After three years of vacancy, the prime space across the street from the Kapahulu Safeway complex has sprung to life again in an unexpected but welcome way.
Noting the absence of Spanish cuisine on Oahu, Japan-based Huge Corp. has opened its first Hawaii restaurant, Rigo, offering a hybrid menu of familiar Italian dishes and introducing a handful of Spanish dishes. The company offers several menu concepts throughout Tokyo under the Rigoletto banner. Here, the name has been shortened for ease of word-of-mouth sharing.
True to Mediterranean style, the menu highlights the beauty of simple presentations based on a handful of ingredients, though purists will have to realize this is Spanish and Italian as filtered through a Japanese sensibility. This far from Spain, authenticity may be too much to ask for, but there are reasons for that.
For one thing, at a traditional jamon, or ham, restaurant, menus get down to the specifics of cure style, aging duration, the region the pork is from, as well as whether the pig has been acorn-fed. Cured legs of the animals may hang in rows or a single leg might rest on a cart wheeled around for carving tableside. Here, that work is done behind the scenes — I think few Hawaii diners would want to see the hind quarters and hoof of the animal they’re eating.
The Spanish are also proponents of tapas dining, with a few small bites that may amount to no more than three perfect olives, marinated tomatoes or a single sardine.
In Hawaii, such a meal would leave many diners imagining they’re starving, even though those concentrated small bites are immensely satisfying.
Then there’s the whole wine/water reversal, where in Spain you will pay more for water than a glass of wine or sangria. That’s not gonna happen here.
All that said, Rigo offers a refreshing change of pace for a scene where same-old-same-old reigns.
THE FOCUS is on neighborhood and a format that’s comfortable and worth many revisits. Save for artwork of a bull’s head cloaked in red velvet cloth that looms over the dining room, the restaurant has the coziness of a mid-century modern living room, particularly in booths and a lounge toward the back of the rectangular space. It all suggests “make yourself at home,” and people do linger, especially when there’s affordable food that invites slow grazing, such as a jamon platter.
Opt for platters offering four or six set selections of meat for $15 or $20, or make one or two selections from a roster that includes prosciutto ($8/$12), jamon Iberico ($9/$13), chorizo ($7/$11), mortadella ($8/$11), pancetta ($8/$12), or salami ($7/$11).
Rigo’s owners seem to have picked the perfect time to open, when summer heat makes overeating unbearable and light bites are welcome.
On a hot day a tomato and Kahuku papaya gazpacho ($10) makes a light and refreshing starter. Shrimp ajillo ($9) is tempting but lacks the boldness of smoked paprika associated with Spain. Marinated salmon ($6/$9) is a better choice, served with a white onion ravigote sauce with the punch of Dijon mustard and micro chives.
I also enjoyed a pair of deep-fried potato and corned beef ($6) croquetas with a pinch of nutmeg and served with a simple egg yolk sauce.
From here, move onto pizzas and pastas, a handful entrees, or Spanish rice dishes, paellas or caldosos. Paella might be more familiar, made with firm-textured carnaroli rice, with an option of chicken and beans in chicken stock-flavored rice ($21) or mixed seafood of sweet Kauai shrimp, clams and octopus in seafood-stock rice ($23). I ordered the seafood paella and enjoyed the seafood much more than the flabby rice. The chicken version fared better because beans added texture. But both were preferred over the salty reduction of seafood stock in a clam caldoso ($23), or “brothy rice,” otherwise beautifully presented in a deep ceramic pot.
I was drawn to a dry spaghetti, cacio e pepe ($15), simply tossed with crushed walnuts, pecorino Romano, butter, garlic, olive oil and topped with a few pieces of prosciutto fritto, but there wasn’t enough of the cheese to lend a needed salt element to the dish.
So on a second outing I made sure to choose pasta with more saturated flavor, the pesto Genovese with Kauai shrimp and avocado ($16). Here, a Japan sensibility is also at work, with the pesto pureed into a fine sauce that eliminates the main reason diners who love pesto often avoid it. That is, those gnarly bits of basil that cling to teeth.
CENTRAL TO the kitchen is a wood-fire brick oven, key to turning out Napoli-style pizzas. This early, the pizzas are works in process, the crusts too flabby to do justice to the Napoli name. My funghi ($14) pizza combined eryngii, maitake and portobello mushrooms with a sprinkling of cottage cheese that imparted little flavor. A sharper cheese like fontina would have brought the pizza to life.
Heftier dishes are cooked in a Spanish charcoal oven, which grills meat while imparting the smokiness of kiawe, guava and cherry wood. Colorado lamb chops ($32) prepared this way amount to perfection. Other options are pork chops with Spanish tapenade ($28) and fresh catch with Hokkaido scallop ($30).
The restaurant is so new that chefs from highly rated Rigoletto restaurants across Tokyo are still adjusting to the local palate, but it’s a good sign that they’re starting with integrity and a commitment to quality ingredients. More importantly, they’re breaking ground. In a city in which most restaurateurs fear to launch new concepts, I hope a success story here might lead to more diversity in the dining scene.
885 Kapahulu Ave.
>> Call: 735-9760
>> Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily
>> Prices: Dinner for two about $50 to $90 without alcohol
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.