I could set up tent on Monsarrat Avenue for a solid month and still wouldn’t be tired of its neighborhood dishes. There’s the Pioneer Saloon that sells Japanese bentos with wakame and shiso rice, Diamond Head Cove right across the street (serving the locally famous açai bowl) and don’t get me started on the DH market torte from Diamond Head Market.
Stepping up to these admirable ranks is Happy Valley Pasta & Pizza, an Italian restaurant with a Japanese twist, located between Pioneer Saloon and South Shore Grill. When the restaurant opened this past October, I didn’t get my hopes up since I’ve yet to find a good Japanese/Italian restaurant here, especally compared to the ones in Japan. But after reading the rather unhelpful, mixed online reviews on Yelp, curiosity won over. I dragged a large group of friends with me for maximum tasting and showed up for a Sunday lunch.
Our waiter, who spoke good Engrish and even better Japanese, said that the original Happy Valley is in Aichi Prefecture. After some furious research, I discovered that Happy Valley was located in a few more places in Japan. Since it certainly isn’t an Olive Garden, I’m reluctant to use the dreaded c-word (you know, “chain”), but I’d settle for calling this place a franchise.
These were my expectations: tarako (cod roe) dishes, lots of shredded nori (Japanese seaweed), smaller portions and the pastas better than the pizzas. Generally, in Japan, restaurants at this price range ($9–$13) have rather standard, if not lackluster pizzas, and the pastas are usually more interesting and better-executed in terms of flavor.
Ten minutes into menu-perusing, I nearly asked the server to bring out free bread. Then I remembered that Japanese restaurants don’t let you load up on carbs before the actual meal, so we ordered homemade focaccia ($1.98) and cheese focaccia ($2.98). The thick bread was well-seasoned with thyme, basil and garlic salt, and came out puffy and full of delicious air–just like I’d hoped. I preferred the regular homemade focaccia, since the cheese focaccia was nothing special and understandable at its price.
The menu was categorized into tomato, cream and oil sauces, and, for some reason, only the pasta had a “Japanese Style” list, which was confusing and probably part of the new-restaurant kinks. Much like its neighbor Pioneer Saloon, Happy Valley is definitely geared toward a Japanese audience, because the menu is written in Japanese as well.
The expected tarako and calamari spaghetti ($11.98) was declared delicious, and my friend who ordered it said that the ratio of tarako and calamari was just right. My teriyaki chicken and broccoli pizza ($12.98) came with Japanese mayonnaise and shredded nori, which, in my opinion, is the Japanese version of PB&J–they always go well together. The crust was on the thinner side, somewhere between Italian and American. According to the menu, the pizza was “oil-based,” but the bread was not greasy and the mayonnaise and teriyaki worked with the chicken and broccoli. The unusual flavors made me smile and think of home, and I would definitely order this again.
Since most Japanese/Italian restaurants make you cut the pizza yourself, I burned exactly 0.5 calories trying to figure out the most optimal way to evenly slice through the crust. The teriyaki meatball and onsen egg pasta ($10.98) was, well interesting. The onsen egg was cooked well without being too runny, and the three meatballs had a soft consistency with a strong teriyaki flavor.
Probably the most “American” pizza choice was the bacon, potato and corn pizza ($11.98). The cheese and bacon were good, of course, but only because it’s cheese and bacon. If you’re going for Japanese flavor, give your arteries a break and pass on this one.
The teriyaki chicken spaghetti ($8.98) is a safe bet for those who want to try out a simple Japanese/Italian fusion dish. It was basically my teriyaki chicken pizza–without the mayonnaise and crust. For some reason, the texture of the spaghetti paired with the teriyaki flavor nearly made me want to slurp the noodles like ramen, but I resisted.
What turned me off was the seafood and tomato risotto ($14.98). I wasn’t sure whether it was soup or porridge, because it certainly wasn’t risotto. Although there was plenty of shrimp, squid and octopus, I definitely felt they needed to lose the watery consistency in order to call the dish a risotto. The bacon carbonara and onsen egg ($11.98) was also another disappointment. “Too much cream,” said my friend, another girl from Japan. I was already tired of the taste after just one bite.
As much as it pains me to write this, skip the dessert. The cheesecake ($5.98) is not worth your money. In fact, it’s outrageously priced for the average taste. I could buy a cheesecake at Safeway for half its price, although I would probably prefer to go down the street and pick up something from Diamond Head Market.
In all honesty, I left Happy Valley happy, if not exactly leaping for joy. The food is standard fare, maybe because it’s a chai–I mean, franchise. I wanted to leave crowing its praises and adding another restaurant to the Monsarrat crew.
Would I go back? Yes, but only out of sheer lack of competition. Some dishes were just too Westernized for a place hailing from Aichi, and they ought to ease back on whatever changes they’d made for the new location, especially if they are targeting local Japanese. We haven’t forgotten our Asian taste buds here. More Japanese flair, please.