Honolulu has had a dearth of cozy sit-down restaurants where the food is reliably good and the prices not too pain-inducing — what are called in other cities “neighborhood” restaurants (this to differentiate them from “destination” restaurants).
Among the first to fit this mold were Kevin Hanney’s 12th Ave. Grill and Ed Kenney’s town. I love the food at both these places and the deeply held good intentions of both these thoughtful chefs. But I rarely go to to either restaurant. They’re just too noisy and, at town, the waiters too blase. It’s a sadness to me because, as I said, the food speaks to me.
At least at town, you can try to snag a table on the lanai for a little quiet. Funny thing: Noise comes up whenever you talk about these restaurants and yet they remain crazy busy.
Now Hanney and chef de cuisine Quinten Frye have opened SALT kitchen & tasting on Waia’lae Ave. It officially bowed a couple of weeks but I make a habit of waiting at least two weeks on a new restaurant, until the gotta-be-first crowd has given the waitstaff and kitchen their trial by fire.
Nine-word review. Food: Delectable. Atmosphere: Chaotic. Acoustics: Loud. Return likelihood: Unlikely.
The small plates menu is the way I love to eat — portions small enough to allow me to graze a number of different dishes. Mine is a Mediterranean palate and I cook in a Mediterranean kitchen; this selection of cheeses and salumi, olives and almonds, sherry and garlic, figs and eggplant, aioli and tomatoes all make sense to me. I liked everything I tasted and positively crave a couple of the dishes (I ate my leftovers with my fingers while I wrote this review!). Among these: Fried egg, Calabrian chili aioli, frisee and grilled bread ($5). Roasted beets, goat cheese pistachios and arugula ($11). Three-cheese plate with preserved tart cherries and a drizzle of honey (was supposed to be figs and honey, but figs must have been elusive) ($14, with marinated chevre, St. Andre and manchego).
My daughter, shall we say a discriminating palate (she discriminates between what she thinks is “weird” and what’s “normal”), who has Italian roots, heartily approved the charcuterie platter (the work of charcutier Doug Kocol — bet SALT’s one of the very few restaurants here that has such a job description). But she wished they made better crostini “the way you make them” — sweet to a mom’s ears. (I rub dry bread with garlic and brush with olive oil before toasting.)
I loved it that there was not one thing Asian on the menu. I am so TIRED of Asian in restaurants.
I think the totally downcase menu is silly and hard to read. But the prices are more than reasonable.
I hate the fact that the entire place seems to be catering to people who don’t care about service, who are more interested in alcohol than food, who are counting the check before they make an order, who don’t mind screaming instead of (as we tell our children) “using your indoor voice” and aren’t offended when they don’t understand the rules.
Here’s the deal: There’s no host or hostess or reception desk. You enter a long, narrow bar, which had only one empty seat when we arrived. To your left is a steep staircase to the second-floor dining area, which seats a scant 25. It was totally full. We stood waiting, gesturing feebly, making vein attempts to make eye contact with the few staff on the floor. Gave up. Went to the bar (where you can have the full menu). I sat, Daughter stood.
Bartender told us, in a bored tone, that we just had to “keep going upstairs to check if a table comes open.” Daughter went up once. Nothing. I went up a second time, spotted a table, a guy who looked like a host (collared shirt instead of T-shirt) told me it was already spoken for. I started to remonstrate but he said we’d get the next one. Went downstairs again. Got a table a few minutes later. Ate another couple of courses.
Hint to restaurateurs: Local people come in two stereotypes: Type D, diffident, would rather die than make a scene or Type C, easily offended complainers who’ll argue endlessly over a 1 cent charge. Both types, no matter what they say to your face, will tell everyone they know what went wrong.
Then I asked for a single espresso. And it came in a full-size coffee cup. I’ve never seen an espresso served this way. Makes you feel ripped off even though the pour was correct. Expresso quickly lost heat. What the ????
Here’s what’s going to happen with me and SALT. I’m going to daydream about the perfect, creamy/crispy breaded fried egg, the salad with pistachio and beets (though I wish the beets were caramelized rather than plain cooked), the wonderful chevre with honey. And I probably won’t go back unless I lose my mind and invite a bunch of 20-something texters to dinner. I’ll never take my husband, whose hearing aided ears would suffer actual pain in such an environment. (And be aware: Though women make the bulk of the decisions about social occasions, they know where their husbands will and will not go, and the rate of hearing loss among older males is high and growing.)
Could one of you hip, skilled chefs out there PUHLEEZE open a restaurant for us open-pocketed older foodies who are craving cutting edge small plates and retro-inspired comfort food and are willing to pay for it IF it comes with a reasonably peaceful environment, reservations and genuinely caring service.