The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Cuisines blend deliciously

With Hawaii's extensive ties to the mainland and Asia, it's easy for us to feel smug about our status as the birthplace of contemporary east-west fusion cuisine. In the 16-1/2 years since Roy Yamaguchi redirected Hawaii's culinary focus, Pacific Rim flavors have crossed the nation, with varying degrees of success and popularity. But, before we get too uppity, consider that Osaka's Bistro Sun has been playing with a similar concept for 35 years.

In Bistro Sun's case, that's meant melding the flavors of Japan and Asia with classic Italian and European dishes. To the Japanese, this match -- unlike Tom and Nicole or Brad and Jennifer -- is one made in heaven. The primary Italian-Japanese duo has been introduced here over the past 14 years or so through restaurants like Pietro's and Capricciosa.

I've had my problems with the formula, primarily due to the watered down effect of having chefs dabble in unfamiliar territory, but I guess practice makes perfect. It's never been done better than at Bistro Sun.

The little restaurant on King Street may just be a warm-up act for bigger things to come. In Osaka, Bistro Sun is said to be known for a 130-item menu. Here, it offers just a sampling of about 40 specialties in a room that can only be described as eclectic in decor, with touches of the Pacific, Japan and France -- like an eccentric aunt's or grandmother's living room.

Chances are you won't even notice the decor while being quickly whisked to your table. Although owner Mieko Usami speaks little English, she makes it a point to make the rounds of the tables with one of her bilingual waiters to meet guests. As one friend said, "I never saw anybody work harder."

The staff's graciousness was appreciated. You will not go wanting for a cup of water or tea, or any plate or utensil you may need to finish off a meal. Your wish is their command. They'll even offer lessons in speaking Japanese.

Bistro Sun manager Michael Franzen, with owner Mieko Usami, stirs Sicilian pilaf at the table.

THE RESTAURANT'S lunch patrons are enthusiastic about teishoku-style lunches. Only six different sets are offered, though, and you won't find the usual sashimi or tempura in the bunch. Instead you'll find sweet shoyu-simmered pork ($8.95) or seared beef ($8.95) with garlic, onions and ponzu sauce. All the sets come with a simple salad, soup of the day, and a choice of garlic bread or rice.

But it's at night when Bistro Sun's menu becomes more distinctive. Pilaf is a specialty and the Sicilian pilaf ($12.95) is typical of the cross-cultural experience that awaits. This dish might be described as a cross between paella and ishiyaki. The golden rice is served in a paella pan, topped with garlic-butter mussels and chewy pieces of squid and octopus that should be integral to the dish, but play only a back-up role to the garlicky rice, which is pressed against the sides of the pan to crisp before being scooped up and served by your waiter.

Although portions are sized for one, you may want to share to sample more dishes. Plus, a lot of the dishes are starchy -- naturally when pastas and rice are staples -- so you may quickly tire of a pilaf or plateful of carbonara if it's the only thing in front of you. A tablemate was certain he could finish the kim chee carbonara ($12.95) solo -- this after being initially afraid to try the rich creamy Parmesan-and kim chee sauce-coated spaghetti. It's velvety with a spicy bite and the smoky flavor of bacon.

THERE'S NO better starter than the maguro carpaccio, topped with plenty of minced garlic and the restaurant's Lacoste sauce, a combination of olive oil, a touch of balsamic vinegar and crushed tomatoes. I went with the half portion ($6.45), but ahi lovers might want to go full ($12.90).

Other appetizers include escargots ($9.95) and a popular deep-fried garlic bulb ($6.95).

An onion soup ($4.95) was milder than those associated with French restaurants, but still tasty, the chicken broth registering more strongly than the onions.

One nightly fish special ($12.95) was topped with a relish of minced pickles, onions and garlic, clever in its similarity to tartar sauce, minus the fat of mayonnaise.

For dessert there were choices of cheesecake, ice cream and wine-sauteed bananas served with chocolate sauce, that was just OK.

More important is that Bistro Sun manages to prove that even in cultures continents apart, we can always find common ground.

Bistro Sun

2671 S. King St. (Diamond Head of Kokua Market); parking available in back / 946-7580

Food Star Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Half-star

Value Star Star Star Half-star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Mondays

Cost: About $10 per person for lunch, and $30 to $40 for two for dinner. BYOB.

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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