WHAT we witnessed last year in restaurants was a lot of optimism. It surprised me that despite continuing economic doldrums, the cafes, bistros, bars and cafeterias kept coming. I thought that in 1998 I'd be in deep kim chee -- revisitng restaurants I'd been to before, places everybody knew. But that didn't happen.
It was a busy year
for new restaurants
I can't believe that, given the financial risk that accompanies a restaurant opening, there are so many chef/entrepreneurs willing to take the plunge. I'm not about to stop them from dreaming.
For the most part, the restaurants are better than ever. If it doesn't seem like that's true, it's because consumers have grown up. Before, people were charitable, appreciative of each brave new attempt. These days, diners are far more spoiled, sophisticated and critical. The same people who once scolded me for being mean-spirited, now say I'm too kind. (I aspire to neither, only aiming to tell the truth.) The economy and 10 years of better restaurants have a little to do with this critical approach. In the past, restaurants that didn't deliver might have hung around for a year or two. These days, they're gone in a few months.
Following is a brief recap of the year in restaurants, with a few hopeful projections:
Arrivals: 1998 seemed to be a year of humble openings. Restaurateurs looked beyond Honolulu to the neighborhoods. Waikele saw the opening of Kunio Japanese Restaurant and Pasta Italia. Kailua welcomed The Food Company and a Mexican war broke out. Kaimuki made room for Sun Tak Seafood Restaurant, Big City Diner and Catch of the Day Sushi. Teddy's brought its Bigger Burger to neighboring Diamond Head.
Coming in at year end were Brew Moon and Chai's Island Bistro. I'll have to get to others, like Chef Mavro's and Don Ho's Island Grill in the new year.
Departures: Kelly's Coffee and Pastry Shop closed in March after 47 years in business. Flamingo Chuckwagon closed in October after 31 years. Also gone, Frankie's Drive-In in Waimanalo. And Kahala Moon closes its doors today, but look for chef-owner Kelvin Ro to resurface in posher digs.
Island hopping: Sam Choy opened a restaurant in Kahului, Maui, while Philippe Padovani moved over to Waikiki, leaving the peaceful surroundings of Lanai's Manele Bay Hotel. David Paul Johnson, with one successful restaurant on Maui, moved over to Oahu to open his Diamond Head Grill.
Tapering trends: All-Star Cafe opened, and it looked like other theme restaurants were due here, but given a choice between a diet of primarily decor, and say, dim sum, what you gonna choose? One can't subsist on plywood rain forests and fashion in frames. Also on the wane: wraps, and when was the last time you saw a cigar dinner advertised?
Chefs as chemists: Just about every delicious thing that can be done with food, has been done. These days, experimentation often leads to mismatched goop, more shocking than sublime. You can't stop a chef from playing with food, but it seems that rather than restricting themselves to flavors alone, some are channeling their energy toward scientific endeavors. Kitchens are doubling as labs where cooks rediscover the optimal combinations of foods to help remedy what ails us. Someday we will all be able to order dishes that are not only delicious, but will "aid digestion" or "mend the heartbreak of psoriasis."
Next big thing: Please let it be the cuisine of India. Zaffron gave us a little to celebrate, but otherwise, there's been a dearth of masala and mulligatawny here. With clothing now bearing henna-style tattoos and Madonna donning saris, these visions may somehow lead chefs to imagine the color, then flavor, of saffron and beyond.
See a listing of past restaurants reviewed in the
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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:
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- below average.
To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to email@example.com