Fear was not an option


POSTED: Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Same time last year, I was scared for restaurants and retailers. The credit freeze was sure to take its toll on those who had been partying with other peoples' money over the last few years. I feared there would be many restaurant closures, and I worried the well of new restaurants would run dry.

Taking stock at the end of the year, yes, the credit crunch took its toll on the retail sector, but the restaurant industry proved to be resilient, confirming the notion that even in bad times people still have to eat. And they weren't just eating at tried-and-true spots as new restaurants kept popping up all year. Remarkable.

Splashy restaurants tended to open early in the year, moving forward with plans that had been made long before the economy fizzled. Otherwise, the lavish openings of the past have been put on hold, but the dream of running a restaurant continues to thrive with more mom-and-pop outlets trying their luck, which gives me more optimism in 2010.

A month-by-month recap of my reviews shows that restaurant openings kept their momentum, even in a down market.

Z Pizza opened at Ward Centre, bringing a more healthful version of the staple food to the islands. A gluten-free crust offering didn't seem like such a big deal at the time, but by year's end it seemed we all knew someone allergic to gluten. The avalanche has just begun.

During the rest of the year, diners showed their fondness for pizza by flocking to JJ Dolans, Bar 35 and V Lounge. Such comfort fare set the tone for the year.

Jimmy Buffet's created a cavernous, deep-blue, ocean-themed oasis for Parrotheads to congregate. Wolfgang's Steakhouse brought the ultimate in steak connoisseurship to Waikiki.

A burger joint happened to host the most star-studded restaurant opening fete of the year thanks to burger-hungry members of the “;Lost”; crew who showed up to celebrate the Counter. Tia Carrere was also in town, and even with her TV-ready figure, showed she's not one to turn down a good burger. Even without star power, though, the build-it-your-way burgers—with a myriad topping options from basics of fried onion strings and Tillamook cheddar, to dried cranberries—proved to be a winner for burger enthusiasts across the island.

Something new for Honolulu, cuisine of the Himalayas arrived upstairs in the 11th Avenue Atrium via Himalayan Kitchen, with a menu reflecting India-meets-China flavors. Owner of the atrium, Ted Sung, appears to be on a mission to create a miniature restaurant row of his own on the site.

Azure at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel saw the return of chef Jon Matsubara to the kitchen, with a delicious menu of creative small plates such as Kona baby back ribs that arrives in a puff of kiawe smoke, sorbet accompanied by the snap, crackle and fizz of Pop Rocks and an overall focus on fish auction selections.

Macrobiotic foods are a tough sell, but Hale's Moco Kubota is committed to a healthful lifestyle and has taken macrobiotic cuisine to a more luxurious level. In my review, I suggested that this is the future of food, “;a sustainable way to eat after we have depleted our oceans and it becomes obvious the planet can no longer support livestock.”; The inevitable can be delayed if more people start eating more like this now.

They may have opened earlier in the year, but by summer those too lazy to bus' out the grills found they could sate their appetite for barbecue by heading to Hog Island BBQ in Kaimuki or Sweet Home Waimanalo on the Windward side for slow-smoked barbecue meats and sides.

Go Shi Go opened on Keeaumoku Street to offer noodle lovers the ultimate udon experience, with the noodles made from scratch on site by owner Hidetaka Ushiki. The finished noodles are delicious hot or cold.

Meanwhile, fans of chicken wings could get them at Buffalo Wild Wings, and not just blazin' hot or teriyaki style, but 14 different ways, including spicy garlic and mango habanero styles.

Heading to the Leeward side, I found a lot going on at Aiea Bowl, where chef-owner Glenn Uyeda has taken on the monumental task of reinventing the bowling alley as a dining and entertainment center. The Le Bernadin alumnus has the chops to see his vision through. In addition to the bakery, the pizzas, the lounge and parties, Uyeda launched Tasty Tuesdays, a five-course tasting menu that changes every month. This month's menu features smoked salmon, Asian BBQ lamb riblets, pasta Parmagiano, pan-seared opah and creme brulee.

And diners in Waipahu/Waipio got an authentic Mexican restaurant in Acapulco at the Waipio Gentry Shopping Center, with diversity beyond basic tacos and burritos.

Over on the Windward side, A Cup of Tea is more than a place for lunch and afternoon tea. It's become a hangout for many a girls'-night-out soiree, where women can get dressed up to enjoy pastries, finger sandwiches, soups and salads with their pots of tea.

For a brief time, Tsukiji Fishmarket welcomed Buddhist vegetarian offerings in honor of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii's 120th anniversary. The turnout makes me think there is an audience for good vegetarian fare should anyone else want to make it permanent.

Bali's switch to a Steak and Seafood restaurant and a visit to Yogen Fruez brought to mind two of the biggest dining trends of the year: the return of the steakhouse and the proliferation of frozen yogurt shops.

Where Pinkberry was but a dream just two years ago, today we still have no Pinkberry, but since late 2008 we've welcomed Menchie's, Orange Tree, Red Mango, Tropic Rush, Yogen Fruez, Yogo Crazy, Yogurtland and Yogurt Mama.

The comfort food craze also spawned crepe fever. Without much of a history in the islands, most people became acquainted with these European sweets and savories through carts set up at various festivals. Since then, Le Crepe Cafe has found a permanent home at 2740 E. Manoa Road, while Crepes No Ka Oi has a haven in breakfast town, Kailua, at 131 Hekili St.

Kai Market, which opened in August, sets the pace for 2010 with its progressive farm-to-table concept, which brings sustainability issues to the public with a menu striving for 80 percent use of Hawaii-produced, sustainable ingredients, perhaps the highest percentage possible on an island far from major land masses.

Where “;sustainability”; was just an ideal two years ago, the economy gave a boost to the movement as we got a taste of what life will be like if we continue to rely on imported food. If you have not yet heard of Kanu Hawaii and Hoku Caterers, Oahu's first sustainable caterer, you will.

And, perhaps saving one of the best for last, BLT Steak opened in the Trump International Hotel, with herb-buttered steaks, a raw bar and, above all, superb service. What could have been all hype and Trump-style bluster turns out to be the real deal.

Happy eating in 2010!