Kalapawai's mode is good, easy eating


POSTED: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

People often ask whether I ever return for follow-up reviews of restaurants. I do when there's news, like a radical menu change or the arrival of a new chef. For the most part, restaurants are repositories of an overall culinary, or business, philosophy that doesn't change much from month to month or year to year, so I could probably count on two hands the ones that have had second reviews.

So a second review of Kalapawai Cafe & Deli in two years is quite a feat on their part. This is the culinary equivalent of “;The Little Engine That Could,”; having expanded from the humblest beachside sundry store to its second takeout location at the entrance to Kailua, which now offers full-fledged dinner service, a prospect too tempting to ignore.

When last I checked in with Kalapawai, the Dymond family was offering about 25 deli items throughout the day, as dine-in, picnic or mealtime side options, plus a tapas evening menu. Light options are ideal for me, but those who prefer the simplicity of the big entree over the brain gymnastics involved in selecting many smaller dishes will find plenty to like about the new dinner menu, with ample choices of soups, salads and starters, entrees and sides.

The European practice of combining small bites and wine is still evident in the starter courses, such as several variations of bruschetta ($8 or $9), and a salad ($9) of tender Nalo greens with bacon-wrapped figs and sprinkled with shaved manchego.

It would take you a while to cycle through the various forms of bruschetta, whether topped with smoked salmon and boursin ($9), tomato and chevre ($8), truffled cannellini beans ($9) or mellow eggplant confit dotted with honey, chevre and basil aioli ($9).

On sampling the Hauula tomato bisque ($10), I felt very sad, not for the restaurant, but for Honolulu diners deprived of such an adult take on grilled cheese and tomato soup, served in such a charming, casual setting, and just shows how far we have to go to catch up to other cities' thinking about food and lifestyle.




Kalapawai Cafe & Deli

        750 Kailua Road » 262-DELI (3354)

Food ;*;*;*
        Service ;*;*;*;*
        Ambience ;*;*;*;1/2
        Value ;*;*;*;1/2


Hours: Open from 6 a.m. daily, with dinner service from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, and to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays Cost: About $40 to $60 for two without drinks


Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.


The rich bisque was served with mild muenster cheese — what, no gruyere? — panini on crisp, French bread, and while there are plenty of restaurants that can manage a fine tomato bisque, eating well shouldn't have to involve a big to-do, dressing up and heading to a fancy restaurant. Sometimes you just want good food without the rigmarole, and Kalapawai Cafe delivers that in a no-pressure setting. Spend 20 minutes nibbling tapas with or without wine, or stay for an hours-long dinner. It's all good.

Toward this end, another aspect of the menu I liked was that some of the salads and a local-style clam bake ($9 half/$18 full) came with the option of ordering half or full portions, depending on whether you're a grazer or gorger. The half clam bake is perfect as a sampler for those not quite willing to risk full price. For this you get a half-dozen of the smallest clams I have ever seen — smaller than Manilas — but they're a small part of the package that also includes fingerling potatoes, a half ear of Kahuku corn, and Portuguese sausage, onions and carrots in a tomato-saffron broth. It's a bit of a novelty in a town without clam bakes, and in the small portion the price is right. I don't think I'd spring for the full size.

It would take a while to explore the entire dinner menu. Every dish looks tempting, from an 8-ounce Wagyu flat iron steak oozing roasted garlic-gorgonzola butter ($26), to duck leg braised in red wine with figs ($18) or a vegetarian-oriented Waialua asparagus risotto with mushrooms and white truffle drizzle ($14).

There is a daily fish selection, but it doesn't appear to be a priority when, on my visit, the “;fish”; was scallops. I do give them a lot of credit, though, for incorporating so much local produce into their dishes, including Ho Farms cucumbers and Nalo arugula ($9) in a salad that also includes mango, avocado and sweet chili-roasted pistachios.

If the absence of fish is a result of attention to sustainability issues, then, well, we should all consider consuming less fish anyway. The menu includes a note that they will use only line-caught fish whenever possible.

Kalapawai also does a lot of things to make dining easier. Among them is serving its meat entrees boneless for unhampered chowing. New Zealand lamb loin ($23) is grilled and sliced for you, topped with a mint chimichurri sauce and a vibrant, crunchy snap pea and Kahuku corn salad.

Buttermilk-brined pork chop ($19) is also boneless, and served with a sweet Kula rhubarb chutney with Kahuku corn whipped potatoes.

The pork was on the dry side, always a hazard with pork, and on second thought I might have done better to order beef.

Just be sure to leave room for dessert, with another round of local flavors, ranging from a macadamia nut tart ($6.50) to a banana layer cake ($6). A daily fruit crisp ($8.95) often makes use of seasonal berries.

Those visiting Kailua for monthly Second Sunday Art Walks can also drop by for art shows from 1 to 5 p.m. those days, and wine tastings from 3:30 to 5 p.m. (or when the wines are gone).


Nadine Kam's restaurant review appears every Wednesday in the Star-Bulletin. Restaurants are reviewed anonymously. Meals are paid by the Star-Bulletin.