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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 20, 2004

Retooled menu at OnJin's Cafe hits high note

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Tess Nakamura serves customers, including Sharon Faris of Waikiki, left, at stylish-yet-affordable OnJin's Cafe.

Photos by Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Restaurant owner OnJin Kim, who has been associated with Bagwells and Hanatei Bistro, also is a classically trained musician.

OnJin's Cafe

401 Kamake'e St.


11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Very good

OnJin Kim is one of my favorite restaurant people. A newlywed (married in October 2003), talented singer and musician, Kim earned a master's degree from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Her culinary education is impressive too. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (arguably the finest cooking school in the world) and stateside at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City.

Kim has been around the Honolulu dining scene for quite some time. She was the executive chef at Bagwells, which has since become Ciao Mein. She then moved into her own place, Hanatei Bistro in Hawai'i Kai, displaying her gourmet chops and classically trained pipes. She was known to occasionally leave the kitchen and delight diners by singing brief sets of operatic arias. Fine food and wine with beautiful music ... does it get any better?

Back in 1999 OnJin's Cafe opened, serving what I'd call gourmet-style plate lunches and upscale evening fare. The cafe is on Kamake'e street, a north-south side street that connects Kapi'olani Boulevard to the Ward Entertainment Complex. Pay close attention, because if you blink you may miss OnJin's, tucked into a smallish and stylish space.

It took one year, but recently Kim made a decision to change her menu and approach. In this day and age of tough competition in the restaurant industry, she felt it necessary to make changes that would include a simpler menu, lower prices and straight-through hours from opening to closing — sweeping changes meant to attract new faces.

For starters, you should try the Korean-style shrimp and sweet-potato pancake ($7.50), a cross between a crepe and its more substantial pancake cousin — hot, soft, moist and chewy, with a dosed-up kick of sweet chili sauce.

'Ahi karaage ($7.50) keeps the sweet and sour chili sauce flavoring, but this time it accompanies lightly fried 'ahi that has been marinated beforehand. Yum-yum. French onion soup ($4.50) is made with lots of sweet and savory onions, simmered in homemade beef broth and topped with aged Swiss cheese.

Light eaters may enjoy the curried chicken salad ($6.75), mildly spiced with bits of crunchy apple and sweet chewy raisins, or the shrimp and couscous salad ($7.95), fluffy and herb-inspired in its flavoring.

A number of sandwiches are on the menu. The open-face crab and cheese melt ($7.50) is constructed on an onion bun, tasting rich and decadent; the grilled chicken breast ($6.50) is flavored with mayo and mustard; the grilled vegetable sandwich ($6.75) combines portobello mushrooms, zucchini and eggplant; and the boolgogi and kimchi sandwich ($6.25) piles grilled Korean style barbecued beef with zingy kimchi on a bun.

The crispy snapper ($6.95) is drizzled with a lemon caper beurre blanc, a sauce you may want to sop up with a slice of bread or any other anti-Atkins starch in the house. Fresh salmon steak is prepared misoyaki style ($7.75).

If you're in the mood for something meaty, try the baby back ribs ($9.50 for four pieces, $18 for seven pieces) or the grilled New York steak ($9.50 for six-ounce, $16 for 10-ounce), grilled to order and served with garlic mashers.

Beef bourguinonne ($8.25) is the classic French dish, rich morsels of beef braised in burgundy until they're tender and delicious. You don't often see roast leg of lamb ($8.25) on restaurant menus; here it is accented with garlic and herbs.

A couple pasta dishes include chicken linguine Mediterranean ($8.50), grilled chicken with artichokes, olives and mushrooms; and the shrimp arabiata ($8.50) in a spicy tomato sauce over pasta.

In addition to the regular menu, three special OnJin favorites are available for dinner. Escargot en croute ($6.75) offers a golden brown, buttery and flaky puff-pastry top, giving way to a lot of snails and shiitake mushroom pieces. The bouillabaisse de chef OnJin ($19.95) is a signature dish, containing salmon, snapper, king crab, clams and shrimp in a saffron and lemongrass broth. It's non-traditional, but subtle touches and tender seafood make this a winner. The rack of lamb ($19.50) is crusted with Dijon mustard and rosemary, always a popular favorite with OnJin's regular clientele.

My sense is that the OnJin's Cafe menu change will attract more customers to her affordable and luscious food. No longer is it necessary to make reservations unless it's for a party of five or larger.

Kim once said something to me that was so pure, honest and funny that I want to share it with you: "I want everyone who comes here to enjoy my food, to be relaxed and to feel like family ... except I want them to pay." Sweet honesty.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.