The Best Dining Block In Town
Wednesday - October 11, 2006
Chef Somphong “Pony” Norindr of
Almost every day, someone will either e-mail me or ask me the same question, “What’s your favorite restaurant?”
Sorry, but it’s impossible to answer.
Not that I don’t know the ins and outs of hundreds of great places - but to pick just one? Not easy.
For me, going out for dinner is about so many things. Sometimes it can mean celebrating at a special occasion at one of the finer places in town, but mostly I like to eat in restaurants that are owner-operated, have great food and a lot of character. And that doesn’t always mean spending a fortune. What it usually means is heading to a neighborhood and finding out what’s there.
There’s no better example of a tiny area that has four great restaurants within a block of each other than Moiliili. Spices, Bistro Sun, Maharani and Aki No No are all outstanding examples of small restaurants that manage to stay in business because they have passionate, committed owners and great, reasonably priced food. They’re all located on South King Street, either right before or right after Kokua Market (depending on which way you’re walking).
Spices offers the truest taste of regional Southeast Asian cuisine you’ll find in Honolulu. Yes, that’s a huge statement, considering all of our options, but it’s true. Somphong Norindr, one of the restaurant’s three owners, is also the chef. The menu belongs entirely to him and was born of his desire to bring a taste of the food of his culture to Hawaii. Pony, as he is affectionately known, was born in Laos, grew up in France, studied architecture in Switzerland and then made many moves around the world before settling in Hawaii. What he does at Spices is take seemingly familiar menu items (stuffed chicken wings, spring rolls, Pad Thai, grilled eggplant and Penang curry, for example) and turn them into truly wonderful, colorful, fragrant dishes that are scented with the flavors of Laos and Thailand - ginger, kaffir lime, lemon grass, coriander, turmeric, garlic, chili peppers and even dill, are used to dispel the myth that Thai food tastes the same wherever you go. I love this place. I love the sincerity and the passion of the owners, who frequently come out into the dining- room to check on everyone, chat about the food, get you another drink (it’s BYOB and they are incredibly accommodating about chilling your wine or beer), and just generally make you feel as welcome as you would in their home. Spices has been open for about 18 months and the initial lines outside the door have died down enough for those who hate to wait for tables to try it now.
Right next door, Bistro Sun offers an eclectic menu that combines Japanese and European (mostly Italian) food. No, it’s not that horrible fusion of ramen with white sauce or other such nonsense. It’s actually a surprisingly sophisticated menu that features dishes like ahi carpaccio, a very good Italian onion soup and the beautifully named Gorgeous Antonio Pilaf. Michael Franzen is the manager and he is relentless in making sure that every detail of your evening is just perfect. Bistro Sun is really a delightful spot. I love the kitsch décor, the admirable dedication of Franzen and the owner, Mieko Usami, and of course the food.
Just a few steps away is one of the best hidden Izakaya spots in town. Aki No No is owned by chef Aki Ito and his wife Lisa, and together they serve outstanding sushi and combination meals that offer tremendously good value. Late night complete dinners that feature fresh nigiri, sushi rolls, udon noodles, green salad and potato salad are around $14. When I walked past the other night (on my way home from Spices) there was a dinner special advertised for just $12.95 But do not mistake the special pricing for lower quality - there is a high level of quality here and the chef, a sushi master who trained in Japan, treats guests to teppanyaki dishes, expertly cut sushi and specialties such as toro steak, miso butterfish and ginger pork. Try the ahi katsu - ahi wrapped in chizo and then flash fried.
And finally, just along this tiny block that measures no more than a quarter mile, there’s Maharani, a restaurant that serves a great example of the fragrant, spicy, hot and tender dishes that make up true Indian food. Maharani is family owned and operated, and like its neighbors depends on word of mouth and frequent visits from its regular clientele to stay open. Not only do these neighborhood restaurants deserve your business, I’m absolutely certain that you’ll love them all.
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