Head to Town for flavor-filled cuisine with style
By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
The neighborhood is metamorphosing into one of Honolulu's hippest areas, with boutiques, yoga studios and urbane dining a la C & C Pasta and 12th Avenue Grill.
Worldly local boy, chef and owner Ed Kenney describes Town as "fresh out of the box."
This enterprise has a lot of what one hopes for in a restaurant venture, with everyone popping in for a taste business folks, luncheon ladies, North Shore surfers, executive chefs and yoginis.
Jaguars and Mercedes line up alongside beat-up clunkers in the lot out back and on the street fronting the place.
Kenney and chef David Caldiero, formerly of Donato's, concentrate on a mantra of "local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always."
Town is delivering up-to-the-minute style something the island has lacked for an international city of our size. Affordable, casual Town won't hang its head in shame next to similar venues around the world while presenting some of Hawai'i's unique bounty in ways that don't bash anyone over the head.
Town sells a lot more than the best lemonade on the island. ($2.75, a thirst-quenching concoction topped with parsley juice for a cocktail-visual effect).
Kenney has created an "unpretentious neighborhood American bistro," as seen from the crowd relaxing in the al fresco area outside or through the restaurant's wall-sized windows inside.
A laid-back, open atmosphere based on tastefully appointed, modern-contemporary design brings to mind a hot pan over fire. Steel tabletops, dark wooden chairs, snowflake-snowball lamps and a lengthy cantaloupe bench form an inviting layout accommodating Town's cozy, eclectic crowd.
The staff resembles a garage band. The kitchen crew pumps out solidly tuned dishes backed up by no-attitude, mellow, urban-girl waitresses. However, I noticed service wobbling at the end of meals. As the buzz gets hectic, I lost waitresses before dessert and coffee, like pals who wander off at a club.
I could see them from afar as I waited for my bill, but dishes weren't always cleared promptly and water wasn't refilled. It was like sitting through a movie that lasts a tad too long the dining experience should wrap up quicker so squirming in your seat isn't an option.
Town's menu features well-priced, down-to-earth dishes with pizzazz enough to evoke a "Wow!" Although there are some standard dishes, the menu and prices change daily according to the freshest ingredients they can purchase, so customers are continually enticed to return. Kenney promotes the cuisine as "contemporary American with an Italian sensibility." But this is the sort of straightforward, not-too-fancy stuff in glitzy, gourmet food magazines. It's what you crave but rarely encounter while eating out unless you shell out some bucks or prepare it at home.
The cuisine has a simple dreamy, fragrant quality I fantasize about, except it's real. The kitchen uses ingredients hardly ever combined in local eateries. Textures and layers of flavors abound. The lemonade is a prime example, containing acid-lemon-sweet with a grassy bass note from the parsley.
Flavors are bold without being brash, as in the succulent half-chicken, torn bread, roasted grapes, tatsoi, pancetta, verjus preparation ($13 at lunch minus tatsoi, $16.50 at dinner). Tender, sautÚed tatsoi greens, the grapes' musky sweetness and the smoky pancetta enlivened the plump poultry. Friends looked at me as if I'd lost my marbles when selecting the dish. Why chicken, with fresh fish and oh-so-soft pork cheeks, available? But, after tasting, they declared it the best grilled chicken they'd ever eaten. The torn bread chunks are absolute heaven for stuffing lovers, an exciting change from usual starches.
|Joshua Hancock serves freshly squeezed lemonade with parsley juice, mint and honey at Town restaurant on Wai'alae Avenue.|
Must-try dishes include soups of the day, which often run out at dinner ($4/$6 at lunch, $6 at dinner); black mussels served with cavatelli pasta, tomato and fennel in a zesty Cinzano broth ($12); and any frito dish (around $7.50 to $8.50). Polenta with mascarpone ($6) competes with Judy Rodger's version at Zuni's in San Francisco. For dessert, make room for buttermilk panna cotta and the chocolate banini (both $6), a grown-up snack of chocolate and bananas in panini form.
And I hear breakfast is in the works.
Reach Helen Wu at firstname.lastname@example.org.