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THE WEEKLY EATER


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Downtown cafés offer tasty treats

By Nadine Kam

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 03:38 a.m. HST, Mar 23, 2011


I was sad to see Satura Cake close. It was a favorite place to meet with my fashion story sources, because, 1) it was easy to direct those coming in from New York and L.A., and 2) it was the perfect place for people who don't eat, and their friends who do. The non-eaters could be social over coffee or tea, and I could eat while still managing to masquerade as a delicate flower over a light croissant sandwich or dessert.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe Satura was simply a magnet for those who don't eat. Whenever I was at the Ward branch of Satura, it was hard to wrest a table from people sitting at their computers, making a cup of coffee or iced tea last all afternoon.

It's hard to make a living off people who don't eat. If I wanted that mix of light fare with a real meal option, I'd head somewhere else like Panya, with similar dainty attractions, but more substantial appetizers, soups and entrées, as well.

Building on Satura's experience, Umami Café has opened in the former café's Harbor Court location with croissants, croissant sandwiches and near weightless Japanese cakes, plus cookies, brownies and other pastries, and a whole lot of bentos to suit normal appetites.

The café intends to celebrate the fifth flavor sensation, umami, which in addition to sweet, sour, bitter and salty brings an extra savory quality to food. Scientists attribute the umami quality to glutamates in fermented and aged foods, tomatoes, shiitake, cured meats, fish and shellfish. It's experienced as a long-lasting, coating sensation over the tongue.

Umami is most evident here in seaweed-and-fish bentos, including one of the most popular dishes of miso butterfish ($8.99). Show up early if you want this bento. The bulk of the day's bentos start appearing between 11 and 11:30 a.m., and the favorites are snatched up before the noon lunch crowd even sets foot out of their offices. The bento also comes with breaded, deep-fried hoki (white fish) and side dishes such as spicy cuttlefish and a non-salted succotash of baby corn, red bell pepper and soy beans.

For Downtowners on the clock, it's quick and easy. The hot bentos are all laid out on a table to grab and go; chirashi bowls and sandwiches are under the counter. Just point out the one you want to the person behind the counter and ye shall receive.

If you have some time, it can pay to wait for hot arrivals to come out of the kitchen, especially when it comes to broiled or grilled fish items, or entrées that need to be crisp, like the deep-fried garlic chicken or Korean chicken bento boxes ($4.99 each). Faced with the two selections, the saucy Korean version looks a lot more palatable than the dry-looking garlic version, but the garlic is the better of the pair, unless one believes any food tastes better when bathed in ultra salty, sweet, spicy sauce.

Regulars likely have their favorite days of the week due to various daily specials. On Mondays, they can look forward to tripe stew, pork tofu and shoyu chicken. Tuesday's specials are oxtail soup, pork adobo and ahi belly nitsuke. You can find the lineup on the café's website at www. umamicafehawaii.com.

After a couple of botched food expeditions — one when the restaurant was closed because of the tsunami warning and one when it was closed the day before St. Patrick's Day — I ended up here two Thursdays in a row. Luckily, I love that day's specials of chicken katsu curry and chicken long rice. The former was coated with a light yellow curry sauce; the latter was a comfortingly homey dish full of chicken that would be a soothing treat for anyone feeling under the weather.

For those who like variety, there are large bento boxes ranging from a vegetarian selection ($7.99) of sweet potato, tofu poke, nishime, hijiki (seaweed), crudités and mac salad; and the Kamikaze ($7.99) featuring two slices of hot dogs, two chicken wings, sliced teriyaki beef, two mandoo, and two croquette-size helpings of deep-fried hoki. Within the Kamikaze, nothing is particularly memorable. Like 80 percent of the menu, the beauty of this place is more in speed and choice, rather than the experience of umami that drives cravings and brings people back for more.

The Gaijin ($5.99) is a sandwich sampler featuring a quarter each of tuna, ham, pastrami, club, egg and turkey sandwiches, with mac salad, orange slices and crudités. Beyond those basic sandwiches, there is a smoked salmon BLT ($4.99) and a delectable turkey-cranberry croissant sandwich ($3.99). I'd stay away from the lobster sandwich ($4.99). I didn't like the creamy lobster substance on their mini chirashi bowl or in one of a dozen 99-cent sushi handrolls also available on a table closest to the door. That stuff is chewy and bears no resemblance to real lobster in taste or texture.

Any bad memories are eased with desserts of light strawberry shortcake ($4.25), red velvet cake ($4.25) or chocolate and almond croissants ($2.65) each, and green tea financiers that deliver on the umami promise.

NOT JUST DESSERTS

Just down the block from Harbor Court, the makeshift cafe Not Just Desserts sprung up a few months ago at 110 Marin Lane.

True to its name, it offers the most delectable desserts. But understanding that man cannot live on pastry alone, more substantive dishes such as BBQ pork ribs ($9), pesto pasta ($7), stuffed baked potato ($7), beef and sausage lasagna ($8) are also on the ever-changing menu.

It's the work of Kate Wagner, who gave restaurateuring a try about six years ago at the very short-lived Starpoint Cafe at Pauahi Street and Nuuanu Avenue. She had good intentions, but smaller is better for her non-conformist style.

Desserts of chocolate truffle brownies (one piece for $3; two for $5), and haupia or blueberry bread pudding (one piece for $4; two for $7) are her strong suit. Pasta with spinach and artichoke for instance, is all pasta tossed with a scant portion of puréed spinach and artichoke, a dish more white than green. The lasagna is merely pleasant, with ricotta registering as a stronger presence than the meat. Can't complain about the entrée prices, though.

Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Call 489-3749.

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






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