Friday, May 30, 2008

Travel Dish: Restaurant EPIC (Honolulu)

A Makeover That Hits the Mark … Mostly
1131 Nuuanu Ave., Honolulu
Between Chinatown and Downtown
Open lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner daily, 5–10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
PH: 808.587.7877
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

For the last dinner of my Hawaii vacation, I went with my mom, brother and niece to a restaurant that will probably come to symbolize a place for second chances.

Let me break it down. Restaurant EPIC opened in February 2007 near the Hotel Street district of Honolulu. This is an area of old downtown Honolulu that is known for its red-light district but over the years has become home to art galleries and a few buzz-worthy restaurants like Indigo. EPIC opened with some buzz as well because its opening chef, Anthony Vierra, came from the quaint and popular downtown lunch spot, Grand Café & Bakery.

Just one month after EPIC opened in its location on Nuuanu Avenue, it closed abruptly. Vierra returned to Grand Café with little explanation other than something to do with “divergent minds” over the menu with the owners. The gossip, according to my brother, was that Vierra wasn’t quite ready to run a full-fledge restaurant serving dinner and the food got mixed results.

After a few months of what was officially a “remodeling,” EPIC reopened in the summer with a new chef with a bit more kitchen creds—Chef David Hoffman who worked in the kitchen of Hawaiian culinary hero Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s. Hoffman has brought his version of Yamaguchi’s once-groundbreaking Hawaiian fusion cuisine (local Hawaiian ingredients with Asian cooking influences) to EPIC. (EPIC, in fact, is an acronym for Euro-Pacific International Cuisine, and not a reference to the epic hopes of management.)

I’m one who believes in second chances in life, so I arrived for dinner with no preconceptions in my mind (which meant I avoided reading the Yelp reviews). The restaurant is right at the corner of Nuuanu and Pauahi, and its old town exteriors masks the grandiose interiors of gold and red décor. The restaurant name was everywhere, including big gold letterings on the main wall of the dining room.

We were seated in the bar area because I had made reservations at the last minute. But that was fine because we were near the window. The bar was filled with a combination of after-work, happy hour, pre-dinner patrons. EPIC’s menu has several options for appetizers and specialty drinks to keep people happy.

Much of the Hawaiian fusion comes in the appetizers and raw fish selection, with things like a poketini (ahi tuna poke). The entrées are split into two sections—makai and mauka. When visiting Hawaii, you have to get used to people giving directions like “makai side” or “mauka end.” Makai is Hawaiian for beachside and mauka means mountain. So on the Makai side of EPIC’s menu, you get the seafood selections and Mauka lists all the meat and poultry.

We started with the Heirloom Tomato Salad ($8), which isn’t really Hawaiian. I can get lots of beautiful heirloom tomatoes during the summer in the Bay Area. But I was intrigued by the description of pickled mango gelée served along with mozzarella and basil.

When it arrived, it was definitely a beautiful plate of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. But I couldn’t find the mango gelée. What I did get was a lot of the li hing mui powder, a weird trend a few years ago where everything in Hawaii was sprinkled with the sweet and tart powder used to marinate preserved plums sold as candy. Everything got the li hing touch, which I wasn’t a fan of. Thankfully, the chef’s sprinkling of li hing on the tomato salad was a bit more measured.

Next came a plate of the Kalua Pork Spring Rolls ($8). This isn’t necessarily the most original concept of stuffing crunchy spring rolls with the Hawaiian standard of kalua pig (or slow-roasted shredded pork). But it was well done. The spring roll skin was thin, which makes it nice and crunchy when deep fried. The pork inside was moist, and everything was served with a tropical-looking pineapple chutney that had just a slight bit of heat from chili peppers. My niece loved it.

For our entrées, I ventured into the Makai area while the rest of my family headed Mauka. I got the EPIC Seafood Paella ($25) because I love paella and wanted to see how this chef created his Hawaiian version. When it arrived, it was colorful and filled with an assortment of local clams, crab, shrimp, rock fish and scallops, but it lacked authenticity. One, because it wasn’t in a paella pan, which I can overlook because it could have been cooked in one and served separately; two, and most importantly, it didn’t have the bits of crunchy rice from the bottom of the pan known as “socarrat.” So really, the rice felt more like risotto than paella.

While EPIC’s paella is rich with a variety of ingredients, it was slightly on the bland side, needing more Spanish spices like maybe pimentón (smoked paprika) or saffron.

Chef Hoffman seems to do better with seasoning for the meat dishes because all my family’s entrées tasted delicious when I tried them. My brother got the Cochon ($24), which is a French cut bone-in pork served with apple chutney and a cassoulet of Tuscan white beans, pancetta and haricot vert in a balsamic reduction.

My niece got the Grilled Rib Eye Steak ($28), which was a tender piece of meat with a nice char outside, served with truffled Yukon potato wedges and garnished with crispy onion strips. My brother said the rib eye tasted better than my mom’s Filet Mignon ($32), but I actually preferred the filet mignon which had a milder taste. But it was obvious that both meat dishes benefited from quality sourcing and a tempered hand in getting the right doneness. (Both were ordered medium rare.)

I do have to note that both my niece and mom’s meat dishes were serve pretty much like standard steakhouse dishes, lacking any Hawaiian finesse or fusion. But if you have a good piece of meat, why dress it up with a lot of unnecessary accessories?

We ended our dinner by sharing the crème brulee ($7) and the seasonal fruit tart ($7) with vanilla ice cream. The crème brulee, one of my favorite desserts, was nicely done with a thin caramelized top cracking into a creamy filling. The tart was less successful. While it had fresh fruits with a nice sauce, the tart itself wasn’t that flakey and seemed to lose its battle with the sauce.

The service was very friendly, with our waiter making us feel comfortable and enthusiastically answering our questions about the menu. He would also strike up conversations with us in between service, which I always think is nice so you feel more at home.

Even though I never ate at the original EPIC, what I tasted this time seems to indicate that it was a right move for them to close down and reassess. While the food could improve here and there, overall it was a pleasant and interesting dining experience well worth a second try.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (touches of Hawaii elegance)

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

Restaurant Epic on Urbanspoon

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