Through various platforms, professional and social, foodies have directed the conversation about what we eat.
Yet foodies are in the minority, and some restaurateurs may now be feeling the public pushing back against the progressive, cooler-than-thou haunts that have proliferated with the foodie movement of the past 30 years.
For every person who takes pleasure in microgreens, airy foam essences and artisanal anything, there’s another who craves nothing more than hamburger steak covered with brown gravy.
I’m not saying that the two types of dining are mutually exclusive. Foodies appreciate comfort food as much as anyone else, but after the hamburger steak is imprinted on their palates, they’re ready to explore new horizons, while others are fine returning to a proven source of pleasure.
Last week, I talked about Bethel Union embracing the simplicity of Italian-American cuisine. This week, two more eateries that approach straightforward cuisine in their own styles.
PA‘IA FISH MARKET
Pa‘ia Fish Market opened humbly in Paia, Maui, in 1989 as a place where fishermen, surfers and resident hippies could count on a satisfying, inexpensive fish-centric meal.
Its success has led to additional locations in Lahaina, Kihei and now, Waikiki. They have kept the same self-service format that works on Maui, but without that island’s laid-back rustic charm, a little bit has been lost in translation in the big city. I, for one, don’t want to stand in line for — at the high end — a $60 meal for two. At $21.95 to $26.95 for a fish fillet plate, I expect service to be built into the cost.
To be fair, on the low end, you could also be waiting in line to spend $25 for two, and a lot of people are doing just that. In the evening, lines are long for the likes of fish and chips ($13.95 lunch/$15.95 dinner), fish soft tacos ($9.95 one lunch taco, $12.95 two dinner tacos) or a fish burger ($11 to $12).
Naturally, fresh-catch plates are the stars of the menu. To venture beyond fish is a risk. Chicken pasta ($19.95) was forgettable, with flabby linguine that did not hold onto the garlic-white wine cream sauce.
Of the fish, moist mahi ($21.95), opah and salmon ($26.95 each) are best bets, least likely to dry out in the cooking process. You can get the fish prepared one of four ways: grilled; sauteed with butter, garlic, wine and lemon; charbroiled in Cajun spices; or blackened in an iron skillet with Cajun spices. My favorite is the blackened Cajun style, with housemade spice that is so popular they now bottle and sell it.
The size of the fillet is impressive for those who measure value in portion size. I was told portions are 8 ounces, but the fillet (or two) actually looks nearly double that size. Plates also come with a choice of skillet home fries, French fries or Cajun rice, plus a cabbage slaw infused with dill and pickle relish.
For those who can’t splurge on plates, the fish burgers are just as satisfying, with the slab of fish (ono or mahi $11, other fish $12) served over the same slaw. Fries are extra at $2.
If you can’t make up your mind which fish burger to get, you might request the secret, off-menu Obama burger created by co-owner Moonstar Greene in the days when she was stumping for our former president’s election. He hasn’t tried it yet, but she’s hoping he’ll show up one day for the burger that comprises a Cajun-spiced ono fillet topped with wasabi butter, a fusion that works.
When Praseuth “JJ” Luangkhot closed the doors of JJ Bistro & French Pastry in Kaimuki, many feared it would be the last we would see of the chocolate mousse cake pyramids that were his original claim to fame.
The pyramids are back, this time in Iwilei, where a second-generation takeover has led to the former bistro’s reinvention as Tiny Pyramid, and a 16-foot-long dessert case serves as the physical embodiment of its identity as a place “where dessert comes first.”
The menu seems tailored to those who take that mantra seriously. On first read, it looked like heavy fare, full of potpies, pastas, seafood and sandwiches. I braced myself for a heavy feast that didn’t happen. The food is extremely light and manageable, and portion sizes small, which explained why, at midday, the cafe was full of women and seniors most likely to appreciate its dainty approach to cuisine.
It makes sense for diners focused on dessert who don’t want to feel weighed down before they get there. Or if dessert is the starting point, there isn’t much room left in the opu for larger dishes.
Where Hawaii cuisine evolved to favor boldness, Tiny Pyramid takes the opposite approach, tamping down the salt, herbs and spices to the point that dishes seem bland, especially seafood dishes. Three small pieces of baked lobster and avocado on baguette ($12), soft-shell crab BLT ($15) and fisherman’s potpie ($16), a medley of salmon, scallop, shrimp, Thai green curry sauce and vegetables capped with puff pastry, are all inexplicably flavorless.
A dish of red curry ($12 to $15 depending on protein choice) accompanied by a tiny rice pyramid fared better, but those who think they can share such dishes as at a Thai or Lao restaurant need to be aware dishes are portioned for one.
Knowing this, I changed my ordering style on a second visit, opting for dishes most likely to have strong flavors, and this time was not disappointed by a garlic shrimp pizza ($12) and tomato cream linguine ($14 to $16 depending on protein choice).
The dinner menu is the same as lunch but adds two prix fixe four-course options at $32 or $36, and a main draw is BYOB.
Desserts for one continue to be a high point. I’m especially fond of those pyramids, a mango tart ($5.95) and tart of poached pear in red wine and marzipan.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.