The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Willows Rainbow Room's pupu-sized dishes include the pulehu flat iron steak with poha berry demi-glace.

Willows offers big dining
excitement on little plates

For years I've been crying for a restaurant revolution, but there's no need to hide the knives and cleavers. Mine would be a mild-mannered coup, certain to bring more excitement to the table. It involves ditching the giant entree in favor of tapas-style dining, the Western equivalent of Hong Kong's dim sum or Hawaii's pupu.

I crave variety, and if a restaurant's offering 16-ounce steaks and whole fish, well, that doesn't leave much room for surveying a menu. I'm sure you've been there as well -- pressured to settle on just one entree when all 10, 32, 116, look so tempting.

But words are cheap and change is difficult for those who make pleasing customers their business. On the one hand, smaller plates bring less revenue and more work to restaurateurs. On the other hand, we live in a state known for big bamboocha plate lunches, and many people scoff at the idea of grazing.

Willows Rainbow Room's pupu-sized dishes include the pan-seared scallops with truffle caviar buerre blanc.

And yet, chefs have primed us for this moment with kaiseki and tasting menus designed to pack variety and intensity into meals of multiple mini courses. But the only one that has fully embraced the "small plates" principle is The Willows Rainbow Room, where you can get your fill of dozens of pupu-proportioned delicacies.

Plates start at $5.95 and run to $9.95, with the bulk of items priced at $7.95, so costs add up quickly, comparable to a sushi bar.

The room itself is plain, done up in utilitarian golf club style. Try to reserve a window seat for a view of the life at the buffet downstairs, and the lovely grounds. What you see now is a manmade oasis, but architects tried to capture the magic of the site originally known as Kapa'akea Springs, once home to royalty and later, the Hausten family, who opened their home for weddings, luau and parties in the '30s. If you're hungry, save your stroll of the grounds for post-meal.

Waiters recommend starting with three dishes, and this is good advice. There is lag time before food enters your mouth and your tummy sends its overload message to your brain, so if you rest between bites you will eat (and pay) less.

THE MENU STARTS with entries from "The Garden," such as sautéed asparagus spears ($5.95) topped with Asiago cheese and finished in the broiler; field greens with lilikoi vinaigrette ($5.95) and Asian vegetables (gai lan, kai choy, daikon) served with soba in mushroom broth ($7.95).

Willows Rainbow Room's pupu-sized dishes include the ahi Napoleon.

I tried the mushroom sampler, a trio of portabello, shiitake and exquisite golden chantarelle, each given a different treatment, with the latter quickly sauteed in garlic herb butter. It's quite an extravagance at $7.95 and the experience reminded me of a New York Times article about acclaimed Catalan chef Ferran Adria, noted for his vegetable "foams" and in one case, presenting four different-flavored almonds as a dish. The story drew jeers later from letter writers but I could appreciate the chef's simple wish to focus on the beauty and essence of the almonds, and at The Willows, the mushrooms command this attention.

Also on the garden menu was a mini tower of mozzarella, each round not much bigger than a half-dollar coin, spinach and Maine lobster, drizzled with lilikoi vinaigrette ($7.95). Save for the vinaigrette, it lacked punch. Snapper ($8.95) steamed in parchment paper with julienned carrots and greens, was also plain.

Nevertheless, the ocean menu was most tempting to me -- few of the seafood selections made the mercury warning list after all -- with bacon-wrapped prawns with lobster cream sauce ($7.95), a seared ahi Napoleon ($6.95), and Maine lobster with shiitake confit ($9.95). Ignore the dry crab cakes ($6.95) and opt for the crispy pan-fried moi ($8.95) with its shallow pool of mild miso broth, and the plump pan-roasted twin scallops ($9.95) topped with a few pearls of ikura and served with truffle caviar beurre blanc.

From "The Range" I sampled only the grilled flat-iron steak with a sweet poha berry demi glace ($9.95), which is best devoured before the scallops in the same way that in sequencing a music recording, the right mix is crucial.

I will simply have to return to try the likes of Colorado lamb ($9.95) served with tomato Florentine and blue cheese; beef stew with potato gnocchi; and porcini-crusted veal chop ($9.95).

For dessert they offer a choice of cold, chocolate and hot trios at $7.95 to $9.95. This didn't quite work for me because I could imagine ODing on the chocolate soufflé and chocolate cheesecake alone. The staff was gracious in allowing me to make up my own trio of a vanilla ice cream cone, the soufflé and phyllo-wrapped banana, which was perfect -- the vanilla playing off the Ghirardelli chocolate and their creamy textures playing off the fruit and crisp phyllo. The only problem? I could have polished off at least two more of those baby soufflés.


901 Hausten St. / 952-9200

Food Star Star Star 1/2

Service Star Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Star 1/2

Value Star Star Star

Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays

Cost: Small plates run $5.95 to $9.95 each; expect to sample at least three or four per person for a meal running about $50 to $80 for two without drinks

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant 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


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