Grand Cafe oozes simple goodness with new chef
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
When the Grand Cafe & Bakery opened last year in the historic Wing Coffee building in Chinatown, it immediately encountered one of the most difficult challenges a small, new restaurant can face: success.
Soon, Grand Cafe was like the old quip: "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." Everyone agreed with the critics that the food was great — particularly the desserts — but there were reports of overwhelmed servers and long waits for a table.
Now, its year of adjustment behind it, the cafe is again garnering attention with the announcement last month of a new chef, which prompted us to check back in and see how it was doing.
That new chef is Anthony Kui Sin Vierra, great-grandson of Ti Chong Ho, founder of the original Grand Cafe & Bakery (which opened in 1923 at 106 N. King St. and was operated by Ho and partners for a short period). Vierra is also the son of owner Mona M. Chang Vierra, the soft-voiced, gracious hostess you'll encounter at the restaurant's reception desk/bakery case.
Vierra returns to his roots with an impressive resume: graduate of the California Culinary Academy, veteran of the award-winning 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, Calif., and of a favorite of ours, 12th Avenue Grill in Kaimuki, where he became sous chef after returning to Hawai'i in 2001.
He's revamping the menu, updating some of the retro standards, such as the chicken pot pie, and adding new creations. He will change the menu seasonally and eventually begin opening for dinner Friday nights. For summer, he will focus on barbecue of all kinds, introducing a pulled-pork sandwich, a grilled chicken club and so on. He's also playing with the idea of bringing back a choice of "sides," like mac and cheese, recalling the blue-plate era.
I, for one, can't wait. Tasting one of his new additions, the confusingly named asparagus salad ($8.50), I was in rapture. The dish is a riff on an Italian classic, in which a poached egg perches atop crisp steamed asparagus with a base of ham and toasted bread. (Over in Kaimuki, town restaurant has served yet another delicious version.)
Vierra's take involves crusty bread; a thick slice of tomato, marinated overnight and slow-roasted at a very low temperature to concentrate the sweet, nutty flavors; rich house-cured bacon; and a soft-poached egg. A crank of fresh-ground black pepper and you're set. Even though the bread and bacon took a bit of work to cut up — steak knives might be in order — once you pierce the egg and let the yolk bathe the rest in richness, a marriage is made, not in heaven but in your mouth.
This dish says a lot about Vierra — that he's good enough not to hide behind a ton of butter and silly sauces. And all the dishes I experienced said the same thing.
Vierra's proud mom, Mona, talked me into ordering the vegetarian pasta ($8.50). I'm not a great fan of the pasta-with-vegetables "primavera" family because too often the vegetables are tired, wrongly sauced or paired with soggy pasta. But I took Mona's advice to see what the kitchen could do. Now here's my advice: Listen to Mona.
The dish is a generous portion of toothsome shells — pasta di Gragnano, from a town in the south of Italy where pasta-making is said to have been born, made with local wheat and dried in a fashion unique to the place — glazed with not a drop too much of roasted garlic/morel mushroom cream and flecked with mushrooms from Hamakua, what appeared to be fresh peas, shaved asparagus and pear tomatoes, all finished with a dusting of Parmesan. Perfecto!
Another day, my beet and goat-cheese salad ($8.25) — roasted beets, tender greens, a small cake of baked cheese crusted with macadamia nuts — was another form of perfection. Many restaurants serve a salad like this, but this one was pumping on all cylinders: the beets were caramelized to just the right degree, the dressing on the greens was sprightly without being sour, the cheese was a delightful touch of richness.
When a friend and I dropped by for an early Saturday breakfast (they do brunch every Saturday and Sunday), I began to think I might have found that elusive Perfect Breakfast Place in Honolulu that we wrote about a couple of years ago: the one with good coffee, real china, interesting breakfast items, friendly atmosphere and reasonable prices.
Brunch here does not mean buffet; it means conventional breakfast items or lunch-like entrees. My friend's eggs Benedict with ham ($10.35) was topped with a nice classic hollandaise but oddly paired with a mound of greens in tart vinaigrette. Who eats salad at breakfast, we wondered. My house-made corned-beef hash ($9.35) was comfortingly yummy. And both of us relished our Kahuku papaya ($3), the sweetest I've tasted in some time.
As to atmosphere, Grand Cafe is the personification of Hemingway's "clean, well-lighted place": white walls hung with period photographs, touches of mustard color in the banquette that lines one wall. There are about 15 nicely spaced tables, plus four that spill onto the pretty courtyard shared with HASR Wines, and a meeting room for 30 tucked away at the back. The cafe continues to be busy; without reservations, be prepared to puddle up in the front, waiting for a table.
The Grand Cafe & Bakery experience is only slightly diminished by two problems that, unfortunately, are almost universal in Honolulu: excessive noise at busy times and service that, though well-meaning and friendly, is often fumbling or uncertain. I have two words for the entire Honolulu restaurant scene: Noise abatement. As for service, here it varies from almost overly attentive (and confusing, since you don't get waited on by the same people throughout the meal, so you're often asked twice if you want to order, and the person who serves you doesn't know which of you ordered what) to a little absent. At breakfast, my corned beef got cold while I yearned for Tabasco sauce and struggled to make eye contact.
But as to the litmus test, would I go back on my own dime? Oh, yeah. I didn't even get to the desserts.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.