Fueled by the success of Monkeypod Kitchen, Moku Kitchen is the second dining concept brought to life by Handcrafted Restaurants and chef Peter Merriman, this time focused on bringing “Upcountry Downtown. ”
As one of the originators of the local farm-to-table movement, Merriman continues to focus on regional, farm-fresh ingredients, but where his past efforts have been set in beachy, resort locations such as Wailea, Maui, and Ko Olina, an uncharacteristic move to the big city has inspired a casual urban menu filled with the stuff that fuels many a millennial group date night: pizzas, burgers, tacos, finger food and a full bar. Just add friends for an instant party.
The spacious 7,000-square-foot restaurant has an industrial vibe with a mix of downtown red brick, polished concrete floors, open ceiling and garage doors as walls, in keeping with its setting within SALT at Our Kakaako. The luxury of space gives diners room to spread out at tables indoor and out — there’s nothing worse than sitting close enough to others to eavesdrop on conversations. But one thing about catering to a younger audience: Music blares day and night, and the only escape is to sit outside.
The menu, with 90 percent of the items available day and night, is highly shareable. And, you know what’s important here when four pages of libations fill the front of the menu. Choose from 36 craft beers on tap, 12 biodynamic and sustainable wines on tap or a mix of classic ($8.50) and contemporary ($11.50) cocktails ranging from mint juleps and sazeracs to Moku’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, with Campo de Encanto Pisco Peruvian brandy, macadamia nut orgeat, Gifford Banane du Bresil liqueur and lemon. During happy hour from 3 to 5:30 p.m., those prices drop to $5.50 and $8.50, respectively.
Drawing from Hawaii’s culinary diversity, crowd-pleasing small plates include pork pot stickers ($10) with habanero and pineapple marmalade, and ahi poke tacos ($19) with avocado cream and cabbage. The chef’s sense of humor comes through with a hapa poke ($15) combo of light soy-sauced white ono and red ahi capped with thinly sliced jalapenos.
Roasted butternut squash ravioli ($12) is perfect for the season with an autumnal combination of walnuts and sage pesto. If you’ve eaten at Monkeypod Kitchen before, you’ll be familiar with this dish and a few others, as some of the greatest hits have carried over to this new establishment. One of my favorites also made the move, the wood-roasted, free-range chicken wings ($14) seasoned with garlic and rosemary. It’s been updated with tzatziki sauce served on the side. Nice but, for me, unnecessary. The wings stand on their own.
When it comes to dining out with a bunch of friends, there will always be diet killers such as house-cut fries ($6) or garlic truffle oil fries ($8), both accompanied here by whole-grain mustard aioli and Moku’s ketchup. For the sake of balance there are salads — organic kale ($11) with Maui onions, golden raisins and miso-sesame vinaigrette; Peter’s Caesar ($9) with Waipoli Farm baby romaine (no croutons, though); and Waipoli mixed greens ($11) finished with organic beets, bacon, goat cheese and orange-ginger vinaigrette.
What’s otherwise lost in the youth-driven, urban menu is the fresh story. It doesn’t matter if the starting point is the local farm when dishes are buried under enough salt and aggressive saucing to render freshness and provenance of ingredients moot.
A saving grace is that few Moku patrons seem to notice or care. Just as I was mentioning to a friend how unbearably salty the Szechuan stir-fry green beans ($9) are, with their strong blend of oyster sauce and chilies, someone else said how much he loved that sauce. It happened again a week later when I grumbled about a fried chicken sandwich ($14). Only a single basil leaf prevented it from tasting like a fast-factory product, but a couple of 20-somethings said they loved it. Easy parking and accessibility also work in the restaurant’s favor.
One category where add-ons do help are the burgers. Whether you pick a thick classic 7-ounce patty or thin roadside 5-ounce Smash Burgers, the Hawaii beef is rather bland and aided considerably by banh mi-style pickled vegetables ($14), blue cheese and apple wood-smoked bacon ($15), or garlicky mushrooms and provolone ($12). For the price, there are no extras. Fries are a la carte. Other side “stuffs” include roasted Brussels sprouts ($8), steamed broccoli ($8) and cornbread ($5).
Pizzas are among the safe bets here. My favorite is the Hamakua wild mushroom and truffle oil combo ($16) with garlic, Parmesan and fresh thyme. Meat eaters might want to try the kalua pork ($16) with roasted pineapple, mac nut pesto and jalapenos, or the more traditional Proletariat ($17) with pepperoni, sausage, olives and green peppers.
Dinner sees the addition of three more substantial entrees from the rotisserie. Prime rib ($28) with old-school jus and horseradish sauce is always enjoyable, and herb-marinated chicken ($27) is a country-style dream that includes a Greek-style salad, and once again, an overly salted vine-ripened tomato compote.
Save room for cream pies, at $8 per slice. Your first inclination might be to go with chocolate mac nut, but the strawberry feels as light as a cloud after a big meal.
At SALT at Our Kakaako, 660 Ala Moana Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Happy hour from 3 to 5:30 p.m.
Cost: About $40 for lunch for two; $60 to $85 for dinner for two, without drinks.
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.