Monday, May 12, 2008

Travel Dish: Downtown@HiSAM (Honolulu)

Where Food is More Popular Than Art
250 S. Hotel St., Honolulu
PH: 808.536.5900
Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted
Web site

There are several options for Honolulu’s business types looking for lunch in the downtown/financial district. One of the newest locations is a contemporary café serving up organic, clean flavors on the ground floor of the new Hawaii State Art Museum (HiSAM).

Known simply as Downtown, it’s from the same people behind a restaurant called Town in the Kaimuki neighborhood on the eastern side of Oahu. Downtown, which has the simple feel of a cafeteria, has a sit down area and a takeout counter called Downtown ASAP. When I was there for lunch, there was a constant line at the takeout counter for its sandwiches and salads.

I ate at the sit down area, decorated with amazing black and white photos, with my childhood friend Judy, who works at a law firm right across the street from the restaurant. The menu changes every day and is very much like the seasonal, organic restaurants of the San Francisco Bay Area. Downtown lists the local sources of their ingredients, and they always try to go organic.

We started with the Roasted Beet Salad with oranges, pecans, arugula, pistachio and a cheese called ricotta salata. The beets could have been a wee bit more tender, but overall it was a refreshing light start to our meal. Judy and I both liked the cheese, which had a salty flavor to it similar to pecorino but with the milky texture of ricotta.

For our entrees, Judy got the Pork Milanese with spring vegetables and a grilled lime. It’s similar to pork cutlet, but pounded very thin. Judy says she liked it, and I thought the breaded exterior had a nice flavor to it. But with so much pork, it seems like the dish would feel a bit dry without some kind of sauce.

I wanted to try a local fish, so I ordered the Seared Ono with white beans, Kahuku eggplant and Waianae cabbage. (Kahuku and Waianae are towns outside of Honolulu where a lot of produce are grown.) Ono is a nice, thick white fish and while it tasted good, it too was a bit on the dry side for my tastes. I did love the tender white beans and eggplant on one side and the shredded cabbage with light vinaigrette on the other.

We ended our lunch with the Pear Crisp topped with rum raisin ice cream. The crisp was what you’d expect it to be—a warm crumble of diced pears and crust cooled by the rich ice cream. It was a satisfying end to our meal.

I should also note that we had the best server in the house. Judy says he had waited at her table in the past and he’s always been good. And I agree because he was friendly, professional and very accommodating. He was expert in explaining all the dishes and would go out of his way to get things for us when we needed it. So the service, at least with this one server, was really above average.

Side note: There’s no parking, which is a problem when visiting downtown. So I’d recommend catching the bus because virtually every bus passes through downtown. If you do need to park, there is a public parking lot a block south of the restaurant (entrance is on Alakea Street) next to a popular dim sum restaurant called Mandalay. Just be prepared to pay a premium for parking.

Downtown@HiSAM is small but a popular place for lunch, and with good reason with its fresh and simple flavors. While the food reminds me a lot of the Bay Area, the local sourcing of ingredients definitely adds the island touch.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Lunch and Art)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Downtown @ The Hisam on Urbanspoon

One of the added bonus of eating at Downtown is strolling the galleries of HiSAM afterwards. HiSAM is in a renovated historic downtown building of the former Army YMCA. The art museum, which features contemporary collections, is primarily on the second floor. While it’s not a big museum, it’s free, which is a nice plus for something downtown. (It wasn’t very busy when I was there.)

There are only two small gallery spaces in the museum, and the following are some of my favorite things I saw at the current exhibit called Uncommon Objects.

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