Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Flashback to 2019 – Life is good and most businesses are thriving. Then, a dark cloud known as “COVID” starts to engulf parts of Asia, eventually spreading to the Americas and Europe creating a sudden halt in the economy due to government-mandated lockdowns.
Permanent closure of our favorite restaurants followed, including Like Like Drive Inn, REAL Gastropub, and Viaggio Honolulu. Other restaurants adapted by pivoting from dine-in service to take-out or, once the lockdowns were eased, a combination of both.
During this time, one of our standby restaurants, MW Restaurant — owned by Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka — offered only take-out from the Kapiolani Boulevard location; closing Artizen by MW at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum just before the second stay-at-home order announced by our local government agencies.
MW Restaurant did fairly well relying on just take-out orders. Their weekly specials sold out if you placed an order right before the weekend. They also offered their usual favorites packed bento style and offered two-pound containers of frozen foods to heat-and-serve. You could also get “Echigo’s Four-Legged Menu” named after the Ueokas’ Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix that was meant to feed your four-legged, furry family member during the pandemic. Produce, tofu, rice and eggs were also sold to help support local farmers and vendors.
Then in late 2020, MW Restaurant moved to a new location at the corner of Ward Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard in the old Viaggio Honolulu space. We thought Artizen by MW closed for good in August, but instead, the Ueokas decided to open the café on the first floor below the second-floor MW Restaurant. This past spring, a soft opening of their dine-in service was held at the new MW Restaurant.
A New Location With New Faces
During the pandemic, MW’s general manager moved on, so they brought in one of Alan Wong’s previous managers, Kathy Kawashige. The Ueokas have known Kawashige for years from when they worked together at Alan Wong’s.
Jen Len, a mixologist/sommelier (there goes my retirement job), is also new to the crew bringing a new MW cocktail menu. Oh! And while you’re waiting to be seated, you can dream about owning one of the many Maserati’s, Ferraris, Porsches or Bentleys sitting in the Velocity Honolulu showroom adjacent to both the restaurant and café.
Ms. S’ Classy Kanreki
Since this year is our kanreki (Japanese-milestone 60th birthday celebration) — and my wife and I have been fully vaccinated since February — Ms. S decided to dine-in for her special celebration. I originally planned on reserving a table at Senia as they also re-opened for dine-in service this past spring. However, because of the mandated reduced-seating capacity and other diners dying to experience a regular dining experience, a two-top wasn’t available until late June (and Ms. S’s special day was in May) so I booked a table at MW Restaurant.
To celebrate the occasion, we started with a round of cocktails. Ms. S enjoyed a Buddha Bing made with Buddha’s Hand fruit (a citron variation with segmented “fingers”) infused Toki whisky, Curacao (orange liqueur), agave, lemon and celery bitters ($15) – very refreshing. I sampled the Little Italy made with rye whisky, Cynar (a bitter artichoke liqueur) and sweet vermouth ($14) which was a rye-based variation on a Negroni –my favorite cocktail.
We then moved onto a couple of appetizers including the kanpachi tartare lumpia ($14) filled with raw, chopped kanpachi rolled in rice and shiso and fried; a nice balance of hot and cold though I wished the shiso flavor stood out more, it’s one of my favorite herbs.
We also sampled the crab cakes on a wasabi–koji sauce topped with hearts of palm ($18) and as Guy Fieri would say, it was “all thrilla, no filla.” The cakes were mainly crabmeat with very little binders. And though I let Ms. S select the starters, I know she chose the kusshi oyster “Rockefeller” ($15) for me as I have a weakness for anything oyster. MW’s version had chopped abalone, clams, mushroom and spinach and didn’t disappoint though a food factoid is that the original oysters Rockefeller created by Jules Alciatore of Antoine’s in New Orleans in 1889 has no spinach. Since the compound butter topping oysters were meant to mimic the classic French escargot, it’s assumed that the green color was derived from parsley, chervil, chives and possibly other herbs … but no spinach.
We noshed on our entrees – the seafood paella ($45) for the birthday girl with Kona lobster, Kaua‘i shrimp, Bristol Bay scallops and chorizo which was perfectly cooked for Ms. S. I personally like my paella with a little bit of soccarat or crusty, crispy charred rice on the bottom though the seasoning was perfect!
I couldn’t decide so I selected the dinner teishoku ($45) which included the miso-honey glazed butterfish, truffle braised short rib, Bristol Bay scallop and Kaua‘i shrimp. This dish reminded me of a time when we sampled butterfish sashimi at the original MW Restaurant location. Chef Ueoka had sliced portions after wiping off the miso marinade. EPIPHANY! As good as the best ötoro or Ora King salmon sashimi! However, I enryo this time for a good reason; I know the supply chain for restaurants isn’t anywhere near as it was pre-pandemic so I assumed that he might not be procuring fresh butterfish as he did pre-pandemic.
The celebration ended with several desserts, Ms. S’s complimentary slice of chocolate birthday cake along with the Floating Island ($14) or lilikoi semifreddo (partially frozen Italian dessert), meringue on a lemongrass-pineapple sauce. We also enjoyed the lemon meringue ($14) or Japanese cheesecake, yuzu, Ma’o Farms Meyer lemon and blueberry “Pop Tart.” Just by Ms. S’s dessert selections (I usually let her choose both desserts even if it’s not her birthday), I could tell she was feeling a little stuffed as she bypassed any dessert with chocolate or ice cream and Michelle Karr-Ueoka is one of the top three pastry chefs at any restaurant, not just in the 50th.
Before Artizen by MW closed for the evening (last call is at 6:15 p.m., Sunday; 6:45 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 7:45 p.m., Saturdays), I asked our server if I could purchase a couple of the frozen take-out selections. I’m happy to report that Mom loved the seafood étouffée (American stew dish found in Cajun and Creole cuisine) ($15 for 2 lbs.) and her housemate enjoyed the pork and butterfish laulau ($15 for 2 lbs.).
Valet parking isn’t as intuitive as when MW Restaurant was at its original location. Though you can see the valets when heading makai on Ward Avenue, you have to make a right turn onto Kapiolani Boulevard and drive into the Symphony Honolulu driveway on Chapin Lane just after the Audi display at Velocity Honolulu.
888 Kapi‘olani Blvd., Ste. 201
Phone: (808) 955-6505
Artizen by MW
888 Kapiolani Blvd., Ste. 102
Phone: (808) 524-0499
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet” (nichibei.org/columns/gochiso-gourmet/).