The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Food lovers find
a home in Town

THE Internet is great for many reasons, but the major reason for its popularity is its ability to let each of its millions of weirdo users feel "normal."

In the past, oddballs had to head to New York or San Francisco to belong or be understood. But what about everyone else, eccentric in their unique way, but without a large fiefdom beyond their small manic knitting circle, or group of dog-dressing devotees?

The Internet has allowed us to find each other, build our own large online brotherhoods and experience the joy of knowing we are not alone in our passions -- whether it be for things purple, Lucite purses, or Pez dispensers.

The foodie part of me felt that same sense of community, warmth and belonging at Town. With just a few tentative nibbles, I thought, "They get it."

More importantly, the new restaurant was packed, and I thought, "All these people get it."

Suddenly, I didn't feel so alone in my food philosophy, which can be summed up in four words: Leave the food alone.

On my days off I like nothing better than fresh tomatoes and basil from my garden, tossed with a bit of olive oil, warmed in the oven, and sprinkled with a bit of romano or feta.

Is that so much to ask for?

Unfortunately, most of the time the answer is yes. Leaving the food alone -- without going so far as to be a raw foodist, though I see the beauty in that concept as well -- is easier said than done because chefs are creative people who believe they're not doing enough unless they're putting something new on the plate. So they play and experiment, blend and bend. But putting food on the table shouldn't be about yoga for chicken.

Sometimes I enjoy such theatrics, but generally, I yearn for food that's pure and authentic. Town has it, and I'm elated to have found a restaurant that actually puts food ahead decor, theme or chef ego.

At Town restaurant in Kaimuki, waiter Josh Hancock serves up a potato pear tart, basil creme fraiche and Ma'o greens.

TOWN'S INTERIOR is unassuming, with concrete floors like an industrial gallery in which its inhabitants are the works of art.

Beverly Noa came out of retirement to help her chef/owner son Ed Kenney man the doors and phones, and her friends and former co-workers at Chanel have been showing up to offer their support in the opening weeks. It's also not unusual to see Kahala matrons, with their Fendi and Hermes Birkin bags, seated on hard playgroundlike benches at stainless steel tables, sticking out amidst the black-and-jeans-clad, coffee-art-music crowd that is here as well.

I love the mix because few restaurants are able to draw such an eclectic crowd. Great food is the unifier.

Those looking for a home base after the closing of Moutarde may find a day or night haven here.

I came away from a couple of evening experiences feeling a sense of respect from the kitchen -- respect for the integrity of the ingredients, and respect for the diner.

Here's the thing. There is no mystery to the science of cooking and anyone who has been around a kitchen should know that timing is an important factor. Yet, how many times have you paid for overdone fish or steak buried in a heavy sauce to disguise the crime? The worst is that the chef assumes you're too much of a rube to notice or know the difference.

At Town, Kenney and chef de cuisine Dave Caldiero seem to care enough to time each course to the second of perfection.

Their philosophy is "local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always," and it shows in Ma'o Farms greens that do taste as if they were hand-picked from the field seconds before hitting the plate.

Menus change a little bit each day, but if you can, try the tomato tart ($6) with the full flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes, accented with goat cheese and basil creme fraiche.

Ahi tartare seems a bit pricey at $11 for a small dollop of fish atop risotto cakes, served slightly burned and crisped, Japanese koge style. The ahi is like a Mediterranean poke, tossed with capers, onion, garlic, chervil and tarragon.

If you like tempura, you might try the alternative "frito misto" ($9) in which scallops, celery, lemon rounds and white beans are dredged in flour and a bit of corn meal and lightly deep fried. The lemon is a pleasant surprise. Deep-fried basil adds a touch of color to the plate.

Meats are also perfectly timed, whether braised lamb ($17) served with hand-cut mint pasta, pork cheeks that shred at the touch of the fork, or crispy moi ($21) that seems to melt on the tongue. For men, however, I'd recommend a meat dish. The moi -- even at about 6 or 7 ounces -- would simply disappear in two bites, leaving them wanting more.

A lot of people were ordering the gnocchi ($15), which caused the words, "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands," to spontaneously spill from a neighboring diner's lips. These delicate potato dumplings are simply served in sage butter with a sprinkling of peas and parmigiano-reggiano. Rather than order it as an entree, it's probably best shared as an accompaniment to other entrees or appetizers.

For dessert, I polished off the buttermilk pannacotta ($6) quickly and wanted another, but thought better of it. Also popular is the chocolate "banini" ($6), a comfort dessert panini of toast, Richart chocolate and bananas.

Town raises the bar for Honolulu's restaurateurs. I hope that, like patrons who are flocking to the restaurant, other chefs eventually get it.


3435 Waialae Ave. #103 (9th and Waialae, across from Sun Tak; parking is just past building off 9th, on right side of street before apartment complex / 735-5900

Food Star Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Star

Value Star Star Star Half-star

Hours: Lunch 11:30 to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Cost: About $50 to $60 for two for dinner; corkage fee of $9 per wine bottle, $1 per beer bottle.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com

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