PREMIUM PICK: BASALT
Hyatt Centric Waikiki Beach, 2255 Kuhio Ave.; 923-5689. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, happy hour. $$-$$$
My appreciation for Basalt is rooted in dichotomy and audacity.
Here is a restaurant owned by ABC Stores, those ubiquitous convenience shops for tourists. It’s located inside an ABC market (albeit a grander-than-usual market) and steps away from the ticky-tacky souvenir stalls that crowd Dukes Lane in Waikiki. Basalt is not a fancy dining spot, and yet eating here is a premium experience, given the elevated character of the menu. So that’s the dichotomy.
As for the audacity: They named the place after a rock. OK, it’s the volcanic rock Hawaii is built upon, but still, as a restaurant concept it took some guts.
And Basalt plays up the connection, using basalt black as its signature color, not just in decor and dishware, but also in the food. Dinner rolls, bao buns and a dramatic stack of pancakes are all baked with charcoal powder that turns them coal black. The charcoal is used not for taste, but for color and the supposed health properties. So maybe it’s a little gimmicky, but who cares when chef Keith Kong’s menu stands tall in skillful preparation and depth of flavor.
Start with a kampachi poke lightly spiced with sambal and served with rice crackers for a light and happy crunch. Move on to entrees that hit all the meatlover notes — New York steak, prime rib, braised pork shoulder, grilled lamb chops … but my top picks would be Kong’s seafood preparations.
That charcoal is used to make a midnight-toned linguine in a dish of Kauai prawns, vegetables and a lemon-chili cream sauce that tastes as brilliant as it looks. A seafood grill with lobster, catch of the day, scallops and prawns is another meticulously prepared highlight, served over golden turmeric rice. But black comes back in the form of a lacy nori tuile that hovers on the plate like a sheet of black coral. Kudos.
1111 Bishop St.; 585-8558. Lunch. $$
When I hear of a great lunch spot in the heart of downtown, my usual response is, “How nice for you,” with “you” being those who live/work in high-rise land.
The traffic and parking hassles of a daytime trek downtown never seemed worth it for a quick bite. Until I met Gochi Grill. For John Iha’s meatloaf I will park two blocks away and put eight quarters in a parking meter.
Iha has solid fine-dining cred, but took a casual approach when it came time to strike out on his own. So plate lunches it is, but he delivers them with a premium-level attention to quality.
Each item is labor-intensive — “arduous,” is how Iha describes his process. He’s at work at 3 or 4 a.m., putting in hours of prep before opening at 11 a.m.
The menu at the small Bishop Street location suits the Gochi temperament. It’s just a half-dozen items, a Monday- only bento and occasional specials. “I wanted to create a super compact menu that I’m proud of,” Iha says.
The meatloaf is something to write home about, as in, “Hey, Mom, how come yours doesn’t taste like this?”
Well, Mom doesn’t cook her meatloaf for six hours in a low oven, then coat it in a mushroom-truffle gravy. It’s a top seller, along with chicken katsu and seared salmon, both sublime.
Be on the lookout for Iha’s quarterly cooking classes that bring up to 10 people into the kitchen for hands-on lessons on a cooking technique, followed by dinner. Follow #gochigrill on Instagram for information, and to keep up with each day’s specials.
Keauhou Lane, 506 Keawe St.; 200-2739. Dinner, happy hour; lunch and late nights Fridays and Saturdays. $$
My problem with the original incarnation of Real was that it was called Real A Gastropub. I considered the A to be for “affectation.” But this year Real reopened in a new spot, without the unnecessary article, and I have nothing left to complain about. In fact, mostly I celebrate.
The main draw is a fulsome list of draft craft beers, an international selection that goes on for pages. In fact, I’m learning to better appreciate beer, to make the most of dining here. Even if hops are not your thing, though, you can find happiness in Real’s well-considered menu of tasty bites.
The space is comfortable and fun, the service congenial. Chef-owner Troy Terorotua likes to play with bold, vibrant flavors, but employs a sophisticated touch that makes for nummy noshing.
Choose from a number of small bites — the maple-chipotle bacon, truffled deviled eggs and chicken kelaguen (a Guamanian dish with coconut, lemon juice and chilies) are highlights. Sandwiches and a few entree plates carry the day for bigger appetites. The PLT is a prime example — pork belly confit, candied bacon, tomato and greens, a hearty combo on perfectly toasted bread. Sliders and burgers fill out the beer-friendly menu.
My favorite item breaks this mold, though. It’s a fresh and refined somen salad that carries the umami of mushrooms marinated in mirin and soy sauce, a soft-boiled egg and a sprightly yuzu-ginger dressing over it all. It’s a delight that would match well with — yes, indeed — wine.
Betty Shimabukuro is the editor of Crave, the Star-Advertiser’s weekly food section. Her column, “By Request,” appears every Wednesday.