Amalfi, RevisitedBy: HILuxury Team
By Chef Frank Leake
A Tokyo Chef Re-Invents Island Italian
BERNINI HONOLULU, nestled away on Waimanu Street is well worth the short walk from Ala Moana Center or nearby Ward Center. While there is no “Little Italy” in Honolulu, this amazing discovery would lead the pack if there were.
You’re sure to find a friendly staff, palate-tempting cuisine- specifically the array of savory appetizers-robust pizzas and aromatic pastas. The menu is all about quality of ingredients.
The internationally diverse wine menu is concise, if not a bit inflated in the pricing; however, there are gems for those with a keen eye that pair excellently with various dishes. Bottles begin at from $32 and quickly jump to $999 and $1200 per.
Throughout the course of this meal, I kept hearing the words of Archestratus-a Greek-Sicilian food writer from the 4th century BCE-who wrote a poem that includes the lines “flavors not being masked by spices or herbs” and “preparations should remain simple.” Reflective of this philosophy, Bernini’s award-winning Chef Kengo Matsumoto shops the local farmers markets for the freshest ingredients. He ensures that his plates arrive tableside authentic and reflective of the regions of Italy as well as Hawai’i's seasons. Proof of this is in the menu offerings. That, and when I arrived, Chef was slicing his catch from the daily fish auction, a beautiful piece of ‘ahi.
There are less than a dozen parking stalls so I chose, as many do, to park in one of the many on-street parking spaces within a block of the restaurant. The “Bohemian” experience begins upon arrival. I reminisced upon my travels to Italy and in my mind quickly returned to Florence, Tuscany and the Almafi Coast. As a Certified Chef and a Professor of culinary arts, upon entering a restaurant it’s all about peaking my senses. Bernini does just that. Contemporary and sophisticated in design, it resembles the great eateries of the TriBeCa district in NYC.
The main dining room is just off of the completely open kitchen, with several hidden venues for more intimate and private dining. Greeted, welcomed and seated by the owner/manager, Motoyo Koyata, made the experience even more familiar to the “mom-andpop” restaurants of Italy. I found our waitstaff friendly, efficient and knowledgeable.
We began our evening with some specialty breads, served with extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. We quickly ventured into “wines by the glass” and soon graduated to a bottle. A special was being offered this evening, a sweeter white varietal I wasn’t familiar with.
The second glass was a luscious Paolo Scavino Rosso di Tavola from Piemonte. The seamless blending of Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera and Cabernet seemed a steal at $11 a glass. To boot, it perfectly complimented the appetizer course, Venetian Style Marinated Octopus and Potato Lightly Flavored with Anchovy. This course was an incredible tease to the senses with the salty-savory combination of anchovies and tender, marinated octopus, served with perfectly diced, boiled potatoes, served among a bed of Hawai’i-grown vine-ripened tomato wedges and garnished with Italian flat leaf parsley. The few morsels of potato and wedges of tomato provided a nice balance of starch, sugar and acid.
We selected a bottle of French wine, Delas Frere from Cotes du Rhone, a Grenache-Syrah at $38. We lauded our major find just as our pizza course arrived. Of the nearly 20 pizzas to choose from, we opted for the Romana, which melds mozzarella, anchovy, capers, artichoke, Kalamata olives and garlic. It was unlike any pizza I have ever had in Hawai’i, straight from the wood-burning oven, thin-crusted, crunchy, perfectly baked and the ingredients were mirrored on each of the six manageable slices. Yet where Bernini shines is the details-in this case, a little gift that came with this pizza-a spicy, homemade, tomato-based condiment. So continued my mental transport to somewhere in the Italian countryside.
Braised Beef Cheeks were our next conquest. This was a special of the evening and aptly so, since something that one rarely experiences (unlike the ubiquitous braised veal cheeks, which tend to be much leaner and provide a better yield after braising). The beef cheeks were good but not the evening’s standout.
For our final course I did what I normally do when I go to a new eatery; I asked the chef to send me more food, of his choosing. While it can be a risk if you are a picky eater, it does provide the chef a venue to showcase a specialty item perhaps not yet on the menu, which he may be wanting to field test. If the chef is an artist, this enables him to create outside his set menu.
Vongole Bianco-Fresh Clams and White Wine served over Spaghetti, was the chef’s choice. Although from the menu, I think I caught the chef off-guard. But he returned the favor; picking something I would not have chosen myself.
The pasta was prepared perfectly, a nice blend of garlic and fresh herbs captured in a clam and white wine sauce. (It was well drained: A pet peeve of mine is when the pasta arrives swimming in the cooking liquid.) My only drawback with this dish was that the clams were served in their shells over the pasta, which meant I had to put on my work gloves to remove the clam morsels. Should I find myself ordering this dish again I would ask for the shells to be removed and the clams to be tossed into the pasta.
I considered the evening an overwhelming success, as there was no pit stop on the way home to satiate my appetite. With a fairly high “entertainment factor,” Bernini provided me with all the fodder I need to return.
On the way out, just after a luscious morsel of chocolate cake we shared at the table, the chef made a point of thanking us, even though he was mid-saute on a dish. In the background, I spied at least one of my students from KCC-which all the more made me both want to thank Chef Kango-for teaching the budding chefs of Hawai’i how to execute a truly glorious dining experience.
[Bernini was honored at the 2011 'Ilima Awards: Best New Restaurant, Critic's Choice 2011.]