LOGIC would seem to dictate that small restaurants should offer only items they do best and stick with them, a la Boston's North End Pizza. But logic cowers in the presence of passion, so more often the novice restaurateur adopts the department-store mentality of offering something for everyone. The result? A big menu with a few good dishes and a lot of mediocre ones.
These days, small restaurants are adopting another strategy. Instead of merely offering a multitude of dishes, why not offer multiple cuisines? Cast your net wide enough and surely you'll reel in every kind of hungry person, whether they're looking for Vietnamese, Thai, French or Italian cuisine.
I'm not talking fusion -- the blending of east-west flavors and techniques -- but totally separate cuisines. I'm generally not a fan of these mix-and-match restaurants, finding preparations watered down, muddled and confused. But at Longboards Cafe, such is chef/owner Surt Soulatha's skill in the kitchen that for once, the culinary grab bag turns up a real prize.
The Longboards name reflects Soulatha's interest in surfing, and makes the restaurant appear to be a coffee bar or hamburger joint. Instead, you'll find a diverse menu of Thai and Italian dishes, with a few French-style specials offered daily.
THE restaurant appeared in place of Catania's on King Street a few doors away from Kokua Market. Soulatha offered the Italian dishes so Catania's customers wouldn't go into tomato-sauce withdrawal, but he said many of Catania's clientele have already told him that his food is better. So much for loyalty.
Soulatha, who looks all of 16 years old, nevertheless has 16 years of restaurant experience, most notably as saucier at Michel's at Colony Surf before it closed and reopened. There, he formulated his own philosophy of using quality ingredients, but charging realistic prices.
Instead of paying $20 to $30 for a dinner of Lobster Ravioli, you'll pay $12.25 for the plump dumplings, topped by a rich lobster cream sauce. A special of kajiki, or Pacific blue marlin, was served in a tart, lemony sauce with green beans, asparagus and mushrooms. Many chefs refuse to use kajiki because it tends to be dry, but Soulatha managed to keep the fish as moist as it could be. Another special of Veal Piccata ($13.25) was topped by a sheer sauce of butter, lemon, white wine and light madeira.
Portions seem small, but physiologically, they are the perfect size for the 3- to 8-ounce capacity human opu. Give your eyes a rest and let your stomach decide when it's full, or pay an extra $3 for a side dish of pasta.
The items above reflect only one aspect of the restaurant. The other half is highlighted by such Thai dishes as a spicy, lime- and mint-perfumed Calamari Salad ($5.25); Red Curry Chicken ($9.25) with basil and bamboo shoots; and occasionally, Crab Legs sauteed in a tomato, garlic, chili and onion sauce. These were a little messy, but ono.
For dessert, there is homemade Tiramisu, and Soulatha even searched for the best ice cream he could bring to the table. He found it on the Big Island. Just taste the green tea flavor.
This is the best food I've had while on the job, in a long time.
Longboards CafeWhere: 2671 S. King St. Park in back of Aloha Poi Bowl
Hours: Lunch daily from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner 5 to 9:30 Sundays through Thursdays, to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Prices: About $30 to $35 for two; B.Y.O.B., $1.50 corkage fee
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:
-- excellent;To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to email@example.com
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- below average.