Apartment3's menu revamped, improved
by Kawehi Haug
Advertiser Staff Writer
Last year, party promoter darlings Flash Hansen and Matty Boy partnered with veteran restaurateur Chip Jewitt to convert Jewitt's Aria restaurant into a dinner-only joint that would be part restaurant, part lounge, part late-night club house.
The revamped restaurant opened as Apartm3nt (pronounced "apartment three," its name a nod to its location on the third floor of the Century Center complex). Since then — that was about nine months ago — the place has undergone a few changes. Some of them minor: The spelling of the name is now Apartment3, for clarity. And some of the changes were more significant: a new chef and menu.
Since its opening, I've visited Apartment3 a number of times, and have reviewed it once for Advertiser affiliate site Metromix Honolulu. In that review, I said the place was off to a respectable start, but wasn't without its flaws.
My biggest gripes then: poor service (I always felt like I was being served by a temperamental teenager, not a professional); the food made it to the table much too slowly and always in the wrong order; and the food was inconsistent.
With a new chef, and a made-over menu, Apartment3 needed a revisit. And, after having stayed away for a few months (knowing that no matter how much I loved the Italian-style hot dog, I didn't have the patience to handle the lippy service), I was happy to go back.
What I found was a vast improvement over what I had left behind a few months earlier.
The place still looks the same: black-and-silver-striped walls, dark half-moon booths, blood-red carpet, ultra-dim lighting, with random tchotchkes scattered about the place. It's like grandma moved into her gothic, burlesque-dancing granddaughter's room, and added a few homey touches to take the edge off the bawdiness.
I care less what a place looks like (though I wouldn't likely bring just anyone to Apartment3 — the decor seriously curbs the clientele; I'm not bringing auntie to eat under a framed montage of exposed girl parts) than how I'm treated when I get there. And during recent visits to Apartment3, my dining companions and I were treated well by everyone on staff. Big points.
With the pre-dinner cocktails came positive change No. 2. The last time I had a cocktail at Apartment3, the signature lime so-and-so tasted just like the signature liliko'i thing, which tasted just like the signature cranberry stuff. This time, the cocktails ($8-$12, $5 during happy hour), made with fresh-squeezed juices and combined with much more care and sophistication, were among the highlights of the meal. Try the Dragonberry Caiproska (fresh limes muddled with strawberries, dragonberry and Grey Goose vodka) or the Chip's Rufitini (fresh grapefruit juice, limes, organic agave and Patron).
Apartment3's new menu is shorter than it has been in the past, and it's still being tweaked to reflect what chef Robert McGee considers to be the best of his kitchen. In fact, the menu changed drastically from my first visit to the new Apartment3 in February to my most recent visit last weekend. And I was disappointed to find that one of the best dishes — McGee's gourmet take on pigs in a blanket made with a variety of house-made sausages — was a casualty of this last menu overhaul. It's a shame because nothing else on the menu goes quite as well with an icy pint of Boddingtons.
McGee, who came to Honolulu from Slow Bar in Portland, Ore., has created a menu that retains the original vision of the restaurant to create ramped-up comfort food, while adding a decidely more refined touch to the offerings.
Appetizers include the Cheese and Honey ($13), a daily rotating selection of local and imported cheeses drizzled with local honey, and The Yard Sale ($13), a platter of house-cured meats (we got bressaola and prosciutto), pickled veggies and goat cheese drizzled with olive oil. Both the meat and cheese plate are simple and delicious — perfect as starters, or alone with a bottle of wine.
If I could only eat one type of food for eternity, I would pick meat, cheese and bread, and of course wine. But I'm not so restricted, and thank goodness, because there were a few dishes on the entree menu that we couldn't wait to try.
The Ultimate Mac and Cheese ($15), a massive bowl of fusilli pasta in a creamy sauce of aged white cheddar with chunks of snow crab and house-made chorizo sausage, is pretty much a dream come true. The pasta is firm, the cheese sauce is silky and rich, and the chorizo adds that hint of salt that brings it all together. Though the sauce, however good, could benefit from a bit more cheese funk — it's missing some bite — it's the snow crab that hurt the dish. It was overcooked, reducing the normally sweet meat to scratchy, dry bits of unidentifiable flesh. The crab is a good idea, but better to do without it than to risk making a great dish less so by including an ingredient that may or may not hit the mark.
Along the same comfort-food lines is one of Apartment3's signature dishes: its Better Than Mom's Meatloaf ($16). And dare I say it? I think it's true.
Not being a big fan of meatloaf — ground beef that's been mixed with bread and eggs and who-knows-what-else is one of my least favorite things to eat — this dish came very close to making me a believer (and the meatloaf lover in our group was in heaven).
A two-inch-thick slice of meatloaf is wrapped with house-cured pancetta, piled onto a mountain of skin-on french fries, topped with a fried egg and covered in mushroom gravy, and guess what? It's better than your mom's meatloaf.
The Big Island Beef Burger ($12) makes good use of local beef. The grass-fed beef was perfectly cooked, then stacked with cave-aged gruyere cheese and harissa aioli. The flavors were slightly muddled — I didn't taste the cheese at all — and the harissa, though normally strong with a tendency to overpower, was just barely there. The burger patty itself was just right. But then there was the issue of bread.
Actually, bread was an issue throughout the entire meal. The Mini Sammies ($4 each or three for $11), a collection of sliders that includes a kochujang-braised pork sandwich with coleslaw, a house-made chorizo patty sandwich with manchego cheese, a Philly cheesesteak sandwich and a falafel sandwich with tzatziki, came on rolls that were tough and tasteless.
The bread, which seemed like it was trying to be brioche and failing miserably, completely undid the sandwiches. If the sliders were good, we didn't notice because we couldn't get past the bread. When McGee first took over the kitchen, the sliders came on Chinese-style steamed buns. Those didn't work either, so he changed them. Maybe he'll change these too, and if he does, I'll go back and give the sliders yet another try because, in theory, the Sammies should work.
The thin-crust pizzas ($11-$12) make a good starter or a good late-night bar snack (they're only $5 during happy hour). My favorite: The Pickled Pepper ($12), topped with house-made fennel sausage, soppresatta, mozzarella and pepperoncinis. I wouldn't go just for the pizza, but I would certainly order it again.
I wouldn't get the Milk and Cookies ($7) again. The idea is right: a glass of vanilla-infused milk and a variety of baked cookies, but the cookies were everything cookies shouldn't be. The oatmeal cookies were dry and crumbly, the chocolate chip cookies were burned, and the snickerdoodle was as thin and crisp as lavosh. It was like we went shopping at an elementary school bake sale, where the kids did the baking. If you like to end a meal with something sweet, go for the raspberry and chocolate truffle cheesecake ($8). Better yet: get the Bombay Passion cocktail — a sweet mix of Sapphire gin, raspberries, liliko'i and vanilla.
Apartment3 is still finding its way, but the good thing is, it knows it. McGee isn't afraid to make changes; to do away with the stuff that doesn't work, to try new things, which means the place will only get better. It already has. Last year, I wouldn't have gone back to Apartment3. Tuesday, I made plans to have dinner there this weekend.