POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 27, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 1:54 a.m. HST, Apr 27, 2011
When a good restaurant opens and a positive review is inevitable, friends will often request that I hold off writing about it for a couple of weeks to allow them to squeeze in just one more dinner. I've felt that way myself, but generally, no can do. Deadlines are deadlines.
In the case of Bernini, one friend was particularly emphatic, repeating, "It's so good, it's so good …"
Of course, we all know "good" is relative. One person's "good" can be another one's "meh." In this case, she mimed picking up an imaginary plate, licking at it like a kitten at a bowl of milk.
"It's so good I wanted to lick the whole plate," she said.
The irony is, with a statement like that, I was in a bigger rush to get there and get it in print!
Bernini is the latest in Japanese-owned restaurants whose chef, in this case Kengo Matsumoto, received his training in Italy before returning home to become a restaurateur. With Bernini Honolulu, he's taken his concept international.
I recently talked to a finicky Italian foodie, who said some of the best Italian fare in the islands is made by chefs from Japan. "Only the soul is missing," he said.
I, too, miss a certain sense of lineage and storytelling, but, how many people expect poetry on their plates? For many, feeding the body is enough, and Bernini does a good job of it.
The restaurant is on the site of the former Sweet Nothings diabetic bakeshop. Parking is limited on the small site, so you might want to look for a metered site on Waimanu en route to the restaurant.
They've made the most of the small space, with wine shelves performing double duty as room dividers. On your way in you'll pass a refrigerated case with desserts on display, perhaps as a reminder to save room for dessert.
Matsumoto approaches his menu with the winning combination of fine ingredients and a light touch, allowing each element to speak clearly for itself. So antipasti of Venetian-style marinated octopus and potato ($12) in olive oil with sliced tomatoes and green olives was flavored with parsley and anchovy.
I didn't try the tuna carpaccio with Sicilian lemon sauce ($19) because everyone has their version of the carpaccio, but I've heard wonderful things about it, and probably would have preferred it to the single-note porchetta, thin slices of slow-cooked ham ($9). I was waiting for something worthy of licking the plate, remember?
You'll also find antipasti of Nalo Farms arugula layered with prosciutto ($14), and crudo served with bagna cauda, the rich, creamy garlic-anchovy sauce so pervasive on menus that cater to visitors from Japan.
A salad of roasted button, shimeji and oyster mushrooms topped with Parmesan ($12) was transportive, alive with the flavor of a fall forest.
Pastas range from linguine Genovese, with Nalo Farms basil ($18), to spaghetti with sea urchin ($26) or with a creamy and spicy chicken carbonara ($18). I opted for the linguine with red sauce, king crab and broccoli ($24). The tomato cream sauce had a light seafood flavor that suited the crab, a quartet of pieces still in the shell, which had been cut open for easier meat removal, which is never that easy. I wished they had done the work in the kitchen and just layered it on top of the pasta.
Beef Ragu ($19) was much easier to deal with, linguine topped with a rustic meat sauce dotted with stewed Angus cubes. Pastas are accompanied by a side of flavor-enhancing house-made hot sauce. At certain points you might taste fennel, cayenne, oregano or black pepper. It was so good, I asked to take some home with my leftover pasta.
By that point I had been working so hard to find that lick-worthy moment and was getting discouraged. Of course, the saying goes that you find love when you're not looking for it, and I found it here in the humblest offerings.
One was the white Norcia pizza ($21). Three quick bites elicited three "wows" in a matter of seconds. It was a no-brainer that I would like this pizza, with its splash of truffle oil, but the combination of mozzarella, sausage, button mushrooms and walnut was also incredible. The crunch of walnuts was a pleasant surprise, adding to the crisper crunch of the brittle, cracker-style crust. The downside of a crust like this is that it doesn't support the pizza center, turning floppy when you try to pick it up. A fork will save the day.
Then there was the roast chicken ($19). I rarely order chicken because I feel it's usually a throwaway item, dry and boring, that chefs add to the menu just to offer one inexpensive and/or bland entree for nonadventurous diners. But Bernini's is a crispy-skinned half chicken, its skin bathed in herbs and spices, fabulous inside and out. I didn't exactly lick the plate, but alone at home with my leftover pasta the next day, I made sure to scrape up every last bit of hot sauce in the bowl.
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.