POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 13, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 4:18 a.m. HST, Apr 13, 2011
It’s not every day a chef manages to make people happy by raising prices, but that is Nick Yamada’s fait accompli at Uahi Island Grill in Kailua.
Don’t worry. Lunch prices at the restaurant — which moved to the bigger space on Hekili Street vacated by Boots & Kimo’s move last year — remain the same, but upgraded, though still casual, dinner service reflects customer demand.
The restaurant started like its predecessor, Good to Go, on Uluniu Street, serving gourmet plate lunches with a dash of health-mindedness. It was perfect as is for the town’s beachy, relaxed lifestyle and was always popular for lunch. But patronage dropped off in the evenings, even though customers frequently told Yamada that his plate-lunch entrees are so good that if he just replated them on china he could serve those same $7 entrees for $20. Nice praise, though those on a budget probably wish those admirers had kept those thoughts to themselves.
Apparently, diners didn’t feel compelled to leave their houses at night for something as pedestrian as a plate lunch, no matter how good. They wanted a place worthy of taking a date, entertaining guests, and one that encouraged the idea of cleaning up a bit, like swapping their daytime T-shirts and for an aloha shirt or pretty sundress. So now there’s one more evening option, which is important in a place where few are eager to make the trek across the Pali evenings and weekends.
With the “I Love Kailua” town party and “Taste of Kailua” food festival coming up 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday (details on D5), attention will be focused on the area, so I thought I’d drop in for some reconnaissance.
Yamada, a Kapiolani Community College graduate, who opened Uahi Island Grill with partner Nani Nikcevich, never intended for his eatery to be known as a health-food spot, but I always appreciated the unexpected vegetable flourishes and brown rice options that bring balance to a plate, reminding diners to be more mindful of their choices. For instance, would I seek out watercress on my own? No. I pretty much hate watercress, but he’ll stir it into a side Korean slaw with bean sprouts that I’ll eat because it’s there and I know it’s good for me. If the slaw is not your thing, you can still opt for a tossed green or macaroni salad.
For lunch, available through 5 p.m., you can get savory, smoky kalua pork ($8.25), tossed with a little bit of chopped kale. Chances are, you won’t even taste the kale but if you don’t usually eat vegetables, any baby step is beneficial.
Red curry fish (market price) is served with rice in a medium-hot Thai red curry sauce that automatically comes with green papaya salad. When I visited, the fish was marlin, which, though somewhat dry, holds up well to the heavy coconut sauce.
Some of the most popular dishes, such as garlic chicken and Irie chicken, are available in salad, sandwich or plate options, at $6.75 to $7.50 for a sandwich, to $8 to $9.75 for a salad or plate. Salads comprise a bountiful array of North Shore greens, grape tomatoes, onions, sprouts, sliced cucumbers, bell peppers and grated carrots, with a sprinkling of edamame and mini arare for crunch. Topped with various meat selections, reasonably portioned at about 4 ounces, they make a satisfying meal. I loved the Korean steak salad ($9.25) with its kim chee vinaigrette on the side. Usually, dressings are so poor or treacly, I might use only a fourth of what is available, but here, it was gone before I ate all the greens. It was the same with the salty, peppery jerk vinaigrette that accompanied the Irie chicken. I had the feeling it was very bad for me, but the incense-like blend of spices such as nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon was so addictive, it was hard to stop eating.
By day, you’ll order at the counter and dishes are brought to your table. In the evening, you can just sit back and enjoy table service, starting with appetizers of crisp garlic chicken ($7), kalua pork gau gee with tamarind sauce ($6), or a large heap of mushrooms ($7) sauteed in garlic butter and sprinkled with bits of crumbled bacon and Parmesan. Another option is a quartet of heads-on fried shrimp ($10) tossed in sticky-sweet taegu sauce and sprinkled with kuro-goma, or black sesame seeds.
Red curry fish returns in the evening, for $16.50, but diners also have the option of having the pan-fried fish topped with a cilantro-ginger pesto.
For steak lovers, Maui grass-fed sirloin Pa‘akai ($18.50) is grilled and given local treatment with a dash of Hawaiian sea salt and accompanied by Maui onions and Waialua asparagus.
I was tempted by lemongrass lamb ($16.95), but opted for harder-to-find Mandarin duck confit ($16.50) with a light anise-orange glaze.
One dish that could have used more work was a pork chop “Guisante” ($14.50) in which the pimento pea sauce seemed to have just been ladled over the dry fried chop, rather than slow-cooked, which would have allowed the flavors to merge. It had the vibe of fast versus slow food.
I enjoyed the tempeh kare ($14) much more than the pork. The crunchy cubes of soybean cake were tossed with diced kabocha and eggplant in a yellow curry sauce and sprinkled with crispy onions.
Of course the Uahi experience would not be complete without desserts made on the premises, including brownies, strawberry jam bars, lilikoi and guava cheesecake, and banana bread bathed in chocolate. That’s just in the take-away dessert case. The menu offers more frilly, ephemeral selections such as a malasada sundae ($6) drizzled with ohia lehua honey and accompanied by Waialua Estate dark chocolate-dipped bacon, a chocolate peanut butter cake ($5.75), and burnt caramel tart also coated with Waialua Estate dark chocolate and macadamia nuts ($6). Affogato ($5) is espresso with a small scoop of Uahi’s homemade vanilla ice cream set afloat in the cup.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.