Appreciating The Art Of Lunch

Jo McGarry
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Friday - October 20, 2006
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The quickest way to establish yourself as one of those ladies who lunch (if that’s where your aspirations lie) is to make a reservation at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Pavilion Café.

Where I come from, museums and art galleries are the bastion of students, bearded poets and senior citizens who take advantage of reduced rates at both the cafeterias and the galleries themselves. Even at the most prestigious art museums in Europe, I’ve always lunched among a pretty eclectic crowd. But it seems that the Pavilion Café has a more specific audience. You’ll see what I mean when you get there.

The menu is a fabulously well-balanced mix of light, Mediterranean-style dishes and fresh, local ingredients, and lunch here is incredibly good. The restaurant seats about 100 people, with the outdoor tables shaded by the boughs of a 100-year-old monkeypod tree. The Pavilion Café has been around for more than a decade, but renovations to the building in recent years (largely the design of talented chef/owner Mike Nevin) have resulted in a beautiful open room with views of a waterfall, the Doris Duke Theater and the impressive sculptures of Jun Kaneko. Teak furniture, stone floors and potted plants on every table give the room a tremendous vibrancy, and with the prominence given to local produce, I was impressed by the feeling of “life” the restaurant has.

The wait staff is fairly pleasant, although you can tell that they get their share of demanding customers who are not happy that they have to wait for tables (make a reservation here before you go as it’s almost always fully booked). Our waitress did a good job of explaining the menu, and the staff is pretty good at anticipating needs. There’s none of that “you’re-not-my-problem” evasiveness that prevails at so many Honolulu restaurants.

One thing to note: If you like quiet lunchtime conversation, be warned - it’s really noisy. With the waterfall, the constant stream of people walking in and out of the café, and the echoes from the tiled floor, it’s not a place to have a whispered conversation. It’s so noisy, in fact, that I found myself repeating questions to my lunch date who, as far as I know, isn’t deaf. But it’s the best kind of noise - the noise of life happening around you.

I loved the Nicoise Salad ($12.95) with seared coriander, crusted ahi and roasted shallot vinaigrette, and the Warm Big Island Goat Cheese and Nalo Green Salad topped with a seasonal fruit and honey thyme vinaigrette is delightful ($10.95).

We also tried the White Bean Salad - a refreshing blend of arugula, white beans and wilted radicchio with shiitake mushrooms and a balsamic vinaigrette with Reggiano cheese.

There are soups, sandwiches and a different pasta dish each day (we had a pleasant but unre-markable Portuguese Bean Soup) and there are new menu additions every few months or so. A must-try item is the fabulous Piadina ($9.95), an Italian grilled flatbread with arugula, tomatoes, cucumber, basil, garlic, fresh mozzarella and prosciutto. I ordered the Anaheim Peppers too (my appetite has more in common with a construction worker than a lady who lunches, and the menu is definitely on the light and healthy side), but wasn’t impressed with the abundance of oil and overwhelming presence of garlic - although I love anchovies and there were plenty of those.

If you leave room for dessert, you should definitely try the wonderful Chocolate Pot De Crème ($5.95), or treat yourself to a sundae made with gelato or sorbet and topped with candied ginger or strawberries.

The Pavilion Café is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch only, although I’m sure there must be hundreds of customers who’ve begged Nevin to open for dinner. Make a reservation before you go (532-8734) - or figure in a leisurely tour of the museum while you wait. There’s no admission charge to the Art Academy if you’re just going for lunch, and there’s lots of easy, metered parking on neighboring streets.

And while Nevin’s menu is no secret to most - I’m sure there are many of you who’ll love discovering this delightful lunch spot for the first time.

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