It was about the Brussels sprouts.
In the course of a multi-course dinner one Friday at The Grove in Kailua, my childhood best friend and I kept going back to the warm Brussels sprouts salad.
I had ordered it because I know Brussels sprouts are a test for any kitchen–restaurant or home. They can be dreadful: soggy and foul-tasting. A lot of people don’t like them, never having had them properly cooked. I also rather pride myself on my own way with Brussels sprouts, an idea I got from Martha Stewart’s cooking show: Instead of boiling the tightly packed knobs, she trims away the stems, painstakingly strips off the leaves and quickly sautes these in a little olive oil.
Cooked this way, Brussels sprouts defeat all previous prejudices. This is how The Grove prepares them, but they take the vegetables to an even greater height.
The sprouts, a half-order ($8) we had chosen to share as a second course, rocked my friend’s world. She kept saying, “I don’t LIKE Brussels sprouts. I don’t EAT Brussels sprouts.” All the while, she was scooping up generous forkfuls of crisp, glistening emerald leaves, generously tossed with toasted nuts, bits of pancetta, dried cranberries and mounds of soft goat cheese.
“You’d have to be an idiot to put Brussels sprouts on your menu unless you knew they would blow people’s minds,” I said, waving away our server’s attempt to remove the plate on which a few shreds were left (we insisted on taking them home).
The Grove owner Fred DeAngelo is no idiot. Nor is sous chef Ed Kuoha. The sure hand they showed with this dish was exhibited throughout the menu, a new one introduced June 1 at the five-month-old restaurant.
There was my first course, for example: a modest but soul-satisfying square of plump pork belly ($6) scattered with caramelized pineapple and resting on a bed of lu’au leaf and pureed kabocha pumpkin. The locally grown Shinsato pork was near-perfect, neither falling apart fatty nor overdone stringy, as so often is the case with tricky pork belly, which generally requires a twice-cooked technique (braising, then roasting or some other dry-heat method) to be at its best.
This dish is on a new and a wide-ranging menu of small-plate dishes that DeAngelo and Kuoha developed just last month.
My friend was equally pleased with her more conventional first course: buttery herbed mushrooms ($6), presented sizzling in a miniature black cast iron pan. “I’d like to pop that pan in my purse,” she said.
But just then, DeAngelo came by, so theft was prevented. He had stopped first at the table next to us where a young couple and their months-old infant were enjoying an early pupu dinner. He not only welcomed the young one, but offered to treat the child to his first restaurant meal: mashed Okinawan sweet potato or kabocha pumpkin. “I had some poi yesterday,” DeAngelo said with a smile, “but I ate it.”
This little story goes to other thing that caused us to leave The Grove smiling and satisfied: It’s a really warm and friendly place. Watching people mingle at the bar and in the covered outdoor courtyard, lounging on living room-like sofas, chatting with staff, I broke into TV’s hoary “Cheers” song before my friend gave me the “Don’t EVEN…” look. “Sometimes you want to GO where everybody knows your NA-A-AME, and they’re always glad you came.”
The food and well-trained service is white tablecloth (entrees $16-$34). But the mood is palaka-covered picnic table. A rare and sweet balance.
Service is attentive and caring. When I ordered a cranberry and soda, I was asked, first time ever, if I preferred a wedge or a wheel of lime.
Dinner for me was the fresh fish of the night, a huge slab of monchong on a gorgeous, vegetable scattered plate with orzo ($27). (Whatever you order at The Grove, you’ll get your daily requirement of vegetables, organic when available.) Although the sauce — something salmon-colored and probably tomato-based — was unremarkable, the fish was so moist and fresh it didn’t matter.
My friend had the first risotto of her life: two scarlet lobster claws perched atop corn, tomato, sea asparagus and imported rice ($31). The risotto was, for once, the correct texture: creamy and loose, oozing with rich, starchy juice, but with the rice just a bit al dente at the center. She was delighted and even I, not a lobster fan, thought it was excellent.
The meal tripped only over the dessert. Two new desserts had just been unveiled: bread pudding made with Agnes’ Bakery sweetbread and caramel sauce and fresh fruit tarts with Chantilly cream ($6). I opted for the tarts (you get two) because my full-o-meter was just a skosh “over.” I wish now I’d gone with my first instinct, the sweetbread. The fruit, including thin-sliced local mango, kiwi and strawberries, was, indeed fresh. The cream inside wasn’t what I recognize as Chantilly cream, but it was okay. But the pastry tarts were hard and tasteless, as though prebaked.
My much-smarter-than-me-yet-again friend ordered the vanilla bean panna cotta ($6). She let me have one bite. One. Friends for decades and that’s all it’s worth to you? Really? The melting, so creamy Italian-style pudding reminded me of an occasion, years ago, when I tasted whole milk minutes from milking time at a cousin’s dairy farm: Rich and sweet but in a natural, unadorned way. I’ll never forgive her for not sharing.
Her dessert came with a scattering of gigantic, perfectly ripe fresh raspberries. At least I got to eat those.