Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New spot needs more Hello Kitty spirit

Cooking up lobster tails evenings at Makittii Hawaii.

I like the option of dining at a Hello Kitty/Sanrio restaurant, but the first couple of forays leave me feeling like Goldilocks in the Three Bears story. 

The first Hello Kitty Cafe in Pearlridge Center, essentially a dessert counter, was too small.
The second, the recently opened Makittii Hawaii Japanese Seafood Buffet, is more Papa Bear than girly size. Maybe the next will be just right in appealing to women and girls, the core Sanrio fans.

Very young girls might be taken by the Hello Kitty murals in back that make a nice backdrop for birthday parties, as well as the small gift shop in front of the restaurant.

It was smart of Makittii owner Toru Makino, of Makino Chaya fame, to try to differentiate this buffet from his other establishments, but then Makittii doesn't go far enough with the theme. Save for some delightful, colorful desserts at the end of the meal, there's little in the buffet or about the setting in general that makes me think I've entered a joyful fantasy world. The plantation-style ambience is much the same as it was when it housed another buffet operation, Perry's Smorgy.

Anyone planning another Sanrio restaurant in the future should look to Disney and Q-pot for inspiration in everything from candy- or ice cream-shop decor and cute uniforms to match, to hiring staffers full of bubbly charm.

Considering what I imagine to be a childlike effervescence and aura of Ms. Kitty and crew, I found the experience rather gloomy due to servers just doing a job, without having sipped Kitty's shiny, happy Kool-Aid. In fact, when in the absence of adequate help I tried to get a glass of water myself, I was chided for doing so.
When I first hit the evening buffet, I felt there was no way I could eat $30 worth of food. There are so many options you'd be full after sampling just a bite of perhaps one-tenth of dishes offered. It doesn't help that I don't have the buffet mentality of going for the most expensive food. I just go for what I like, so when I scooped a hard-boiled egg out of the oden, my guest didn't think that was very smart, warning, "It'll just fill you up." Sorry, I just like boiled eggs.

Mussels are a little dry, but still one of the best items on the buffet.

This was before I discovered a chef grilling steak and lobster tails to order. That's where you might want to try a tag-team approach and have one person stand in line and place your order before backtracking to salads and appetizers. Otherwise, you might have a long wait as diners catch on to what's going on. The steak and lobster tails are only available during the evening buffet, not the $14.98 breakfast or lunch buffet.

Even so, the lobster I got was flavorless, so when adding up the cost of about $60 for two (with 20 percent kamaaina discount for those with a local ID), one has to consider they can get a pretty good lobster meal elsewhere.

The beauty of buffet is really in the bounty for those with insatiable appetites, or those who simply like to pick and choose from many options. But maybe you've also noticed that in this town where buffets have long reigned, they've been on the wane during the past couple of years. Chalk it up to the economy and waste associated with buffets, as well as a growing appetite for quality over quantity.

I ran into someone else I know there, and surveying the scene after the meal, we counted a handful of things that we really liked, out of dozens of items.

One diner told me the lotus root was good, but with so many options, I didn't try it.

Conceivably, if you do find that many things, you can fill up on those and be quite happy. But first, you have to taste a lot, the dining equivalent of kissing frogs.

Dishes I liked included all the fixings for a fresh spinach salad, salt-pepper shrimp when hot from the deep -fryer, cocktail shrimp, garlic sauteed basa and cubes of kabocha.

My friend liked those things as well, and would add a Japanese lotus salad I didn't have room to try, plus smoked salmon, though I found it was drier than it needed to be.

None of us tried the snow crab legs, which generally involve too much work for too little payoff. Maybe someone else will try it and report back.

Another plus is the sushi bar, run by Gaan Sushi over at the Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel. I wondered where the sushi was in this buffet, and you'll have to look for the abundance of sushi rolls toward the back of the restaurant. A sushi maker is stationed near the desserts, ready to prepare Gaan-style nigiri to order. This should be another of your first stops, for Edo-style sushi made with red vinegar and salt. It may take a while for some to adjust to the stronger, rustic flavor.

Last stop was the dessert station, where 35 types of cakes and desserts are available, though patrons are limited to picking up only two at a time. Oh well, walking to and from your table for the likes of chestnut and pistachio tarts, tiramisu and strawberry parfaits is good exercise. For those who want healthier options, there is mochi and flan made of soymilk.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pizza truck serves tasty to-go pies

Dennis Oda photo
Inferno’s Wood Fire Pizza is run by Kyle Okumoto, left, and Jonathan Wong, who put their wood-fire pizza oven on a trailer. Okumoto is just about to place a pizza in the oven, while Wong has just taken a cooked pizza out.

By Nadine Kam

A trip to Morimoto Waikiki last week showed the kind of theater money and fame can buy. But for every Morimoto there are dozens of potential restaurateurs who simply want to put their ideas on the table, no matter how small their start, evident in an ever-expanding convoy of buses, vans and trucks that bring edibles to events or parking lots near you.

They're getting more creative all the time. Plate-lunch trucks have always made the rounds, but the newest entries have taken tacos, cupcakes, teppanyaki and more to the streets. But the hottest at the moment is Inferno's Wood Fire Pizza in Kalihi, which showed up about two months ago.

It's certainly an original as the first mobile pizza joint on Oahu, serving the only pizza that comes close to being as good as V-Lounge pizza.
The pizzas are baked in a wood-fired pizza oven on site, and one has to wonder who would have been crazy enough to put a 2,000-pound oven on a trailer.

That would be partners Jonathan Wong and pizza perfectionist Kyle Okumoto, two guys whose expertise is in construction, working with sheet metal, but whose love of pizza eventually trumped their day jobs.

Those construction skills did come in handy, though, in tricking out their trailer by trial and error. "Knowing how to weld really helped," Wong said.
It wasn't easy, given their novel concept. For one thing, the permitting process took about a year, as long as it took to build because there was no precedent for a pizza truck, and city officials worried about fire and safety issues with an oven that reaches 800 to 1,000 degrees. Lucky for pizza lovers, it all worked out.

Wong said that they'd been trying to perfect pizza for the past five years.
"We always ate out cuz we worked construction, and Kyle would say, 'Oh, I can do that,'" Wong said. "Every Super Bowl we'd spend at his house, and all he did was make pizza. We were all his guinea pigs, five to 15 people every week.

"All he did was watch Food Network and try, tasting at our favorite places to see if he could do better."
His first "pizza oven" was a Weber that they layered with bricks, and then, Wong said, Okumoto was suddenly struck with the inspiration to buy a pizza oven and install it in his parents' back yard "so we could have real pizza parties."

Wong felt it was no light commitment, and foresaw a day the parents might want to sell the house, and the brick oven with it. So that marked the start of attempting to graduate from hobby to profession.

The resulting pizzas are made to their tastes, which happen to align quite nicely with my own. In a nutshell, that means fresh ingredients and fresh flavors, as unadulterated as possible; a light, balanced hand; and for pizza, a light, thin crust that offers a nice texture without detracting from the toppings. The whole effective supporting player vs. star thing.

The first time I went was just to try, so I took the pizza home and was thoroughly delighted. In 15 minutes of steaming in its box, though, the crust was sagging, and I went back to try it on the spot, when it came much closer to that crisp ideal.

The 12-inch pizzas are reasonably priced at $8 to $10, with additional toppings running $1. For DIYers, a one-topping pizza starts at $8. (A portion of proceeds of every pizza sold is being donated to the American Cancer Society's fight against breast cancer.)

Their pizzas range from your basic cheese ($8) to Margherita with basil and tomatoes ($10) to all-meat pepperoni, sopressata and Italian sausage ($10).

Wong describes Okumoto as a person who's "dedicated to meat," who looked askance at anchovies until urged to put it on his own pizza.

"He didn't want to eat that and was surprised when he did like it, especially when it's with the arugula and mozzarella, when it just tastes clean, bright and salty, not fishy."

That white pizza, also with olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($12), is one of the weekly specials they'll have in rotation. You'll usually find one red and one white special. The red last week was a slow-roasted pulled pork with red onions, mushrooms and garlic ($10). I liked that they offered a choice of homemade marinara or spicy barbecue. I'm not a big fan of barbecue sauce, and would take the mild San Marzano tomato sauce any day. But, given that I've liked the rest of their flavors so far, I might just try that barbecue one day, trusting that it may not be as treacly as most.

Mexican, duck and hoisin, and salmon pizzas are in the works. The salmon might take a while because they want to smoke the fish themselves, and similarly, they're hoping to tap hunters for smoked meat from the Big Island.

The original plan was to cater to private events such as birthday and beach parties, but they're happy to have been offered their current spot, where there's room for a few tables under a tent.

Waits for pizza run about 20 to 30 minutes, but it could be longer if there are a lot of people in front of you. They will take phone orders if you call early enough, but once the crowd starts coming, they don't have the manpower to do so, and can't predict what time they'll run out of dough.

They'd always been able to find construction work but willingly walked away to provide pizza, and Wong said they're having the most fun they could have working.

"Before, we'd be working in rooms by ourselves. The only human interaction was talking to each other, and Kyle is really quiet. Now there are always so many people to talk to," including, he said, pizza makers from V-Lounge, Pizza Hut, Bar 35 and Boston's Pizza, who want to know what the commotion is about.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Morimoto's grand entry to Waikiki

Nadine Kam photos
Morimoto sashimi with five dipping sauces: yuzu, arugula, red pepper, yellow pepper and unagi.

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 06, 2010

The dining room of Morimoto Waikiki offers a modern supper club ambience.

More Photos

I've talked to doctors and artists who've told me they don't like to socialize because they don't want to answer work-related questions.

I feel the same way. I don't like talking, so I write, and what's left on paper is 95 percent of all I have to say about a subject. The question I get most is what's my favorite restaurant, which tends to be a moving target. I figure I've eaten at close to 1,200 restaurants, so honestly, I don't remember them all.

More originally, I was at the Chanel boutique in Waikiki just last week, and someone asked, "What's your favorite restaurant ... if someone else is paying?"
I had to think about that one because I rarely have the option to choose. At the time I didn't have an answer, but now I do.

Morimoto Waikiki.

It's lovely. It's pricey. It's an experience, and I'd love to eventually try all of the vast menu. If it were my dime, as a poor scribe, I'd be more likely go to Nobu for more classical fare, or somewhere inexpensive and leave feeling just as sated. But if money were no object, I'd be back again and again.

I feel for "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto. After all, he's a Nobu alumnus who must feel the pressure of Leonardo Da Vinci's adage, "Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master."

He couldn't do that by doing the same thing as Nobu, nor would he. Morimoto is far too creative to be a copycat. Even so, with Nobu just around the corner, he must know some comparisons are inevitable.
Creativity has its charm, but with food, at a certain point it's like reinventing the wheel. How do you improve on the essence of a thing? 

Sometimes you can't, but as an "Iron Chef," Morimoto must try. Unlike art, dance or music, once you've enjoyed the visual, tactile and scent of food, you're left with what's in your mouth, which here ends up being fairly ordinary. For the anticipation and price, I was expecting fireworks.

From the moment you pull up to the valet at the New Edition Hotel, it is an experience. En route to the first-floor restaurant, there were at least 10 people to greet, open doors and guide patrons to Morimoto. It was like a New York experience (though in New York the staffers would be models in Armani or Hugo Boss).

The room is beautiful, thoroughly modern and modular, but with a retro 1920s Art Deco or supper club vibe. Organic touches included lichenlike material at the entry, white coral decor and orchid imagery in purples and greens. I loved the open, spacious see-and-be-seen layout typical of big-city destination restaurants. We've seen so few of these on Oahu. I didn't even mind sitting close to other diners. Due to the volume in the room, it would have been too difficult to eavesdrop on another conversation. I could barely hear the waiters as they explained the dishes. They tend to be young and inexperienced anyway, and half the time I tested them to find out if they knew what was on the plate, they guessed wrong.
The open room has the double effect of advertising and possibly selling more food. There's a wow factor to presentation here, so diners can't help but have their curiosity piqued as dishes parade en route to other tables.

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prices are the same for lunch and dinner, though choices are more limited during the day, and it's only during lunch that you'll find soup choices such as chicken noodle ramen ($14), oxtail soup ($14) and clam miso soup ($13).

Yellowtail pastrami.

I visited in the evening, when the open kitchen is bustling, conveying the scope of all available. Perhaps because sushi is so abundant here, few opted to sit at the sushi bar (maki rolls are about $7) when so many other hot and cold appetizer and entree selections beckoned. I would probably be happy feasting on cold appetizers alone. I skipped over the tuna pizza ($18) topped with olives, anchovy aioli, and jalapeño and lamb carpaccio ($17) in favor of yellowtail pastrami ($18) and Morimoto sashimi ($26), figuring that would give me an idea of what the fish is like in sushi here.

Slices of dry-cured yellowtail were thicker than typical sashimi cuts and were dusted with togarashi, then served with a small pool of olive oil, gin creme fraiche and slices of candied olive. The dominant flavor was that of olive oil, and though it was good, those who grew up pairing fish and soy sauce might find themselves missing that little lilt.

Morimoto's sashimi was one of the more visually interesting dishes I tried. The fish was cut to form cubes. Perhaps because of the way the fish is stacked before cutting, pieces of toro, salmon, eel, tuna and hamachi appear as random as fabric scraps. Some might be a full square. Others might be unidentifiable half-inch bits. The dish's saving grace is its accompaniment of five sauces presented in plastic capsule droppers for squirting their contents. Sauces are yuzu, yellow and red pepper, unagi and arugula. Each has its own merits, though there might not be enough fish for you to go back and retry all the sauces.

Meals can be accompanied by Morimoto cocktails, including a cucumber-inspired Morimotini and Morimo-tai flavored with lemongrass syrup and kaffir lime. You'll also find several Morimoto-branded beer, sake and shochu options.

After cold appetizers you might try a few hot ones, such as crispy rock shrimp tempura ($16), foie gras chawan mushi ($16) or wagyu carpaccio ($20). If you like being fussed over, there is yose dofu ($16), tofu prepared fresh at your table.

Pineapple tempura with jamón Ibérico.

I opted for the kakuni ($16), 10-hour slow-cooked pork belly served in rice congee, one of those no-fail dishes, plus the unusual pineapple tempura ($16) wrapped in Iberico ham, just because Morimoto had promised beforehand to incorporate Hawaii ingredients into his menu. The pieces of pineapple were arranged to form arches and mounds, sort of an edible Stonehenge. This was another of those dishes that has little reason to exist beyond the nod to Hawaii. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing spectacular about the two flavors together and therefore not something I'd order again.

As for main courses, I saw a lot of garam masala-spiced lobster ($47) dishes go by. Otherwise, dishes appeared to be straightforward, such as a lamb rack ($28), ginger pork ($23) and "duck, duck, duck" ($28) with the waterfowl served three ways: seared duck breast, confit spring roll and meatball soup.

Just to compare with Nobu, I had to try the braised black cod ($26), literally blackened with a concentrated ginger-soy reduction. (For this silky fish, I prefer Nobu's more delicate preparation.)

I also had to know what "angry chicken" ($29) is like. The organic half-chicken was something of a cross between tandoori and Buffalo chicken, having been marinated in a mixture of yogurt and Frank's hot sauce, before being served with more spicy chicken jus.

You're going to have to order sides if you want more than the main course. For instance, the only other thing on the black cod plate were 2-inch pieces of red, yellow and green pepper. I was like, "Huh?" until I saw some of those roasted peppers on the chicken plate. Waste not, want not.

For dessert there was a dish of tofu cheesecake, a bit of artistry in white, including accompanying tubes of crispy kanako meringues.

True foodies will find a lack of subtlety here, but as "Iron Chef," Morimoto likely sees himself as equal parts chef and entertainer, and as entertainment goes, about $80 per person for an evening of sights, sounds and grinds ain't bad.