FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Donato Loperfido, chef-owner of the new Pasta & Basta, pulls a pizza out of the oven.
New digs play Restaurant Row-lette
With a front-row seat at Restaurant Row, I've been watching restaurants come and go for years, and the number of casualties seems relatively high. I think of Restaurant Row as a microcosm of the rest of the industry, subject to a small, fickle pool of diners, with a penchant for chasing the new.
I'm not a gambler, but I imagine the odds of roulette -- playing black or red, or even or odd -- are better than keeping a restaurant alive here. Nevertheless, restaurateurs continue to try. Here are the latest:
No-Frills Italian pleases
I was glad to hear that Donato Loperfido was taking over the spot vacated by Yanni's.
Pasta & Basta by Donato
Restaurant Row Suite 4A / 523-9999
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturdays
Prices: About $24 to $30 for two; B.Y.O.B.
This is a particularly tough site. No one since the days of Pizza Bob has had staying power here. Yanni's was doomed from the start, done in by high prices and a condescending attitude toward local diners by someone who parachuted in from Down Under with little aloha.
The bad karma compounded the difficulties posed by being in Restaurant Row, which, like downtown Honolulu -- and unless your name is Hiroshi Fukui -- is a day-only site, home to office workers and fellow journalists who don't want to spend more than $6 or $7 daily for lunch.
Loperfido's longtime presence on the local culinary scene is reassuring in that he knows the history of the space and understands the local market. He has two-thirds of the equation right in noting that diners do love quality food at a bargain price. Most of his 23 pastas run $8 or $9, but generous portions leave enough for a second meal, just as delicious later in the day, or the next.
Unfortunately, the staff hasn't been prepared for the noontime rush, and, unlike local drive-in dishes such as teriyaki chicken or chili and rice, pasta isn't a fast-enough food for much of the lunch crowd. To eat here, I've learned to avoid the crush by choosing to eat early, at 11 a.m. or after 1 p.m., which is a coup for the chef. It's not anyone who can get people to adjust their schedules.
But I'm willing to make the adjustment for a bite of freshly made ribbons of spinach fettuccine ($11), the base for tagliatelle Boscaiola topped with thin slices of prosciutto, herbed chicken, mushrooms, pine nuts and Parmesan, bound with olive oil with a splash of white wine.
Those who prefer saucier dishes might prefer the tagliatelle Bolognese ($9) with its rich tomato-and-ground beef sauce, or the traditional creamy fettuccine Alfredo ($8, add $3 for chicken).
This food can be dangerous for those who take it back to their desks, as one co-worker learned after ordering a simple 10-inch Margherita pizza ($7) topped with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, and proceeding to eat it in one sitting. "It's a really thin crust," is her excuse.
"The first time it happened, I said, 'Oh wow, I just ate the whole thing,'" she said. "I learned I was the kind of person who could eat a whole pizza. Sometimes I think I should stop eating, but it's so good."
Prices are the same in the evening, making it possible for two to dine for less than $25 or splurge on the likes of linguine scampi ($15), linguine with fish ($15) or one of the chef's daily specials. But before arranging a date, note that it's still an order-at-the-counter, no-frills kind of setup. Considering that other restaurants can serve a comparable meal at these prices, with table service, it doesn't seem right to skimp on personnel.
It's a Catch-22 situation. Hospitality costs, and counter service makes sense financially given the limited nighttime crowd at the Row, but without true hospitality, the bigger crowds might not materialize.
The lesson I've learned from all the Big Box restaurants that have rolled into town is that food isn't everything.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Yosh owner Ross Okuhara serves fresh poke at his restaurant, another newcomer to Restaurant Row.
Garlic gives Yosh away
The Kapolei contigency must be strong because I heard a lot of buzz about Yosh before the place even opened. People were waiting to see what Ross Okuhara, one of the creators of Kapolei's En Fuego Grill & Poke, would come up with next.
Restaurant Row Suite 5G / 537-4573
Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
Prices: About $8 per person for lunch and dinner
"Yosh" -- meaning something like "OK!" or "Can do!" in Japanese -- comes from the fish market experience, and he hoped that spirit of excitement and attentive service would win over the public as well.
The restaurant's nearly hidden in a spot that's been vacant for a decade since Jamaican Cuisine's departure. (I miss that place!)
To find Yosh, simply follow the scent of garlic. They give ono deep-fried garlic ($6.25) and spicy garlic chicken ($6.25) an intense perfume that sticks to fingers and goes everywhere if you're not careful. The plates are two of more than 20 local offerings, including garlic ahi ($7.50) and furikake salmon ($6.50), that have won them a loyal following on the west side. Those new to Hawaii will have difficulty grasping the appeal of the Yosh Special combo plate ($7.99) with its deep-fried beer-batter fish, garlic chicken and gravy-covered hamburger steak.
It's a salt- and fat-filled fest that can only make sense to those of us who grew up with soy sauce-and-sugar-coated grilled Spam, Loco Mocos and Zip Pacs. Well, maybe someone from the South would also understand.
En Fuego is known for its fresh fish poke selections, and Yosh brings some of that to Restaurant Row, with at least three kinds of poke available daily, sold by weight or in 1-ounce portions that are an option to the tossed salad on your plate lunch. You can also choose between white or brown rice. And to finish, desserts from JJ's bring a taste of Kaimuki to the Row as well.
For now, it's lunch only, but family-style dinner plans are in the works. I have a feeling this one has staying power.