Strange Brouhaha

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Travel Report, part 3

Until this trip, I hadn't seen my friend David in person for a decade or so, and I hadn't seen my friend Michelle in even longer. One of the great things about traveling this time was that I knew that we'd all get to hang out and catch up and do stuff. We made a bunch of plans beforehand, to go out to dinner, and to a Bon dance, and some other things. It was really great to see you guys! (And feel free to correct any part of what comes next. I'm working from notes that I wrote while half in the bag.)

For dinner one night, we went to 12th Ave Grill in Kaimuki, just down the hill from my parents' house. The restaurant is apparently one of the hottest tables in Honolulu these days, and we were lucky to snag a reservation.

I've seen reviews of 12th Ave that claim that it's noisy, but I have to say that the impression that I got when I walked in the door was one of calm and quiet. It's a small, casual dining room, maybe fifteen tables and a counter, all tastefully underdecorated and muted. The counter looks through a large window into the kitchen; the specials board hangs above the window. There was no music playing. Basically, there is nothing in the restaurant to distract you from the main attraction: the food.

For someone for whom "fine dining" is a steak at Outback, it was like walking into heaven. I really don't like places with gimmicks, with gimcracks and gewgaws strewn about, televisions and music blaring, trying to disguise the fact that they're all serving the same reheated, deep-fried Sysco junk. Just in terms of atmosphere, more places should be like 12th Ave.

Our starter was a plate of fried calamari, thoughtfully given to us by our old classmate Denise, who--correct me if I'm wrong--is married to the chef. (It was good to see Denise, too, by the way; she and I go way, way back to fourth grade.) If you've ever had overdone, heavily-battered, rubbery "Italian Restaurant" calamari, you owe it to yourself to go to 12th Ave Grill to see how it should be done: very lightly breaded (the texture of the breading was panko-like), and fried for just the right amount of time. It was served with a fantastic marinara that tasted like it was mixed with shoyu or some other kind of sauce. Heaven: the flavors played against each other perfectly.

We moved on to salads. I had the house salad, and if there had to be a disappointment, this was probably it for me. The greens were okay, but it seemed unbalanced with the (very nicely) chopped carrot and very strong onion. To me, they just overpowered the otherwise very delicate taste of the salad and dressing. The tomatoes felt desultory as well. Michelle and Becky's salads looked much better.

As a main course, David and I both had the cinnamon-and-something-else braised short ribs, served with horseradish mashed potatoes. There are almost no words to describe this dish other than "Oh My God." The knife provided was completely unnecessary. The meat just kind of fell apart when you looked at it. As with the calamari, the flavors were perfectly balanced with no false notes. The potatoes were a perfect complement: the horseradish was present but not too strong. I think there's a reason that people constantly ask for the dish even though it's no longer on the menu, and it's a wise choice for them to bring it back.

Now, at this point in your usual chain restaurant dining experience, you've been stuffed to the gills and are about to explode. When the server chirps out "Did anyone save any room for dessert?" she's reaching for the check at the same time because she knows you're going to say "Helllllllllll no!"

Not so at 12th Ave.

The portions were perfectly sized. The calamari went four ways quite nicely, the salads were nicely done, the entree just the right amount. Dessert, instead of an imposition, was a logical conclusion to the evening.

And what a conclusion. I had the mango crisp and immediately vowed either to never bake again or to keep trying until I could get a topping so nicely browned and crisp. I like pies and crisps, and this was easily the best ever. (It's mango season; I have very little doubt that the mangoes had still been on the tree the day before.) Michelle's lemon mousse cake looked like it was ready for a photo shoot: the blueberry garnish just about exploded out of the vibrant yellow sauce.

The service was excellent as well. I found that the server showed up at just the right times. She was friendly, and a little daffy without being obtrusive about it. She certainly did the wine service nicely.

So, maybe part of it was the company, but I found 12th Ave Grill to be a superb restaurant, easily the equal of any other nice place I've been to, and superior to most of those anyway. If you're in Honolulu, you owe it to yourself to grab a reservation and check it out.


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