CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Malama Minn holds a dish of some Churros y Chocolate, a dessert specialty at the new Downtown at the Hawaii State Art Museum.
‘Downtown’ makes easy work of being artful without pretense
The dining revolution of nearly two decades has been good for raising the level of culinary sophistication, putting Hawaii on the map as a foodie destination, raising standards and giving consumers a whole lotta good things to eat. But growth has had its down side, that is, diners' happiness is sometimes sacrificed at the altar of the celebrity chef.
Not long ago, students pursued culinary studies out of a passion for cooking. These days, instructors are noting that students enroll in hope of becoming the next top chef. To me, that suggests food and the customer take a backseat to fame and potential lucre.
Leave it to Ed Kenney and David Caldiero, chef/partners of Town -- and now its sister establishments Downtown@the HiSAM and Downtown ASAP! --to deliver relief from the insanity by bringing the restaurant mission back to earth, putting food and customers first.
"Respect" is the first word that popped into my head on my first visit to Downtown. It expresses the idea of caring enough about diners' well-being to put food with integrity on the plate, at a fair price. The word came with my first nibbles of Wingnut's Super Size Salad ($9.50). It's a mystery salad based on maker Wing Ho's mood as he combines fruit, Ma'o Farms organic greens and nuts. What a selection it was that day: lettuces, arugula, tomatoes, beets, oranges and grapefruit, pistachios, pine nuts and Pecorino cheese with a light touch of vinaigrette. A great salad is still a rarity in this town, and this demonstrates what it takes to be great: freshness, vibrancy, variety, texture and flavor.
The gist of the Town/Downtown experience is getting people to appreciate the nuances of real food, as opposed to food drowned in cheese or sauces or otherwise pummeled into submission. There's no "look at me" theatrics, no going overboard to impress.
Strangely enough, we have strayed so far from foods au naturel that this nonfussy cuisine has had a polarizing effect. People I've talked to either love or hate Town. No matter. There are enough fans of Town to have filled Downtown from Day One. In spite of unexpected rushes, the operation is running smoothly on the ground floor of the Hawaii State Art Museum and the setting suits the cuisine: spare, uncluttered, artful.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chef Ed Kenney and the staff of Downtown@the HiSAM offer weekday lunches and First Friday tapas.
For now, it's a lunchtime operation, with salads running about $6 to $8 and large plates running about $9.50 to $16.50. At the high end is the most popular dish of a petite filet mignon served with a sauce of port and green peppercorn, plus arugula and shoestring potatoes.
Just as at Town, menus are subject to rotations based on chefs' whims, guest desires and the seasons. You may find a grilled cheese-size sandwich of tender duck confit with gruyere and Medjool date mustard on grilled rye ($10.50), Manila clams in a saffron broth with slices of chorizo, Kahuku corn kernels and roasted tomatoes ($9.50), or a lasagna of ground lamb with a mild tomato sauce, Pecorino and hint of mint ($13.50).
One intriguing offering was the steamed Medeiros chicken breast with crisp skin ($14.50). I wondered how it is possible to have a crisp skin with steaming. As it turns out, this might be most easily described as a warm variation of Chinese ginger chicken, with a jaunty cap of crisp chicken skin. Funny how the one dish with an architectural touch is also the one I'll not likely be ordering again.
For dessert, you'll find creme fraiche panna cotta ($6), a moist, old-fashioned olive oil cake topped with roasted Kula strawberries ($6), and they're big on Mexican churros y chocolate ($6). The chili-spiced Gitane chocolate is the attraction of the latter dish. It's tempting to drink the whole cup.
For those who can't linger, can't afford the sitdown lunch, or can't be seen dining alone, Downtown ASAP! offers quick counter service, with quiche, salad, sandwich, soup and antipasti combinations for less than $9.
The best may be yet to come for Downtown. Last week marked the debut of its First Friday tapas menu, the inspiration of staffer Jill Paldi, who spent time in Spain cooking at the Michelin three-star Arzak in San Sebastian.
Offered to revelers were 30 items, including spiced lamb-stuffed picadillo peppers, marinated manchego, jamon croquetas (ham-and-cheese fritters), squid salad with potatoes and olives, cured meats, bacon wrapped dates, etc.
Given the popularity of the tapas menu, it's destined to become regular First Friday fare. All that's missing is the sangria and sherry, though that may also become a reality when Downtown gets its liquor license in about four months.
There's always room for a slick restaurant that dazzles. I don't want or expect restaurants to be the same, and merely judge each upon what I believe each is trying to do. But because I do eat out so frequently, a place like Downtown, which puts on no airs, is a breath of fresh air, and we are lucky to be its beneficiaries.