Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Like the famous 80s television sitcom “Cheers,” the staff and regulars at Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar always know our names. We enjoy the food and wine there so much that you could say it’s like our home away from home. But, since it moved across the breezeway at Waterfront Plaza a little over four years ago, business has been picking up. But what’s good for business makes it harder for us to walk in and get a table like we could in the past.
Vino is open six days a week and usually starts service at 5:30 p.m. So on those rare occasions when both the Mrs. and I end the workday at 4 p.m., even with the horrendous drive from Central ‘Oahu, we were usually in Honolulu by 5 p.m. which means another 30-minute wait, or looking for alternate dining options.
The Chinatown Option
Though Chinatown has re-vamped and cleaned up quite a bit over the past 10 years, we still don’t consider it as our first option for dinner. When we do decide to sample a meal in Chinatown, it’s usually on a weekday during a holiday or “staycation.” Parking is lighter and we feel that daylight makes it a safer venue.
We’ve had our share of lunches at Livestock Tavern and enjoyed their delicious cocktails and new American cuisine. And it was nice to add Fête as another great lunch option for cocktails, wine and new American cuisine.
Additionally, we were pleasantly surprised to discover Fête is perfect for dinner, right after work, on Friday evenings. While Vino doesn’t open until 5:30 p.m., and Livestock Taverns is closed after lunch until 5 p.m., Fête remains open after lunch service for Happy Hour with a limited Happy Hour menu.
In a 2016 column, I wrote about a dinner I sampled at Fête when it provided the backdrop for Chef Ricardo Ricci’s creations. But since then, it’s Chef Robynne Mai‘i who oversees the kitchen, while spouse Chuck Bussler runs the front of the house. The culinary couple returned to Hawai‘i from New York back in 2015, and planted their “Fête” at the corner of N. Hotel St. and Nu‘uanu Ave. During meal service, it’s normal to see Bussler managing the dining area, and once in a while, Chef Mai‘i will peer out of the kitchen (I think that she does bear a physical resemblance to Joanna Gaines of the home improvement television series “Fixer Upper”).
The menu is just over a page long, but I never judge a restaurant on the extensiveness of its menu selections or how expensive the ingredients are. As long as the dishes are not over or undercooked, and the seasoning highlights the natural flavors, we’ll be back every time. The meals are consistently delicious and as an added bonus, Fête tries to source as many local products as possible. Delightful for the belly and great for the 50th’s economy to boot!
For starters (pun intended), if oysters on the half shell are on the special menu, I get a dozen (along with the Fête 75 cocktail) since oysters are available year-round. The rationale used to be that oysters weren’t very palatable during the summer months as they spawn during this time, so the flesh tends to be tasteless and mushy. However, oysters from the Southern hemisphere are usually at peak during our summers so they are great on the half shell year-round.
We also order their trio of spreads which include a walnut tapenade, ricotta with local honey and ajvar or a roasted eggplant and red pepper spread with the Fête toast which is Breadshop crostini topped with anchovy butter. The salty and umami anchovy heightens the flavor of each of the spreads. And because of my 261 Neanderthal variants (per 23andMe) I usually order the chopped raw meat also known as Kaua‘i Ranch tartare served with cornichons, fried shallots a quail egg and that same Fête toast. The Mrs. favors the gougéres — puffy, baked pastries like small popovers served with a smoked marlin spread. We both agree that the foie gras gyoza with rich duck liver and a mushroom and water chestnut duxelle (sautéed mushroom filling) on a soy and balsamic reduction with a glass of Riesling is as good as it gets.
Pasta and More
We’ve also tasted several pasta dishes including the Meyer lemon gnocchi served on an arugula pesto with the peppery bitterness of the arugula cutting through the creaminess of perfectly light potato dumplings, while the savory and rich Ni‘ihau Lamb sausage cavatelli is balanced by the salty, herbal and acidic accouterments of a fennel saffron sofrito, mint and preserved lemons.
I’ve already tried emulating their smoked beets with gorgonzola crème, orange supremes (orange segments without the membrane), fennel, arugula and candied pistachio salad in my own kitchen. I experimented with other smoked root vegetables and a variety of candied nuts. And their grilled pulpo (octopus) shows that tako is much more than poke and grilling adds extra flavor components.
The Two Lady Farmers pork schnitzel (think German pork katsu) complete with German potato salad and sweet and sour red cabbage is filling and you don’t even have to wait until Oktoberfest to indulge while the bistro steak frites with gorgonzola crema, crispy fries and greens is perfect with a glass of Syrah.
Along with personally sampling almost all of their house cocktails, Fête also has a complete wine list featuring reasonably priced bottles from all parts of the wine-growing world including many small production wines. And they probably are the only local restaurant that features four to six orange wines including one selection by the glass.
Normally white wines are created with just the juice of pressed white grapes and red wines leave the skins with the juice to pick up the red pigmentation otherwise you’d simply be left with either a white wine or rose (juice from red grapes are also clear like juice from white grapes).
Orange wines are created from white grapes, but the skins are left with the juice, which produces a white wine with noticeable tannins. And because some are fermented uncovered for extended periods, they oxidize creating an orange hue instead of the usual straw color of traditional white wines.
I enjoy orange wines as the tannins allows it to pair with richer, heartier foods and I think that they balance salty foods better than any other red, white or sparkling wines the same way beer and sake balance saltier cuisine. And Fête usually offers one selection by the half or whole glass!
Make it Part of Your Dining Rotation
Needless to say, Fête is now part of our regular dining rotation either as a lunchtime option during holidays or if we’re on a “staycation.” And because they remain open during that lull between lunch and dinner, we can also enjoy an early dinner with cocktails and leave before the denizens of Chinatown start to appear.
2 N. Hotel St.
Hours of operation:
Lunch: Monday thru Friday, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Snacks: Monday thru Friday, 2-5 p.m. and Saturday 4-5 p.m.)
Dinner: Monday thru Thursday, 5-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.
Closed on Sundays