It often seems that you have to hit the trendiest spots for “fine dining” quality cuisine. This means making a fuss over reservations, worrying about dress codes, dealing with snooty hostesses, and, if the restaurant is in Waikiki, finding parking that won’t cost as much as your meal.
Located in the Enchanted Lake strip mall near the shabby Safeway is a cute eatery conjoined with the more known upscale plate-lunch joint, the “Original” Food Company. Just one door down is The Market & Café, The Food Company’s new addition with a striking difference–it’s dine-in, offering “modern ethnic cuisine.”
If you think being nestled somewhere between a Subway and a local pet store is conventional or unromantic, think again. When you walk into the Market & Café, it’s like you’ve stepped into a contemporary-slash-country-slash-Roman bistro with its adorable fruit stand and local coffee bean and seed selection. You can actually purchase these items, although the offerings are spare. Straight ahead you’ll see the kitchen (most visible is a prep station), a cashier’s desk, and the specials displayed on a chalkboard in a delightfully messy free hand. Each table is dressed in a thin plastic tablecloth and adorned with a small candle, lit during dinner service.
Throughout the meal, you’ll find the culinary mastermind, Chef Jason Kiyota, walking around to check with customers. Kiyota worked in various restaurants at the Sheraton Waikiki for over a decade and proclaims the “simple, local, fresh” motto, offering dishes inspired by a wide range of flavors. His experiences travelling and studying cuisine in Thailand, Bolivia, Cabodia and Napa inspires the Market & Café menu. He buys fish locally whenever he can, and for veggies, his go-to farms are in Waimanalo.
The menu, with its Italian-American cioppino listed next to Thai curries, might make you feel you’ve stepped into a stranger version of 4 Kings in Kaimuki. Although every dish is described deliciously on its individual line, I couldn’t quite imagine ordering an antipasto platter and following up with Soy Sake Glazed Pork Belly. But at the Market & Café, this pairing somehow works.
When you sit down, don’t let the complimentary starter, an untidy smoked ahi dip with plain-jane tortilla chips, fool you with its mediocrity. I give the chef props for the in-house made dip, but the tortilla chips need a revamp. The actual menu items are anything but boring. Combinations like lavender with duck breast or preparations like “wok steamed” manila clams are common on the menu. My dining partner-in-crime and I decided to be daring and order two completely different cuisines: the Wok Seared Dungeness Crab ($25) with garlic curry sauce, red peppers, onions, cilantro ($25) and the Red Wine Braised Short Ribs with a burgundy demi-glaze ($19).
When the food arrived we were stunned, and I mean that in the best palatable way. I drooled in the presence of a short rib for the first time in my life. Even though the meat is from the mainland (the chef stresses “local, when possible”), it was ridiculously tender, and the red wine reduction was bold and a bit sweet–a perfect coupling for the meat and “Oki” potatoes, mashed Okinowan Sweet Potatoes. All entrees are served with a salad of Nalo greens and a light vinaigrette, which became necessary, like a “yield” sign to make me slow down and remember to breathe between bites. By the time I was done with the short rib, my dinning partner was only a quarter into his Wok Seared Dungeness Crab, shipped from the Pacific Northwest. When he can, Kiyota tries to get Samoan Crab, which is traditional in Thailand. Served in a deep ceramic dish, pieces of crab make their way into the stew-like broth, which had been cooking with the crab for hours. There were also about half a dozen shelled crab legs, which we happily cracked open. The amount of meat kept us dining for a while, which made the meal more like an event, worth every claw-crack and crab-pick. The only thing that could have made this dish better would be a baguette to soak up every bit of the broth.
We were given a warm bowl of water with lemons for our hands, and even though we were pretty full, we decided to try two desserts: the warm flourless chocolate cake ($7) and the crème brûlée ($6). The chocolate cake was good, but standard, served with vanilla bean ice cream. It was the crème brûlée, however, with its blood orange flavor that really wowed us. Even if the dessert didn’t have that crispy sugared brûlée crust on top, the flavor was enormous, and the texture of the custard was a total hit.
Market & Café is a dining “experience,” but you can take-out salads, deserts, and their famous “Oki” potatoes. And if you’re looking for a place to host an event, Chef Jason will prepare a special menu if you want to reserve the night.
At The Market & Café, you can just stroll in, being you. The restaurant may feel like “home,” but the food is still special in creativity, taste and presentation. When you’re in the mood for a no-frills fine dining experience, I suggest throwing on those slippas and heading over to Kailua.