DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
3-Star Gourmet II Restaurant, located at 810 Richards St., is busy as they serve up their "3-Star" gourmet plate lunches to a crowd that lines up out the door. Robert Borce, left, his wife, Racquel, and Art DeGuzman hold grilled island mahi topped with warm tomatoes, capers and relish; smoked salmon over mixed greens; and a Cajun shrimp salad, respectively. Also pictured are Rudy Villanueva, far left, and sous-chef Nestor Mabborang.
3-Star puts twist on basics
It's sad when a McDonald's can't survive, and when the McD at Richards and Queen streets closed, it didn't take long for 3-Star Gourmet II to move in.
3-Star Gourmet II
810 Richards St., Suite 100 / 566-6353
Hours: 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Fridays
Cost: Less than $10 per person
A restaurant named 3-Star Gourmet is likely to lure customers due to its curiosity factor alone. Oh, the questions that name raises, for starters, "Why stop at three stars? Why not four, or five? What does being a three-star restaurant mean? What if they're really a four-star restaurant?"
In the process of wondering, I, for one, felt compelled to taste and confirm the accuracy of the self-rating.
No doubt its owners understand the role of expectations in experiences. The first time I saw "The Dark Knight," after reading all the advanced hype and waiting a year for its release, I sat for the first hour thinking, "This is just OK. Why did everyone say it was so good?"
The film doesn't live up to expectations until the philosophical second half, but some viewers I know continued to be unimpressed.
The same psychology applies to restaurants. If you go in with high expectations after reading a rave review, you're more likely to be disappointed than if you went in cold or with low expectations.
While restaurants statewide have been raising prices, 3-Star Gourmet II -- the original is on Bishop Street -- enters the picture offering full plates at $7.50 to $8.50, giving basic ingredients a gourmet twist.
Chicken piccata with pasta ($7.50), for instance, is topped with a wonderful fresh saute of tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and capers. Four-star treatment, for sure, but the danger of using chicken filets this thin is overcooking, which is exactly what brought it down to three stars, or less, depending on how much you enjoy chewing ... and chewing, and sawing and sawing with the plastic fork given to accomplish this task.
I worried about dryness with the seared furikake salmon ($8.50) as well, but what did I tell you about diminished expectations? I was rewarded with a thick, perfectly cooked fillet. But here the problem was drowning the furikake in a thick, creamy dill sauce. I'd like to believe that most people who order furikake anything want to taste the dry seaweed, and the sauce is superfluous. Some might like the sauce, but to me it's an either/or choice and diners should be allowed to pick one.
Perhaps there are a lot of diners who do like overkill, because it didn't end there. Steak ($8.50) blackened with Cajun spices is also accompanied by a dollop of sweet chutney to temper the burn, but my feeling is, if you can't take the heat, don't order blackened steak or fish.
THE SCOPE OF the menu seems impressive until orders arrive and you notice its repetitiveness. Fire-roasted chicken ($7.50) is the same as the piccata with the same tomato-onion saute, though topped with mornay or pesto sauce. Four jumbo shrimp are blackened in Cajun spices for a salad ($6.25) bearing the name Caesar.
Your best bet might be to order off the list of daily specials, including fresh fish, which when I visited was ono, topped with the tomato saute.
I didn't get to try the sandwiches, which range from tuna melt ($5.75) to an Angus burger ($6.50).
Most of the crowd descends at lunchtime and wipe the pantry clean, so although the same menu is offered at night, selections can be limited while the staff tries to get a feel of evening traffic. Popular dishes such as the poke salad ($6.50) and blackened ahi were recently unavailable at night, so if you have takeout plans, it might be a good idea to pick it up at lunchtime and store it in the company fridge.
What's great is that they really do try to please here and give customers what they want. So if you want breakfast at night, you can get bacon and eggs, or Spam and eggs with a choice of rice, hash browns or toast, for $5.75. They make some great basic omelets for $5.75 to $6.25 with the same choice of starches. Buttermilk pancakes are $4.25, and $5.25 with a choice of bananas, blueberries or macadamia nuts.
Their heart is in the right place in delivering the kind of food people want to eat, at probably less than it would cost diners to reconstruct the meals at home. Even so, "budget gourmet" meals have been around a long time, and I can think of a couple of places, like Kakaako Kitchen and Nico's, that do it better.