Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Doraku + Blue Tree = double happiness at Pacifica

Nadine Kam photos
Doraku Kaka'ako by day.

By Nadine Kam

If not for one small detail, I would not have recognized the kinship between Doraku Kaka'ako and next door neighbor Blue Tree Cafe, in the new Pacifica condominium building at 1009 Kapiolani Boulevard.

The former caters to the happy hour, pau hana and party crowd. The latter offers the fix for the aftermath, with healthful libations and many a vegetarian and vegan food offering.

But I put two and two together when I saw the small photograph of Benihana of Tokyo founder Rocky Aoki and his first wife Chizuru, on a table at Blue Tree while reviewing the two eateries last month. (Aoki also translates as "Blue Tree.") The two are the parents of the restaurants' founder, Kevin Aoki, who hosted a casual media tasting Feb. 25 to introduce the two concepts.

For Aoki, raised with the Benihana tradition, Japan-style specialities with a twist seems to come naturally, so I was more intrigued by his organic and vegetarian direction, which he chalked up to a matter of getting older and recognizing the need to guard his health in light of raising a young family while undergoing the daily stress of overseeing a growing empire that will soon see another teppanyaki concept, Aoki, opening in Miami soon.

Introducing a delicious fruit "life-changing" elixirs, very verde smoothie and kombucha, the probiotic fermented tea, is in line with what he does at home to stay healthy.

I applaud the effort believe that all restaurateurs should consider ways to keep their clientele alive. I would have opened a french fry and aioli shop in downtown Honolulu two decades ago if I didn't care that to do so essentially amounts to killing people.

Lilikoi kombucha and a very verde smoothie sit in front of a portrait of Rocky and Chizuru Aoki at Blue Tree Cafe.

Coral Reef roll with salmon, avocado, crab and won ton chips.

Doraku's Kaka'ako's "New Style" tuna tataki with julienne radish and onions, kaiware sprouts, crisp garlic chips, garlic aioli and ponzu sauce.

Doraku's Kaka'ako's Double Happiness roll of crab rolled in nori, thin-sliced cucumber and finished with tobiko, garlic aioli and ponzu sauce. This was so refreshing and a perfect option for the gluten-free crowd.

Chef Hide Yoshimoto’s panko-crusted hamachi with mango salsa, king oyster mushrooms, asparagus, mango puree, and lemon-butter ponzu sauce.

The Red Dragon Roll is an unagi-topped variation of the Dragon Roll, or California roll.

Love the upscale-casual vibe at Blue Tree.

At Blue Tree Cafe, we sampled delicate zucchini "pasta" topped with pesto and sun-dried tomato ...

... And mac 'n cheese comprising quinoa shells and mashed pea "cheese." I like the quinoa macaroni just fine, but not being vegan, I still prefer milk cheeses.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Best chefs gather at The Cave

Nadine Kam photos
Vintage Cave chef Chris Kajioka, left, welcomed chef Blaine Wetzel, right, of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington, and pastry chef Baruch Ellsworth of Canlis, Seattle, into his kitchen for a collaboration event Feb. 23 and 24.

By Nadine Kam

The Vintage Cave welcomed Blaine Wetzel of The Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Washington, during a collaboration event also featuring resident chef Chris Kajioka and pastry chef Baruch Ellsworth of Canlis, Seattle.

Wetzel was one of 10 Best New Chefs recognized by Food & Wine magazine last year, and came prepared with his regional sockeye salmon and alder wood, while also making time to go foraging with local chef Mark Noguchi for such ingredients as He'eia seaweeds and yam shoots.

The collaboration dinners took place Feb. 23 and 24, with 10 courses involving 15 dishes, including three desserts created by Ellsworth, also deemed "one of the best new pastry chefs in the country," by Food & Wine.

It was a great opportunity to sample their fare in such an intimate setting, and always so wonderful to see the creative work being done in the Cave.

As I told Chris later, it takes a lot of hard work and thought to reinvent the way we perceive, prepare and present food, and I appreciate the effort and out-of-the-box thinking.

The hard work starts with top chefs before trickling down to change the way we all eat. That's why we now can enjoy farm-fresh Hawaii regional cuisine plate lunches for about $10 to $12, where 20 years ago it was only available in high-end restaurants.

At our table someone joked that it's just a matter of time before we see truffle fries at McDonald's.

Here are the dishes presented:

Toasted kale leaves with black truffle and grated soy, so light and brittly crisp with satisfying umami effect. Dinner was off to a good start. This was among my favorite dishes.

Presentation of the Kona Kumamoto oysters with sake, elderflower and cucumber ice.

One per diner.

Vanilla-bean macaron sandwiching sturgeon caviar. One per person.

Kona kampachi topped with charred scallion, hearts of palm and cilantro, accented with tapioca pearls.

This dish was not on the menu, but added during the course of dinner, brioche topped with Golden Ossetra caviar and creme fraiche.

Organic greens and watercress with lightly salted rye and seared Hawaiian abalone. The rye had the snap and fluffiness of wild rice.

Smoked bigeye tuna with He'eia seaweeds and their broth with crunchy toasted quinoa.

Lummi Island sockeye salmon smoked over alder wood.

This was so amazing. Shaved foie gras over banana, parsnip, macadamia nuts and spiced meringues. The powdery foie gras simply melted on the tongue, bursting with full flavor. Later, Chris explained the "simple" process of making a traditional foie gras torchon, passing the mixture through a fine tamis, or sieve, then deep-freezing it and later shaving it on a micro plane.

That's Italian! Onda Pasta pops up at Taste Table

Nadine Kam photos
Artists Amy Davis and Jon Moritsugu found culinary inspiration at the Onda Pasta popup at Taste Table last Wednesday.

By Nadine Kam

In recent years, our experience of Italian cuisine has been through the hands of chefs from Japan. So it was a refreshing change of pace to wander into Taste Table last Wednesday, where Andrea Onetti of Onda Pasta, was cooking up some of the dishes he grew up with in Rome.

He and his wife Jessica had already been offering their hand-made fresh pastas at various farmer's markets, including the Saturday Farmer's Market at Ala Moana Center from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays and 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays.

Their pastas combine the best of two worlds—high-quality flour imported from Italy paired with Hawaiian eggs and produce.

yummyTaste Table offered them the opportunity to show how those pastas cook up with their sauces, including a fiery puttanesca, Bolognese made with Oahu grass fed beef, and classic pomodoro, with various pasta dishes priced from about $11 to $13.

I had stumbled across their lunch service by accident, when a glitch in the Taste calendar showed Boom Musubi in house. I'd invited the fab illustrator-rock chick-actress Amy Davis and her partner in celluloid-music-life Jon Moritsugu to join me in light of Amy adding a food component to her fashion musings at her new blog, Yummy Dress: One of her illustrations is at left.

Although Boom Musubi seemed like an appropriate fit for her site, we were all thrilled to try Onda Pasta's delicious gnocchi, tagliatelle and risotto.

We were even more thrilled that escaped murder suspect Teddy Munet was on the loose in the vicinity, adding to the excitement of the day. If I had been worried about it, I would have suggested meeting elsewhere, but to me, it was no biggie. I'm sure dozens of murderers or potential murderers walk among us every day.

After a so-so attempt at making gnocchi a few months ago, I tried to ask Andrea for his secret, but he said that if he told me, I'd have to come work for him. No kitchens for me. After so many years writing about restaurants, it's still hard to fathom why anyone would want to work that hard, though I'm glad for the many that do! Jessica did offer that I should try less flour. I might try again.

The Onda Pasta popup returns to Taste Table, 667 Auahi St., from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Feb. 27.

Onda Pasta's Roman-style gnocchi with a puttanesca sauce that's actually spicy.

Mushroom risotto.

Vegetarian tagliatelle with Waimanalo cremini.

Added Feb. 27:

Manzo scallopine ($13) of beef eye round in wine and lemon sauce, served with roast potatoes is one of the new menu additions today.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The $600 strawberry

Joel Muraoka photo

A friend in Japan sent me a photo of a strawberry selling for $600 in Japan.

It's packed in a box, cushioned by Easter basket material, and he says it's just a publicity stunt. People go to look at the $600 strawberry, "gasp, then buy the reasonable premium strawberries."

I think the max I'd pay for this berry is $10.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Grand Cafe marks grand reopening

Nadine Kam photos
Celebrating the grand opening of Grand Cafe & Bakery at the Hawaii State Art Museum were, from left, chef Anthony Kui Sin Vierra, Mona Chang-Vierra, Patsy Izumo, and one of their many fans, Nery Heenan, who attended with her husband David.

The Year of the Snake is said to symbolize a progressive year with fruitful results, so Feb. 11, the start of the Year of the Snake, seemed an auspicious time to celebrate a grand opening, and that was the date chosen to mark Grand Cafe & Bakery's move and reopening at HiSAM.

Chef Anthony Kui Sin Vierra was in the kitchen, cooking up Chinese specialties for the occasion, while his mom Mona Chang-Vierra and Patsy Izumo, co-owners in the venture, made prune mui for guests to take home.

The gathering of friends and family included many a businessman and politician from the neighboring State Capitol building, plus a familiar face in the newsroom, political columnist Richard Borreca, who echoed the sentiment that the cafe is a great place for breakfast and early morning meetings and interviews.

He plans to meet up here with Colleen Hanabusa the next time she's in town, when he says it'll be her turn to pay.

Guests lined up for food could study the menu en route.

Nina Wu photo
The Chinese lion got fed after the people.

Kalua pork bao.

Spring rolls.

Hoisin-honey chicken wings.

A luxe take on Chinese chicken salad, with the common bird replaced by turkey.

Grand Cafe fried rice.

Dessert of oranges, symbolic of luck, wealth and prosperity, surrounded by take-home prune mui made by Mona and Patsy.

For future reference: Anthony's char siu is selling for $10 per pound, available by calling 531-0001 or emailing

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

First Course: Monkeypod Kitchen open at Ko Olina

Nadine Kam photos
Chef Peter Merriman, right, with Aloha United Way marketing director Jay Park, and Monkeypod Kitchen manager Erica Dunn.

Chef Peter Merriman and his business partner Bill Terry celebrated the opening of Monkeypod Kitchen at Ko Olina, with a blessing and benefit party on Feb. 1.

Guests could help themselves to all the food they wanted while their drink purchases throughout the evening benefited Aloha United Way.

Although it's never easy to get townies to drive out to Ko Olina at rush hour, the room was packed with foodies, restaurateurs and farmers eager to see Merriman's newest project. I believe that he and Roy Yamaguchi are now the only big name Hawaii chefs with restaurants on four islands.

The first Monkeypod Kitchen opened in Wailea, Maui, so named, Peter explained when addressing the crowd, because the monkeypod tree is a non-native that has nevertheless thrived in Hawaii, just as he has, as a transplant from Pennsylvania who arrived on Hawaii Island in 1983 and went on to become a leader in the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. Monkeypod also fixes nitrogen in the soil so is good for the land and sustainability, and is versatile as a wood used prominently for craft. As an artisan in the kitchen, Merriman said he could identify with that as well.

The restaurant covers two stories at Ko Olina Station, 92-1046 Olani St., in Kapolei, and is a welcome addition to the resort community, where there are few stylish places to simply hang out. (Is this a no-brainer or what?) The Monkeypod Kitchen bar is huge, no doubt in anticipation of great happy hour business, when drink specials include $6 Ocean Vodka cocktails, $6 white and red wines by the glass and $4.75 drafts for beers originally $9 or less, and $7 for those more than $9, and food specials include 50 percent off most appetizers, and $9 pizzas (except the lobster-topped Bourgeois).

You can take a look at some of the dishes here, as presented at the opening:

Peter is blessed by kahu, with his business partner Bill Terry looking on after his blessing.

Wood-fired Hamakua wild mushroom pizza with white sauce, truffle oil, Parmesan and thyme. It's $17.95. Add chunks of Big Island lobster and it becomes the Bourgeois, at $24.95.

Garlic truffle oil fries with a quarter burger in the background.

Bulgogi pork tacos were really spicy, and not just because of the jalapeños, so you couldn't just pull them out and leave unscathed.

A different kind of saimin, with dashi soy broth, kalua pig, broccoli, green beans, bean srouts, red onion, cilantro, mint, peanuts and tofu over Iwamoto family noodles.

One of my favorite dishes of the evening: Pumpkin Patch Ravioli with kiawe-roasted squash, chevre, spinach and sage brown butter. Butter good!

Gnocchi with Swiss chard, sauteed mushrooms, tomato coulis and chevre.

The restaurant's ground floor, with large bar to the left. The decor is eco-industrial.

The upstairs dining room.

A server delivers the roasted butternut squash pizza, shown in detail below, with its pine nuts, caramelized onions and rosemary.

Poke tacos with avocado cream sauce.

The Pod Thai cocktail comprises Old Lahaina light rum, crème of coconut, lime, lemongrass-cardamom syrup and Thai basil, served up in a glass tiki mug.

While the adults sampled Monkeypod Kitchen's fare, the children danced to the live Hawaiian music.