Image: Joana Gonzalez

Cafe Julia satisfies a longing

When I was a little girl my grandparents used to take me to a neighborhood restaurant that served the most out-of-this-world salmon. Even though it was the most expensive item on the menu, they always indulged me, encouraging me to order what I always considered to be the “adult” option. When the restaurant closed down I sought to get my fix elsewhere, but a slew of boring, chalky disappointments showed up on my plate instead. In fact, these days I think of salmon as the entrée of executive conferences in depressing hotel ballrooms — dry and lackluster, cooked through to accommodate all palates. Indeed, it is a rare event when I order it at all anymore.

So it must have been the fresh, inviting atmosphere of Café Julia, along with an enticing description on the menu, that put me in a mood curious enough to take yet another hit. But, as with all gastronomic forays, it is important to first set the scene.

Located at the Laniakea YWCA, Café Julia takes its name from the building’s designer, Julia Morgan. Meaning “open skies” or “wide horizons,” Laniakea is a name that suits the center perfectly. Open-air corridors and arched colonnades give the building a breezy, yet important feel, as patrons at the restaurant’s outside courtyard dine across the arcade from children taking swimming lessons. Inside, the airiness remains — what look to be large, vaulted windows upon first glance are intricate grates that let through a refreshing Hawaiian breeze which dances with the savory smells of the kitchen all through lunch.

Both expats of Alan Wong’s, Chefs Lance Kosaka and Derek Watanabe have crafted a menu with fresh, wholesome foods that make up inventive dishes with a local flare. Both of these gentlemen have the distinction of having cooked at The White House for the President, and dining at Café Julia, gives you the feeling that they don’t put any less effort into creating just as lovely an experience for their guests.

Although Café Julia may seem tucked away the secret is out, so remember to make a reservation. Yet when my lunch date, Rory, and I showed up a half hour early, the maître d’ made sure to seat us right away, signaling a truly classy establishment. And rushed though the wait staff may be, everyone is friendly and attentive, working as a team to deliver each order to the table in sync.

First on the menu were drinks. Gone are the days of the three-martini lunch, but Café Julia offers an array of cocktail-inspired beverages. Rory went for his standard Arnold Palmer – iced tea and lemonade – and I ordered the mango fizz, a refreshing mango and Sprite concoction that might otherwise contain a splash of rum on weekends. While the waitress first brought me a mint water instead, the café’s subtlety sweet drink turned out to be a delicious mistake.

We next ordered the Bruschetta Platter, a generous heap of perfectly crisped toasts with tomato jam, macadamia nut pesto, tapenade, and goat cheese to spread on top. The spreads were great on their own or mixed together, and kept our taste buds entertained as we enjoyed the calm atmosphere. We both commented on how the ambiance of Café Julia seemed to thrust us into a different place, perhaps even time, and how the restaurant served as a lovely respite from the bustle of Downtown Honolulu.

Finally, the moment arrived — that hungry, anticipatory moment before a great meal when you see the waitress headed in your general direction with a platter of entrées you can only hope belongs to your table; the moment when she catches your eye, smiles, and places an exquisitely-presented meal before you and your lunch guest looks on enviously. Yes folks, the salmon had arrived and I felt I was again sitting in a friendly, childhood restaurant about to dig into the “adult” option.

Crusted in furikake and accompanied by Japanese pickled vegetables, the New Zealand King Salmon was placed atop a bed of creamy risotto and sprinkled with salmon roe. A moment later, another waiter brought out a small carafe filled with green tea for me to pour over the risotto. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, the salmon was moist and bursting with flavor, the type of dish of which I like to take smaller bites of to make it last longer. I was happy they brought the green tea on the side, as I tried half the meal with it and half without, preferring the former.

Rory ordered the achiote shrimp pasta, a dish of big, succulent shrimp tossed with anchovy and achiote oil, and accessorized with capers, Niçoise olives, and tomatoes. I typically don’t like to order pastas at lunchtime, as they fill me up, but this tasted light enough that you could avoid a food coma later on at work.

Unfortunately we didn’t get around to trying dessert, but I hear Café Julia does a mean crème brûlée and Japanese-style cheesecake. Not to worry. Because there are so many must-try items on the menu and the spot is the perfect escape from the office, I’ll certainly be back for more.