Tuesday, May 31, 2011

5 Places to Avoid the Honolulu Tourist Trap

The pristine white sand and languid waves of Waikiki are both a blessing and a curse to Hawaiian tourists. Abundant flights as well as new, and newly renovated, hotels guarantee the crowds will continue to flock to this capital of the Hawaiian Islands. TripAdvisor predicts Honolulu will be on the number #2 US travel destination according to its 2011 Readers Poll. But in a place better known for Cheeseburger in Paradise than Umami Burger, looking for dinner that does not come with a complimentary souvenir cup can be a vexing task for quality food loving travelers drawn to Hawaii’s cheap flights and near perfect year round temperatures. Here are five Honolulu restaurants to please the discerning eater.

Il Lupino, Ste 110, 2233 Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96815-2574: A sibling of upstairs steakhouse Wolfgang’s, Il Lupino, or the little wolf, couldn’t be more different in cuisine and sensibility. Silken pastas are made by hand and served in rich sauces of mushrooms and cream or long simmered tomato and basil among other traditional Italian specialties. Designed as a more casual wine bar off shoot to Wolfgang’s, the first of a proposed mini-national chain succeeds in the atmosphere with a large outdoor patio that beckons for lazy evenings of sampling the diverse and reasonably priced wine selection. Tommy Bahamas shirts and slippers are as welcome as dressier resort attire.

Side Street Inn, 1225 Hopaka Street Honolulu, HI 96814-4302: Tucked down a small alley way, Side Street Inn may be hard to find, but it is no secret to locals. Crowds flock to Side Street from early evening until the wee hours of the morning when it is not uncommon for native luminary chefs to drop by for after-work eats. Not known for holding back on portions, Side Street Inn is best enjoyed among friends. Monstrous plates of “tapas” style food come bounding from the unglamorous kitchen to be passed hand-to-hand. The famous pork chop, lightly breaded and fried, should not be missed. Kalbi short ribs with kimchi, fried rice, and crispy spring rolls are all worth the inevitable food coma. Just don’t plan on donning a bathing suit immediately after.

Tokkuri-Tei, 449 Kapahulu AveHonolulu, HI 96815: Is Tokkuri-Tei an izakaya with great sushi or a sushi restaurant with penchant for good Japanese bar food and a liquor habit? Either way, Tokkuri-Tei has developed enough of a following that they recently relocated a third time to accommodate even more patrons hungry for their large and tasty portions of Japanese specialties. Sashimi is some of the biggest and freshest in town. Sake pours generously overflow. And for those not inclined to raw fish, a large selection of small bites like yaki tori, tempura, and pork wrapped enoki will satisfy a range of food cravings.

Town, 435 Waialae Avenue, Honolulu, Hawaii: If the super sized portions around the city have left you with a food hangover, head to Town. A quaint neighborhood restaurant in the Kaimuki district of Honolulu, the farmhouse feel of the well-lit corner space is a world away from the chaos of Waikiki. Portions at Town are human-sized rather than super-sized. A meal of hand cut homemade pasta and a salad of local greens will leave you satisfied rather than stuffed, a rare and pleasant feeling in a chain restaurant town.

The Pineapple Room by Alan Wong, 1450 Ala Moana Boulevard, Honolulu, HI 96813: Should you find yourself in a tourist trap like the giant mall known as Ala Moana Center, find respite at Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room. Tucked behind the women’s clothing in Macy’s, The Pineapple Room puts out the fresh, seasonal, local Pan Asian food that Alan Wong helped pioneer as part of the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement but at prices far more affordable that his eponymous fine dining restaurant. On a recent visit a chilled local tomato soup with cucumber, avocado, and shrimp burst with ripe tomato flavor that one could only find in peak season on the mainland. Salt and pepper crusted fried calamari salad were crisp but not greasy, mixed with local Nalo greens and somen, it was a simple and delightful example of authentic modern Hawaiian cuisine in the midst of a building full of Hawaiian pretenders. A side of aloha is free of charge.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From Misty Moors to California Shores

If you happen to be heading North or South on the dreaded stretch of the 405 through Irvine cursing the California traffic and wondering why you are there instead of say, the English countryside, where the pace of life is slower and people are road rage-free, perhaps I can recommend a detour. Head west on MacArthur Blvd and the freeway gives way to a busy four-lane road. Continue on and the deep blue of the Pacific will soon emerge on the horizon. When the boulevard dead ends into Pacific Coast Highway take the left fork in the road. Not quite a mile later, as if from some dream of misty moors, an English Inn will appear- Five Crowns- and with it so evaporates the Southern California freeway angst.

You have a choice of doors when entering Five Crowns: the front or the side. If you can remember the days of the three-martini lunch, then you just might have been through these doors before at some point since the restaurant opened in 1965. If you were of legal drinking age in the sixties I would suggest the front door where a lovely hostess will escort you to a comfortable white table clothed dining room where many of those now retro original dishes- like the famous prime rib- are available along with a more modern and seasonal menu. But if you are too young to remember what you were doing in 1965 or simply young at heart, I would recommend the second choice, the side door.

A restaurant within a restaurant, Side Door, is a separate entity within the walls of Five Crowns. Picking up on the trends in England and at home, the owners got together and in January of 2010 launched an English style gastro pub within their fine dining historic inn. In the past few months Executive Chef Ryan O’Melveny Wilson, a fourth generation member of the original Five Crown family, has been perfecting the rotating offerings of charcuterie and cheese as well as seasonal small plates designed for sharing.

One recent evening the daily changing menu produced a lovely selection of cheeses from around the world including a limited edition Mimolette, the color of an egg yolk, shaved paper thin and served with sour-sweet pickled figs. Early season squash blossoms came lightly battered and fried, stuffed with sweet corn and molten cheese that erupted with each bite. Lamb sliders with harissa and curry seasoning were rich and succulent, a wrap of caul fat kept the tasty meat patties moist and tender.

Side Door would not be a proper English gastro pub if you couldn’t wash down all this excess with a good pint of beer. Like the food menu, the tap handles change often. Allagash White from Maine, Delirium Nocturnum from Belgium, and Lost Abbey Lost and Found from California all recently scored a spot on draught. Wine lovers are better off with the bottle selection as the Sonoma Cutrer and Rombauer Chardonnay by the glass are playing to the local Orange County scene more than the detouring driver. But a solid cocktail selection with classics and new creations gives more than enough options for all kinds of drinkers.

The successfully modern menu of Side Door is no mirage, even if it comes wrapped up in an out-of-place English building steeped in Southern California history. For those who find themselves on a freeway somewhere between LA an San Diego, Side Door is worth a side trip. Your road rage will thank you.

Side Door, 3801 East Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, California, 92625 (949) 717-4322

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Got Your Goat Town

How could I resist a restaurant with a name like Goat Town? I’ve been to Goat Hill Tavern, a dive bar in Costa Mesa, California and The Surly Goat, an excellent beer geek hangout in West Hollywood, California. If the goat moniker is an indication of a successful food and drink establishment, then based on my two previous goatish encounters I had a pretty good feeling about four month old Goat Town in the East Village of Manhattan.

A recent Sunday evening outing to Goat Town did not disappoint. The restaurant oozed charm, decorated in distressed wood and white tiled banquets it evoked the new American/French Bistro theme Goat Town appears to be going for. The waitress was as a delightful as the surroundings having no problem spacing our courses out to enjoy at the leisurely pace befitting a Sunday evening.

A first course of grilled country bread, peppered butter and salty prosciutto was a lovely first nibble especially when pair with a slightly effervescent Txakolina*- a welcome substitution for the out of stock pinot grigio by the glass listed on the menu. Then on to a special of fiddlehead ferns and whiting that were lightly battered and fried in a mixture of cornmeal and Pellegrino, a dish that seemed to cross the bridge of new American Farm to Classic French Table. Our group that evening decided to forgo the heavier lamb burger and roast chicken specials for lighter fare: a tile fish special with a near-perfect fish stock reduction and a mess of woody mushrooms along with a whole roasted brook trout served with sautéed celery and requisite lemon. And to drink, an unusually chilled Cabernet Franc, heavier than a typical rosé but light enough to compliment our fish entrees.

If Yelpers are to be believed, and they rarely should given the proliferation of fake reviews, this French-cum-New American bistro should have had only passable food and service becoming the surliest French waiters. A note to Yelpers: give a restaurant a few months to work out the kinks before passing judgment. It is doubtful that Goat Town will win any awards for food but I don’t think they are trying to be Per Se. The menu could have a few more options and I imagine on a busier Friday or Saturday the waitress would not be as eager to let us linger over a long dinner. But for a neighborhood restaurant trying to do honest food in a Frenchie-American way I say job well done. And to all those dissenting Yelpers I have one thing to say to you: Baaaa.

* Wondering what txacholina is? Check out this NY Times article for the full story on this delicious wine

Monday, May 23, 2011

And the Winner Is...

And the winner, for most innovative meal year-to-date, Forage Restaurant! In Salt Lake City. That’s right, Salt Lake City, Utah. Enough that it is in Utah, I know, but I’m not talking about Sundance and I’m not talking about Park City. While I’m at it, I’ve been in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Los Angeles, this year among other places, some of the most interesting food cities in the United States and I’m telling you with a straight face that this little itty bitty restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah, Forage, is doing some of the most creative, and delicious cooking in the country.

The menu at Forage is set, and there is no reason to be scared by that structure. If you have allergies or intolerances or religious guidelines, the staff wants to know, and they’ll change your dishes when appropriate. The five-course menu (more like 8 courses when you count the three substantial amuse bouche) is leisurely and you’ll like it that way, more time to take in the whimsy and mystery of the menu between courses.

My meal on a cool spring day started with the three amuses: roasted sweet corn croquette, soft scrambled egg in the shell, and red trout tare tar. The croquette was the first indication the mad science at work- a sweet corn soup somehow harnessed in a bread crumb casing so that it exploded in early summer harvest flavors when taken all in one bite. The soft scrambled egg was not for the texturally faint of heart- soft egg was layered back in its shell with maple syrup and sherry cream to be stirred and eaten in one strangely yummy yet texturally and visually unappetizing bite. The Utah red trout tare tar had that brassy mineral taste that comes with some fresh water fish, and it works. When bookended by two malt crackers and rolled in toasted buckwheat it was the first taste at Forage that I knew to be distinctly of the area.

Where Forage intrigues with the amuses it delivers on the mains. The parade of excellence began with a salad of wild herbs harvested from a nearby park, baby greens, and edible flowers, topped with garlic crisps and “curds and whey” delicately spooned over the salad tableside by the chef. The salad was as delicious as it was aesthetically beautiful, the sour-salty-milky curds and whey providing balance for the sharp, bitter, and floral notes of the foraged salad with just the right garlic bite from the crisps. Atlantic squid with potato confit, squid ink emulsion and sea vegetables were a revelation in which the sea somehow adapted the earthiness of the land. Tender squid married with its ink to produce an umami rich marriage perhaps more suited for a wild game tasting than a fish dish. Monkfish with Indian spices, spring vegetables, and buttermilk sounded more exotic than it delivered. The fish was tender, spicing subtle, and the final composition good if not quite on the level of what proceeded. But oh the aged Pleasant Creek skirt steak with potato “chips”, smoked milk, and wild watercress with a watercress broth. The skirt always has flavor but this beef pounced in my mouth. Combined with the smoked milk, herbal watercress and light crunch from the potato, this dish won for overall flavor and innovative combination of ingredients.

I could have just stopped there. My dessert of crushed rhubarb, toasted oats, Douglas fir ice cream, and wild berry blossoms was tart, palette cleansing and paled in comparison to the proceeding courses.

Did I mention you could eat this entire 5 (or 8 depending on how you count) meal for only $65? Forage might just be the best-kept fine dining secret in the country. Of course, with chefs Viet Pham and Bowman Brown recently winning Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chef award this little Salt Lake City gem will not be a secret for much longer.

If summer plans are not yet finalized, and hiking or biking in Utah might be on the radar, I’d make Forage a priority. Get there while it’s hot, the greens are freshly foraged, the chefs are still as exuberant as they were for me on a recent visit, and Forage might just make your “Best of” list for 2011 and beyond.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Taste of the Unfamiliar

The menu comes in two printed columns. Regular menu items in computer type such as the radicchio salad are supplemented with daily changing items like kumomoto and beau soleil oysters added on as if printed from an ancient typewriter. Certain lines, like the “bucatini alla amatriciana”, are familiar to anyone that has dined at an authentic Italian restaurant. Other lines, like “bigoli, tesa, nameko” seem another food language all together. This is both the challenge, and the seduction, of Tasting Kitchen.

Like a beautifully typed taunt, the menu at the Tasting Kitchen in Venice, California sometimes dares you to ask what exactly it is that you are eating. It is not often I am completely perplexed by a menu listing. Usually I recognize enough of the listed ingredients to decode the general idea of the dish, even if one or two elements are unclear. However, on more than one occasion Tasting Kitchen has tested me and I’ve relented, giving into the intrigue of a mystery food.

One such recipe, “bigoli, tesa, nameko”, I can fairly say I had no clue what this was outside of it being listed in the pasta category. Unlike some restaurants that pride themselves in obscurity, Tasting Kitchen’s servers aren’t on a mission to impress with their knowledge of esoteric ingredients. However, if asked, they are more than willing to explain that bigoli is a whole wheat pasta, tesa a type of pork, and nameko a small mushroom, all tossed together in a butter sauce, without so much as a sprinkling of condescension.

Chef Casey Lane seems to have brought down from Portland with him the Northwest fascination with unusual ingredients and dedication to authenticity. But if there ever was a bit of that Portland food scene pretension in him (and I somehow doubt there was), some time if the California sunshine must have melted it away. The menu might puzzle on occasion, but ultimately Tasting Kitchen succeeds because no matter how strange or familiar the ingredients, the food is what it should be: delicious.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Foodie's Survival Guide for All-Inclusives

The idea of staying at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico sounded about as fun to me as being strapped to a chair for a four day Real Housewives of Orange County marathon while being force-fed an endless supply of Taco Bell gorditas. Fun for some, perhaps, but not for me.

But true friendship means sometimes doing things you’d never normally do, like spending five days at the all-inclusive resort Le Blanc, in Cancun, Mexico to witness the nuptials of two dear friends. It turns out I not only survived but also thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Le Blanc was beautifully appointed, well staffed with some of the best service I’ve ever received, and the food was edible at worst and good, if never quite great, at best.

There may be a time and place when even the most hardened food snob will find herself in such an all-inclusive food situation. Based on my first truly positive all-inclusive resort experience I’ve compiled a few tips for future foodie travelers.

1. The Resort Matters

Le Blanc, part of Palace Resorts, is a AAA Five Diamond award winner and it shows. The service is beyond gracious with no hidden motives as gratuity is also included in the price. Servers stealthily appeared to carry full plates from the breakfast buffet back to my table, to refill my iced tea while I did work in the lounge, hunt down a better Sauvignon Blanc than the one stocked in the bar, or set up an ice bucket with bottled water by my pool chair. Service with a smile and the near ubiquitous “my pleasure” will always make the food taste better.

2. Order the Entire Menu

More than one morning I awoke to find four plates of half-eaten food slowly congealing in the morning light, clearly ordered from room service in the middle of the night. Even at 2 am after a few margaritas my roommates and I knew, why order one dish when you could order four? There is a good chance you won’t like at least half of what you ordered so better to hedge the bets and order the whole menu, it doesn’t cost you anything more than you’ve already paid.

3. Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day

Even if tequila was part of the agenda the night before, resist the urge to sleep through breakfast as this will probably be the best meal of your day. It is hard to screw up eggs, hash browns, waffles and bacon. Add a selection of tropical fruits, fresh baked breads, and a short order cook whipping up omelets to order and eggs over easy one might even leave full enough to avoid ordering food again until dinner.

4. If you find something you like, order double.

This is similar to number two in that finding food you like might be a challenge and there is at best a 50/50 chance you won’t like what you order. So if you find something you like, such as the nachos covered in fake cheese that where oh-so-good for my hangover the day after the wedding, go ahead and order double. Or quadruple in my case as fellow recoveries picked up on the deliciousness of neon yellow cheese sauce and pico de gallo on tortilla chips, the salt and fat slowly melting away our tequila-induced headaches.

5. When All Else Fails, Drink

All-inclusive means all is included. A few top shelf cocktails and you’ll be sure to get your money’s worth. Plus a liquid diet never hurt anyone on vacation.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Rye Take on Negroni

Campari, sweet vermouth, liquor. Sounds like a Negroni, one of my all-time favorite gin cocktails but what is rye doing in there? I’m at High West Distillery in Park City, Utah where the specialty booze is brown and aged. High West also makes a silver whiskey from oats and the world’s only oat based vodka. But if you come to this drinking establishment, it would be damn shame to leave without sampling some of what they are best known for: rye whiskey.

When the bar manager, Christian, set out to invent some new cocktails for the bar menu he thought the combination of some of the sweet, caramel notes of High West’s aged whiskies would blend nicely with the bitterness of Campari. Come to find out, there is a classical cocktail, Boulevardier, which does exactly that. Just like a Negroni but with whiskey, the Boulevardier at High West combines their Double Rye!, Campari, and Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth.

A perfect Boulevardier is 1:1:1 ratio for the three main ingredients. In Utah the state liquor laws require no cocktail be more than 2.5 ounces. To comply but not lose the key flavors of bitter orange and whiskey, Christian cuts back on the sweet vermouth by half an ounce. The result is that same mouth puckering bitter orange of Campari in a Negroni, but in lieu of the herbaceous gin, the sweet caramel notes of the Double Rye! add balance without cloying. I might not be ready to give up on gin yet but whiskey just found another excellent place in my cocktail repertoire.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Great Lake of Phó

While Utah is still predominantly white, Salt Lake City is home to a thriving Vietnamese population. Lucky for me, this means a steaming, restorative bowl of phó is no more than a ten minute drive away once my car leaves the Salt Lake City airport.

La-Cai Noodle House is a favorite among locals attracting an eclectic mix of salesmen from the adjacent Audi dealership, multi-generational Vietnamese families, and the occasional table of ladies lunching. The all-English menu is definitely fit for the non-savvy guest. But phó is phó and that bowl of rich beef broth seasoned with anise and filled with cuts of beef and rice noodles is comfort food no matter what city it hails from.

La-Cai’s phó has a distinct black pepper taste more pronounced than I’m used to. The brisket is rich and tender, the beef balls light and spongy but meaty, and the rare sirloin is sliced a tender paper-thin.

The menu features other Vietnamese staples like bun vermicelli noodles and spring rolls along with some random American-Chinese specialties like Beef with Broccoli. But I don’t let these other items distract me, some spring rolls and a few slurps of delicious noodle soup are all I need to shake off airplane fatigue and get on with my trip.

La-Cai Noodle House, 961 S. State St. Salt Lake City, UT 84111 801.322.3590