Pleasurable lunches an art at museum cafes Hawaii eats section
• Photo gallery: Dining with art
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
Editor's note: From time to time, Advertiser food critics revisit established restaurants that haven't been written about in a while.
Is there something about great artwork that attracts great food? You'd think so, considering the quality of the lunchtime cafes associated with The Contemporary Museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Hawaii State Art Museum.
Today: the Contemporary Café (The Contemporary Museum) and Pavilion Café (Honolulu Academy of Arts). (We've written a great deal already about Downtown @ the HiSAM.)
After my return from the Mainland 20 years ago, the first restaurant I visited on Oahu was the Contemporary Café. It was during a retreat of Advertiser editors that was both my introduction to my colleagues and to the beautiful surroundings and savory food at the cafe, where we lunched.
In that time, not much has outwardly changed about this place. It's under different management, founding chef Noreen Lam having handed it over to chef Scott Sakaguchi some years ago. But the setting is the same: a wood-paneled mini-gallery with ever-changing artworks opening onto a länai and lawn where more tables are set.
The artwork one encounters on the way in has been switched out (I miss the man with his head on sideways). But the menu retains the original style: light but satisfying, fresh and creative within certain familiar boundaries. I always feel good at the Contemporary: the atmosphere is peaceful with the sound of birds and the smell of grass mingling with the murmur of polite conversation and the scents from the kitchen. And the food is mostly healthful (setting aside the few divine desserts).
One thing new, the brainchild of retail manager Bob Madison: Lauhala & Lunch— picnic baskets for two ($30) to enjoy on the grounds, with a lauhala mat to sit on.
For years, I've been stuck on one menu item, the hummus and pita plate ($6); the hummus is just right, creamy, lemony, garlicky, and there are veggies to crunch, and salty Kalamata olives and feta cheese to provide a jolt to the palate. It had been a couple of years since I'd been back, however, and during a recent visit with a friend, I determined to have something other than the hummus.
In its place, I chose the house soup, roasted garlic and herb tomato ($4 cup, $6 bowl) and the soba noodle salad ($10.25). My girlfriend had nipped in and ordered what I really wanted, the soup of the day, a creamy kabocha pumpkin (prices vary on soup of the day) with the crostini of the day on the side (five crisp baguette toasts with a savory spread, $5).
The roasted garlic soup is smooth, thick and mildly flavored— to my taste, perhaps too mildly flavored. I didn't get much out of it. As I suspected, the kabocha soup, which my friend allowed me to taste, was extraordinary: creamy without being too rich, the sweetish flavor of the pumpkin balanced by a good dose of herbs. I eyed it jealously.
I was a great deal happier with my soba salad, a deep, wide bowl of buckwheat noodles in tsuyu (shoyu-dashi sauce), somewhat Westernized, shot through with grated carrots, diced cucumber and tomato, sprigs of watercress and minced green onions. Best of all were the slivers of shiitake mushroom, not unpleasantly chewy as shiitake often is, but soft and moist with soaked-up sauce. Madison said this is one item customers will not allow them to take off the menu.
We had spotted a daily dessert special of liliko'i tart and were determined to have a piece, but the waiter so raved about the chocolate gateau ($5.25), a menu staple, that, though skeptical, we decided to order one of those, too. Surprise! The liliko'i tart didn't quite work; the shortbread crust overpowered the liliko'i filling, which seemed a little overbaked and underflavored. But the gateau, a slab of layered flourless chocolate cake (chocolate and egg white only) and whipped cream was worth every saved-up calorie— soooo chocolatey, without being too rich. Sakaguchi bakes these every other day.
Twenty-plus years is a long time for a restaurant to maintain its quality and personality; how often we fall in love with a place only to see it alter or disappear. How sweet when that doesn't happen.
A short while ago, four of us dropped in at The Pavilion for a birthday lunch. It reminded me of how much I like this place, another restaurant where I'm stuck on a particular menu item (the piadina sandwich: flatbreads, veggies, mozzarella and prosciutto; $15.95) and where the surroundings are as important as the food.
When I'm alone, I like to sit and listen to the water cascading into a nearby pool (when it's turned on) and ponder Jun Kaneko's "Dango" sculptures, like giant paint-splattered teardrops. But in my girlfriends' lively company, it was fun to interact with the waiter, debate what to order and steal bites off each other's plates. Our server was one who could take, and make, a joke (isn't it awful when you're having a great time and you get a humorless stick for a waiter?). The food came at a good pace, neither so fast you felt they wanted to turn the table nor so slowly that your stomach began to rumble.
For once, I passed by the piadina, this time in favor of the feta, tapenade and Hauula tomato sandwich on focaccia ($12.95). This is how much I liked this sandwich: I went right home and tried to re-create it (on split foccaccia, layer whole basil leaves, thick-sliced ripe red tomato, a schmear of bottled olive spread and a slice of feta— swoon). I've left the picture I took of it on my computer screen for weeks.
Friends chose the ahi Nicoise salad, the sashimi-grade fish crusted with coriander and served with a roasted-shallot vinaigrette ($18.95), filling and politely spicy; and the filet mignon sandwich, a hearty steak on house-made roll with red onions, Dijon mustard and piquant caper relish ($21.95). The sandwiches generally come with a large, impeccably fresh green salad, or sometimes a choice of soup or salad. The breads are baked in-house daily.
For dessert, we dipped our spoons into the sybaritic chocolate pot de creme ($7.50) and a daily special of tangy lemon-cake custard (an old-style recipe in which, through some baking magic, eggs and sugar combine in such a way as to form a cake on the bottom and a custard on top; $7.50). The pot de creme is not too sweet but it's so rich you tend to savor it a teaspoon at a time. The cake custard was so gorgeous and delicious I went home and made one of those, too.
Granted, $22 is a lot to pay for a sandwich, but I'd rather go out less often, pay more and enjoy, as they said in "Joy Luck Club," "finest quality."
Chef-owner Mike Nevin has been providing that quality at The Pavilion for 15 years. (Prior to that, academy volunteers made lunch each day in rotation.)
Asked which dishes could never come off the menu, Nevin was a bit stumped, though the piadina came immediately to mind. He was stumped because, he said, "we've pared down the menu and changed it out so much over the years that everything that's on there sells."