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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 28, 2006

Mariposa's personality shines among setbacks

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Douglas Lum, executive chef at Mariposa restaurant, garnishes a plate of seared sea scallops, a recommended dish.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Rating: Four forks out of five (Very good)

1450 Ala Moana, third floor, Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana Center


Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

Overview: Classy fine dining befitting Neiman Marcus quality; Pacific-Rim style

Details: Reservations recommended. Valet parking or self-park. After store hours, enter via elevator on makai side of building. Surcharge for shared plates; service charge for parties of six or more.

Price: Lunch, $9-$24. Dinner, appetizers from $11; entrees from $24.

Recommended: braised oxtail osso bucco; seared sea scallops; roasted Grimaud Farms duck breast; warm liliko'i pudding cake

Recommended: braised oxtail osso bucco; seared sea scallops; roasted Grimaud Farms duck breast; warm liliko'i pudding cake

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Over the past few weeks, I've been revisiting old flames with fresh faces long-established fine-dining restaurants that have recently renovated and revamped their menus. The last of this quartet is Mariposa at Neiman Marcus, which closed for remodeling last month and re-emerged with new menu items designed by chef Douglas Lum, substantial back-of-the-house improvements and fresh paint in the public areas.

I've always liked this space with its colonial-era ceiling fans, exceptionally roomy and comfortable teak chairs, view of Ala Moana Beach Park and choice of indoor or balcony seating, and was relieved to see all those elements still in place.

I was also happy to find that certain standards were being faithfully upheld: that wonderfully intense consomme, those complimentary retro popovers, the Mariposa burger ($12) with french fries and spicy ketchup at lunch, Lum's signature braised oxtail osso bucco ($11) appetizer at dinner, and the frisee (curly endive) and treviso (radicchio) salad with haricots vert, roasted almonds, ricotta salata and white truffle vinaigrette ($9). And those cool-looking bottles of chilled Voss water ($6) from Norway, served in goblets with no ice. To my husband's embarrassment, I always take the bottle home.

In a post-dining interview, Lum said the most substantive menu change comes at lunch. Many of the more casual salad and sandwich items are gone, or, in the case of popular items such as the portobello sandwich and the turkey sandwich, moved to the second-floor restaurant.

In place of these are more elegant entrees. "It gives our chefs more of an ability to shine and show their craftsmanship," he said. The original project was focused on building a completely new kitchen, but Lum and chef de cuisine Jason Kagihara decided to celebrate the new workspace with a refreshed menu. "We'll run this menu for the next couple of months and then make another change for fall," Lum said.

On a recent Friday night, we sat down to generously sized golden-brown house-made rolls (not popovers) and Mariposa's signature butter blend papaya and pineapple. I miss the more tart and lively poha berry butter they once served, but Lum said the berries are too difficult to get on a consistent basis.

Perhaps it was something about our being just a twosome, and not ordering a bottle of wine, that gave our server the mistaken impression that we were disinclined to dawdle, but he rushed us along at a disconcertingly brisk pace. Our appetizers arrived before we'd even buttered our rolls. I like it when waiters ask about pacing: "Are you on a timetable this evening, or do you prefer to linger?" Or better yet, read your body language.

I've been on something of a lobster kick lately because I'm confining my proteins mainly to poultry and seafood. But I also consider lobster so easy to ruin a test of a kitchen. For these reasons, I chose Mariposa's lobster ravioli with roasted veal sweetbreads and black pepper brown butter ($15).

But this was the least-successful dish in an evening of exceptionally good eating. It arrived as a single (though largish) ravioli in a tomato-tinged broth with the diminutive sweetbread perched on top. I hadn't expected the broth it's not mentioned in the menu description and, apparently, neither had the waiter because he didn't bring a spoon. I nibbled at the ravioli and sweetbread while awaiting the server's reappearance so I could request a utensil to try the broth. When the spoon arrived, I found that this shellfish consomme concentrated with seafood and lemongrass flavors was the best part of the dish; neither the sweetbread (tender but dry-textured) nor the lobster filling (also tender, but skimpy) was very interesting.

My husband's corn bisque with Indonesian blue crab meat ($5) was velvety, thick and rich, rather what I'd hoped the lobster ravioli would be. And his seared sea scallop ($13) on roasted mushroom with garnish of fresh corn, crisp, diced bacon and micro-greens opened up in the mouth with a pleasing range of crisp-to-meaty textures, sweet-to-salty flavors. I was beginning to get envious.

I have a theory about making menu choices: Always go with your first love. If you dither and select something else for whatever reason, in my experience, you're always sorry. (Especially if someone else orders the thing you originally had in mind and you get one, measly bite and then have to watch them savor it!)

I had talked myself out of the braised oxtail osso bucco in favor of something new, though it easily makes my list of Top 10 menu standards in Honolulu. This is an inspired idea of Lum's to give Island favorite meaty oxtails a version of the classic Italian treatment, slowly braising them and serving them with chive orzo risotto, caramelized pearl onions and a pinot-noir veal reduction.

But my entree, roasted Grimaud Farms duck breast ($27) unprepossessing in appearance but powerful in flavor made me forget all about oxtail. Slices of perfectly roasted medium-rare duck breast were arranged over a tangle of blanched escarole, julienned basil, bits of dried cherry, nobs of goat cheese, an unctuous and tart vinaigrette made with artisanal red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil all manner of good things. With this, we drank a beautiful, broad-shouldered wine my clever husband found on the by-the-glass menu: Babcock Grand Cuvee pinot noir, Santa Ynez, 2004 ($12.50).

My husband had chosen the pan-roasted Island snapper ehu, onaga, uku, 'opakapaka and others, a different variety on different evenings, based on availability, and market-priced. His moist, mild-flavored onaga ($38) was served with black tiger shrimp garnish and a foamed version of that tomato-shellfish broth I had enjoyed with my lobster.

Desserts are a Mariposa strong point; pastry chef Wendy Nakamura knows how to sidestep the silly and deliver the sweet. Choices (all at $6.50) included warm liliko'i pudding cake, pineapple upside-down cake, Tahitian vanilla bean panna cotta, butterscotch macadamia nut pie, Valrhona chocolate brulee or Valrhona chocolate fudge cake.

I can never get past the word liliko'i on a dessert menu, and I'm glad I didn't this time. What a homely name pudding for a gorgeous presentation: a ramekin mounded with intense passion fruit custard topped with a spread-winged butterfly-shaped sugar cookie, crisp and sweet, and decorated with minced tropical fruit. Husband's dreamy panna cotta (Italian-style molded egg custard) was set off with crisp almond brickle and a silky fruit sauce.

All in all, it was a pleasant visit with an old friend one with a few human flaws but a great personality.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.