby.

They looked at me as if I were crazy. I was going a little crazy trying to find it myself. "Organic, here?" was their response; the subtext being, "Good luck with that."
Waianae is not the first place people usually think of when it comes to progressive food movements, but that is what has been going on at Kahumana Farms for more than 30 years.

The farm is rooted in the philosophy of Waldorf Schools founder Rudolf Steiner. He grew up in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, when the rural lifestyle that had sustained people for generations lost ground to technology and urban centers, the result being the displacement of human beings and a feeling of disconnect from nature.

Steiner looked to the farm and agriculture as the route back to well-being, considering the farm not only as a place of physical sustenance but a place that encourages personal growth and community consciousness.

With Steiner's ideas in mind, Father Philip Harmon and the late Frances Sydow co-founded the Kahumana organization in 1974, providing outreach services for the needy in Waikiki and Makiki. Their aim was to establish a farm for biodynamic agriculture that would help feed people, provide economic activities and become a center for holistic healing.

Today, in addition to raising crops on 14 acres, the Kahumana organization also manages transitional housing at Ohana Ola O Kahumana and Ulu Ke Kukui.
The cafe is the newest development, having opened its doors late last fall with the aim of serving as a job training site, as well as a model for sustainability, healthy living and eating.

"We had no idea who would come," said cafe director and manager Robert Zuckerman. "We were hoping to reach the local community because there's so many in this area who don't eat well and have so many health issues."

Food served at the cafe offers an alternative to a high-cholesterol, refined-sugar diet, and Zuckerman said, "Some try it and come back; others are like, 'It's not my style.'"

Almost a year later, the cafe is also welcoming visitors from across the island and fielding many requests to open a second branch in Honolulu. That day may come, but for now, they're trying to remain true to the farm's initial vision, while striking a balance with the foodies showing up for what Zuckerman calls "whole-food cooking" and agricultural ambience. The big-picture vision is admirable, but townies faced with a 60-plus-mile two-way drive also want to know, is the food worthwhile?

Let's just say many a visitor has left Waianae wishing the restaurant could be transplanted to Honolulu due to dishes that are both healthful and delicious, from the humblest beet and pea soups, to plates accompanied by greens fresh from the farm.

The menu is small but well-balanced. Salads are to be expected, but you'll also find daily specials that might include burgundy beef, Hungarian goulash, teriyaki beef or chicken curry.

When I visited, there was a delicious meatloaf of grass-fed Maui beef, with a generous amount of chopped Swiss chard and herbs mixed in with the beef. As the daily special ($10 to $12), it came with a choice of soup or salad.

Start with homemade hummus and pita bread ($5) or a huge caprese ($10) with farm greens. Quesadillas ($8) comprise whole wheat tortillas topped with cheddar-jack cheese and avocado to which you could add grilled chicken for an extra $3.

Whole-wheat pasta stirred with macadamia nut pesto ($10) was another of my favorite dishes, served with stir-fried farm greens (on that day, chopped kale), and a choice of salad or soup. Add grilled ahi, chicken or garlic butter shrimp for $3.

Other light offerings are a Greek or Mexican veggie wrap ($8 each). Add grilled ahi or shrimp for $3. Both start with tomato, cucumber, olive tapenade and mixed greens. The difference is the cheese -- feta on the Greek, cheddar on the Mexican -- and avocado on the latter. The Greek tastes Greek; the Mexican could have used a salsa assist.

For dessert there is cheesecake ($3), often with seasonal fruit toppings, carrot cake, banana bread and dense chocolate brownie that's almost like fudge.

Tip well, as cafe proceeds and tips serve as donations supporting Kahumana Farms endeavors.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Richo's hybrid menu has bright spots

By Nadine Kam 

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 22, 2010

Visiting chef Eun Myoung Hee, above, of Richo in Tokyo prepares a specialty of beef tongue at the new Richo restaurant in Kaimuki.

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For too long, the rallying cry for the Internet and its myriad blogs and websites -- to the detriment of, ahem, old media -- has been "information wants to be free."
Maybe so, but as a writer, I'd really like to continue getting paid for my work.

A similar rallying cry might apply to restaurants, although consumers have either been slow or sympathetic to the plight of the small restaurateur. I've noticed since the recession hit that restaurants initially increased entree prices to keep up with overhead. They turned next to adding or increasing cost of incidentals like soft drinks, appetizers and sometimes, even the bread we've come to expect for free.

But unlike information, perhaps food doesn't want to be free ... anymore. (Not that it ever was, but costs could be better hidden before.)

Keep that in mind at Richo, where the first thing that glares at you from the menu is the cost of banchan. Say what?

Surely, banchan wants to be free. It is the minimum show of hospitality we've come to expect from a Korean restaurant.

Ah, but Richo is actually part of a Japanese chain, that, like so many from the land of the rising sun, is wending its way west. Hawaii has always been the logical stepping stone by virtue of some shared culture and heritage. Yet, I can't help thinking maybe they should have skipped one pond in favor of a destination where Korean traditions are less ingrained.

The cost of the banchan, at $6 for assorted namul and $3 for kim chee, isn't much, but I know it will rankle many. It's the principle of the thing. Is a restaurant going to make a show of playing the good host, or not?
Richo is at the base of Waialae Avenue, where the Japanese izakaya Momomo once stood. The monolithic black building has given way to clean white, and a plus of the location is its parking lot, though getting in is easier than reversing out.

Inside, there's a mix of standard tables and multiple, cozy tatami rooms for those who want to curl up in semiprivacy.

There's no sense being stubborn about the banchan. You still have to get the namul, a delicious assortment of tender royal ferns, bean sprouts, seasoned spinach, spicy octopus and pickled onions -- seven little dishes beautifully arranged in a bamboo basket.

Other starters include deep-fried seaweed and noodle spring rolls ($10), and Korean poke ($9) of ahi in kochujang sauce.

The restaurant betrays its roots with a reference to the Korean-style pancakes (pa jun), using the Japanese word, chigimi, plus a series of typos referring to the "panfly" nature of the crisp-fried savory egg-and-flour pancakes, with your choice of seafood and leek ($12 full order, $8 half), plain leek ($10/$7), squid and chive ($11/$7.50) or beef and yam ($12/$8) fillings. I found a half-order to be plenty for two.

You can order entrees such as kalbi ($13.50), bulkogi ($16), and beef or seafood chapchae (rice noodles $10.96) a la carte, but there's more of a show attached to the pork ($40) or beef tongue ($50) shabu-shabu for two. If you prefer a grill specialty over the soupy shabu-shabu, there's just one, pork belly ($24) for two to cook at your table. This is another dish with extra costs, at $3 for lettuce for wrapping your cooked pork, and $2 for garlic cloves. I consider these musts because pork alone (it does come with a slice of onion) would be boring.

It's nice when it's not too crowded here and the staffers have the time to help you cook the pork at your table, starting with brushing the grill with oil and rosemary. The pork is mildly flavored, so it's conceivable some might detect the herb flavor. There's none of the raunchy intense sesame and salt flavors that you'd find at most Korean restaurants.

Some of the dishes are just wrong, like, Spicy Fire Chicken ($11.80) billed as a grilled dish, but that comprises small pieces of meat sauteed in Richo's house hot sauce.

Ahi bibimbap ($10) also struck me as being more Japanese than Korean because of the raw fish and vegetable choices of cabbage slaw, lettuce and slivered carrots. It made a nice salad.

The restaurant is not bad, but I was left wondering about who the audience might be for this Korean-Japanese hybrid. It's definitely not a place for traditionalists who already have two or three favorite Korean restaurants.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Welcome back, 'Cass'

Nadine Kam photo
Castagnola's Pizzeria's antipasto plate features a generous array of Capacole ham, prosciutto, salami, and mozzarella and sheets of Parmesan. 

A familiar face in the restaurant biz opens a no-frills pizzeria at Restaurant Row

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 08, 2010

For many people, Castagnola's Pizzeria marks a brand new arrival on the dining scene, but the name has some deep roots on Oahu.

George "Cass" Castagnola had been running restaurants in Hawaii since the 1970s when he opened his first Castagnola's restaurant in the Manoa Marketplace in the late '80s. Beyond serving food that diners loved, the restaurant proved to be a classroom for many a budding restaurateur. Castagnola's became a template for a style of Italian restaurant popular with an entire generation, and the DNA continues to runs through such restaurants as Verbano, Paesano and Assaggio, where, just as at Castagnola's Pizzeria, Cass is simply known as "Pops."

At one point, Cass had six restaurants, but by the mid-'90s had tired of the business and made his exit. But his legend was such that diners never stopped asking about him, and every now and then I'd hear of a mainland sighting or that Cass could be found driving a cab.
In reality, both Cass and his son, also named George, could be found working for Cass' star pupil, Thomas Ky, at Assaggio.

Having said all that, it wasn't Cass' idea to re-enter the restaurant business. In fact, when George Jr. told him that he wanted to do so, he told him he was crazy.

George said the idea came up last fall, starting with his desire to bring his brother home from Oregon and reunite the family in the endeavor.
"Every Castagnola kid learned how to cook," he said, reminiscing about helping to chop vegetables "when I was old enough to walk."

Since opening, George said Pops relishes being back to greet old customers and new ones. "Now, he's very happy. I think it's come together quite well."
The Pizzeria has found a home on the site of the former Pasta & Basta at Restaurant Row, across from Bambu Bar. One of the best things about it is the rollback prices. It's as if Cass were Rip Van Winkle, asleep for 20 years and setting menu prices as they were when the first Castagnola's opened.

The trade-off is that some of the frills are gone, hence the creation of a "pizzeria," rather than full-fledged "restaurant." Some may miss tablecloths and a profusion of basil and red wine in the tomato sauce. Some may not notice the difference, and some may prefer this simple comfort cuisine.
Even so, diners will be happy to find more than pizza, which comprises only a small portion of the menu.

Forget about its predecessor's pizzas. The old wood-burning pizza oven remains only for show. The new one is in the back, and there's only one style of pizza, thick with tomato sauce and cheese ($6.90), to which you can add your choice of eight ingredients for a dollar each. These are just the basics: pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, Capacole ham, mushrooms, green peppers, onion, and tomato and basil.

The first time I tried the restaurant, it was via takeout for a quick lunch because I work in the building. I didn't fall in love with the straightforward, rather bland and minimalist marinara topping the linguine and meatballs ($8.90). But I warmed to the dine-in experience, cocooned in the calming green interior -- a vast change from the harsh orange of Pasta & Basta.

Presentation made all the difference, not to mention the fact that, if you find the flavors bland, you're plied with all the Parmesan and red pepper your heart desires.

Castagnola's Pizzeria's shrimp linguine.

An antipasto plate ($7.90) features a generous array of Capacole ham, prosciutto, salami, and mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Olives were canned black, rather than kalamatas or others more exotic, but it didn't bother me. Combined with the complimentary bread and a salad, this might be all some people need. Those salads, at $3.90 for tossed greens, and $4.90 for Caesar or seasonal tomatoes, are single portions, so don't be surprised by their small size. You get what you pay for and produce is expensive.

The marinara works well in richer dishes such as lasagna ($9.90) and eggplant Parmesan ($8.90), generous on mozzarella and Parmesan and with two layers of breaded eggplant.

And there's no skimping on pasta portions. If you're starting with appetizers or a salad, you'll likely go home with leftovers. Shrimp linguine ($10.90) in your choice of a garlic or spicy sauce would rival that of any $20 restaurant, and there's also linguine with clam sauce ($8.90), shrimp scampi ($10.90) or calamari scampi ($10.90) if you're bored by the usual shrimp.

I haven't tried the desserts yet, which include gelato or sorbetto ($3.90), cannoli ($3.90) and zabaglione ($4.90), but with such close proximity, you can bet I'll be back. Soon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New restaurants offer promising vegetarian options

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 01, 2010

The lunchtime crowd is reflected in a mirror at Peace Cafe in Moiliili.

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Ask and ye shall receive. I've long bemoaned the dearth of vegetarian restaurants in Honolulu. All of a sudden we have two new options, both opened over summer.

Question is, Can they convince a mostly meat-eating public to take a nibble when vegetarian, vegan and macrobiotic dining are more frequently associated with deprivation than joy?

Hawaii lags other major cities, where healthy options abound and cohabit with more typical fare at small corner restaurants and even fast-food outlets.

Here, eating healthy takes work and planning, too much for most people, who still need to be convinced that vegetables can be sexy-delicious and not just something added to one's plate when health issues demand a lifestyle and diet overhaul.

I've been to major restaurants from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Las Vegas that serve daily prix fixe vegetarian meals, and they've been experiences to remember. Contrast that with a typical local experience: A few years ago I saw another foodie eating at a vegetarian restaurant and days later asked her when she was going back. She said, "Once is enough."

Maybe these two will convince diners to return for more.


Opened in May near Old Stadium Park, Peace Cafe specializes in vegan sandwiches, salads and desserts. It's a start.

The hole-in-the-wall's owner, Megumi Yamaki, grew up in Japan eating traditional meals that were big on fish and fresh vegetables, with a minimum of meat.
She'd traveled to Hawaii several times before finally making a move here about two years ago, and what she saw of plate lunches caused her to worry about the health of local people. She'd read about the high incidence of diabetes here and believed an unhealthful diet was the root of many health problems. Through an interpreter and the cafe's baker, Ari Moriya, she said it became her mission to offer healthful options.

Yamaki said she knows how hard it is to find healthful food in Hawaii. She adopted the vegan diet a decade ago and has a hard time finding restaurants where she can eat. She operated a small kiosk, Ka Liko Terrace, outside Palama Market-Makaloa, before making the move to larger quarters.

So far, sandwiches dominate the menu and are the most accessible to the nonvegan. There's nothing mysterious about the likes of an avocado-veggie sandwich ($8.10) that could use more avocado, Popeye sandwich ($8.10) of spinach and tofu dressed with miso-tahini (sesame) or a curry eggless sandwich ($8.25) in which the yellow curry flavor masks the substitution of tofu for the egg. All the sandwiches are built on soft, chewy ciabatta made specially for the restaurant by Ba-Le and are piled high with organic veggies: cucumbers, tomatoes and sprouts.

Also worth trying is a healthy version of the Caesar salad ($8.45), topped here with a cashew cream dressing with a delicate crunch.

The Peace Box ($8.50) is popular, but I'm not a fan of this sort of soy protein masquerading as meat, when vegetables and tofu should be accepted as satisfying in their own right. In this case, the too-salty teriyaki-style soy protein sits on brown rice and mimics ground beef, but it's no match in flavor or texture.

Moroccan stew ($8.45) also could be punched up with more vegetables, such as eggplant and bell pepper, instead of chickpeas alone. The flavor is good, but texturally, spoonful after spoonful of chickpeas can be monotonous.

Peace Cafe's selections of sweets can be your reward for making a healthful attempt. Moriya, who went vegan five years ago, worked for Yamaki at Ka Liko Terrace and now bakes all the cafe's desserts.

Diners will find themselves sated even though refined sugars have been replaced by maple syrup, apple juice or agave, and white flour has been replaced by more healthful whole wheat.

Moriya said she started baking 10 years ago as a hobby, creating Martha Stewart-style confections, but loves eating sweets too much to continue on that rich track. Her aim is now to create desserts that are "not too sweet, not too oily, that you can eat every day."

These include the likes of matcha green tea or apple cinnamon mochi cakes ($2 to $2.25), kinako cookies ($2.15 for two pieces), mini muffins ($1.50) and bread pudding ($2.99).

Nadine Kam photos
Loving Hut's Shrimp Moana with mock shrimp made of yam root.


Loving Hut is part of an international vegan fast-food chain, each family owned, with menus unique to their communities, so there's nothing "processed" about the food served here.

Vietnamese cooking, already high on vegetarian ingredients and palate- wakening flavors, is a natural for adding to a vegan menu, and Loving Hut offers a superb example of what can be done without a trace of meat or meat products.

As much as I'm usually against the idea of mock meat, here there is mock shrimp made from yam root, realistic to the point of having the orange bands associated with cooked shrimp.

I was studying the photos of the "shrimp" online before venturing into the restaurant and was skeptical about how it might taste, but it had the sweetness and bouncy texture similar to fishcake, which, combined with the flavors of soy, garlic and green onions, made a dish of Spicy Moana ($8.50) seem just like a shrimp stir-fry.
The mock shrimp also worked in a plainer dish of two summer rolls ($3.50), wrapped with vegetarian ham, tofu, rice noodles and veggies. And the mock shrimp turns up again in a dish of "Island Jewel," a stir-fry also featuring broccoli and onions.

Soy protein substitutes for meat in a dish of Fabulous Pho ($7.95), but because all the other typical pho ingredients are included, it won't seem much different from the noodle soups served at other Vietnamese restaurants. Only a few will be distracted by the oily, sweet broth. The pho is served with plenty of bean sprouts, basil and rice noodles, with the addition of gluten and mushrooms for heft.

Loving Hut's Guru Curry.

Lemongrass Hawaiiana ($7.95) is there for those who might normally order lemongrass chicken, pork or beef. Here, the lemony herb, peppers and spices coat soy protein sliced to resemble chicken or pork.

Other dishes are eggplant tofu ($7.95) and "Guru Curry" ($7.95) of potatoes, tofu, taro, carrots and onions in a yellow coconut-curry sauce.

A two-entree plate is $7.25, or a three-entree plate is $8.25, allowing you to sample as many dishes as possible in one sitting. Even so, I think this one will have nonvegans craving many a return trip.

Even better, it could be a template for what a meatless future could be. I'm still waiting for someone to offer more diversity and more greens/beans/nuts than processed soy proteins, but it'll take a much larger operation and commitment.