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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 27, 2007

Where sensible prices, real plates aren't a fantasy

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Dave Kim serves up coffee at Honolulu Cafe. Some of the restaurant's recommended dishes are paninis and entree salads.

Photos by JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Rating: Four forks out of five (Very good)

741 Bishop St.

533-1555, ext. 6; e-mail chefchae@honolulucafe.net

6:45 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays

Overview: Well-made, ample, reasonably priced breakfasts and lunches

Details: Nearest inexpensive parking in metered lot at post office on Merchant; advance phone orders taken

Price: Sandwiches, $6-$9.45; entree salads, $4.50-$9.50; hot entrees, $8-$10

Recommended: Paninis, entree salads

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Honolulu Cafe chef-owner Chae Won Choe at his Downtown eatery.

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It's easy in Honolulu to find a good, hearty, inexpensive breakfast or lunch served in a Styrofoam clamshell or on a paper plate. But to find a well-prepared breakfast or lunch on a real plate that also doesn't break the bank? That takes some searching.

Recently, I found one option that has quickly become a favorite. It's Honolulu Cafe, where you can eat in (on real plates) or take out and where the surroundings are lovely a high-ceilinged room or an airy courtyard in the Territorial period Dillingham Building on Bishop Street. Remnants of its one-time status as an Italian restaurant include mosaic-tiled floors and a frescoed ceiling, as well as iron-backed ice cream parlor-style chairs.

The cafe is open only on weekdays, and there's no inexpensive parking nearby, but if you have occasion to be Downtown between 6:45 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, tuck a meal into your schedule and you won't regret it.

Owned by the family of former Chef Mavro sous chef Chae Won Choe, Honolulu Cafe is both a coffee and smoothie bar and a restaurant. He enjoyed his years at Chef Mavro, but "my passion is the brasserie food, the cafe food, the bistro food," said Choe, whose wife, brother-in-law and other family members work with him in the restaurant, allowing them time together they wouldn't have if he continued to work in a dinner house.

My favorite at Honolulu Cafe is the panini sandwiches; there are four standard on the menu plus a daily special. Panini, of course, are the Italian-style sandwiches grilled in a press rather like a waffle iron. Honolulu Cafe does some panini on whole-grain dark bread and others on focaccia-style white bread. A friend had suggested I try the grilled tuna panini; it wasn't on the menu the first time I visited, but they were happy to make me one. (The menu declares them willing to customize orders or accommodate special orders, and they do a lot of catering and even rent out the restaurant for special events.)

My tuna panini ($7.95) turned out to be a sort of upscale tuna melt, with cheese melded into the tuna salad, and was absolutely delicious. All the sandwiches come with a generous serving of mesclun salad (tender mixed greens; no iceberg lettuce!) in an exceptional tangy Italian-style dressing that Choe later told me is fat-free. How great is that?

On another day, I had a vegetarian panini: grilled eggplant, mozzarella, tomato and lettuce on focaccia ($7.95), also a big yum. Perhaps my favorite was a ham and three-cheese special sandwich ($7.95).

Although you can buy panini to take out, they're best when they're hot and still crisp on the outside and melting on the inside. For takeout, I'd choose one of the entree salads, such as citrus chicken (mesclun, mandarin orange, grilled chicken; $5.75 for a half or $7.95 whole), caesar with chicken or salmon ($6.45-$9.50, depending on size and protein), or caprese (spinach, veggies, fresh mozzarella and basil, $5.85-$8.45). Serving sizes are ample on these salads.

Choe, who staffs the line himself, runs a hot special every day, as well as a soup. I tried the Madras chicken curry with rice pilaf ($9.50) a mild curry gravy with two large-ish grilled chicken breast fillets, onions and red peppers over rather plain long-grain rice. It was OK, but I enjoyed the cream of mushroom soup much more ($3.55 for a bowl with a couple of slices of bread) thick, creamy and with a deep mushroom flavor.

As everything is made to order and there's just Choe to make it, the service isn't laser-fast here, as it is at many casual lunch spots, but the food is worth a few minutes' staring into space.

At breakfast, Honolulu Cafe offers omelets ($6.25-$7.10), croissant sandwiches ($2.95-$4.75), various bagel sandwiches ($1.95-$3.95), plus pastries, coffees, espresso, teas, juices, shakes and smoothies.

When I called Choe to talk with him after several visits, and commented on how rare it is to find reasonably priced, well-prepared food on real plates in a lunch spot, he laughed. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do," he said. "I see no reason why healthy, light, real food shouldn't be accessible to the everyday diner."

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