Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Shopping centre eats in Honolulu

Holidays, shopping and eating - another fantastic day. I'm particularly excited about lunch this day as we're planning to go to the casual dining restaurant by the guy who has the restaurant that is consistently voted the best in Hawaii. The fact that it's located within a department store doesn't hurt either.

We have a fun trolley bus ride to the shopping mall on a dismal day - perfect shopping and dining weather. The mall is packed with designer names as well as plenty of American chain stores and department stores. I get excited at the sight of Gap, Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch and other American mainstays and try very hard to not think about the exchange rate.

But lunch is the feature event of the day so we happily enter the womenswear department at Macy's and seek out the Pineapple Room by Alan Wong. It's a light-filled room of white tablecloths and linen napkins, but manages to maintain a casual, approachable feel, probably helped by the racks of glitzy dresses and print shirts right nearby. There's a complete mix of patrons: shoppers on a break, ladies who lunch, tourists, business lunches and meetings.

It's a small menu (thank you!) consisting of a handful of dishes in small plate, large plate, sandwiches and entree categories. I hadn't known this beforehand but entrees in North America actually refer to main meals, not the course preceding the main as we know it. Anyway, there are many dishes I want to try from this concise menu, which has the feel of someone who knows what they want to serve you. With such menu choices, I'm happy with that. We're started with complimentary garlic and onion foccacia with chilli aioli while we make our menu choices.

Chilli aioli and garlic & onion foccacia from the Pineapple Room
by Alan Wong (Ala Moana Center, Honolulu)

The foccacia is warm and fresh, soft with a definite flavour of garlic. The chilli aioli is a delight, thick and creamy with just a hint of the chilli kick. The foccacia doesn't last long. There's a number of Hawaiian specialties on the menu, most with a modern twist. I spy a salad on a nearby table that makes me change my order at the last minute, and boy am I glad I did.

Calamari somen salad with mixed greens

Visually it's a sight to behold, with an array of colours and shapes attacking the senses. It looks like a work of art but a temptingly scrumptious one. The green leaves in the middle, along with a few colourful flower petals, cover a neat pile of somen noodles, similar to vermicelli. Scattered around the centre pile are deep fried squid pieces in something like a salt and pepper batter. There's a few prawn crackers and a small bowl of an Asian-style vinaigrette, similar to the dipping sauce used for Vietnamese rice paper rolls.

The squid is well seasoned, needing not a drop of dressing which I've poured all over the greens and noodles. The somen is bland on its own but takes on the flavour of the dressing well, and the greens are crisp perfection. It's one of the best salads I've ever had at this point and I don't leave a scrap on the plate.

My fellow diner is still in the grips of a love affair with kalua pig and has ordered a Hawaiian twist on a BLT sandwich.

Kalua pig BLT with half Caesar salad

I didn't taste this sandwich, which was filled with tender, smokey kalua pig in addition to bacon, but I'm told that it was heavy given the thick toasted bun. I'm still in a rhapsody from my salad and not too keen to potentially affect this mood with anything but my fellow diner insists, so we share a mini sized dessert.

Haupia tapioca 'halo halo'

Looking a lot like an ice kacang, our dessert arrives in a little glass tumbler bursting with colours and ingredients. Banana, orange, a couple of berries, a cube of coconut pudding or haupia, and some other jellies sit atop sweetened coconut-flavoured shave ice. The layer beneath the ice is red bean and sweet corn kernels and the final bottom layer is coconut flavoured tapioca or sago. It's a nice, refreshing mix although the fruit is overpowered by the sweetness of the other ingredients. Nonetheless, a light way to end the meal and for a change we're not stuffed to the gills.

Now here insert about five hours of shopping and we've again reached a point of needing and wanting to eat. It's a vicious but fun cycle. And it probably won't get more fun than this next eating experience.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (Ala Moana Center, Honolulu)

Made an almost household name by Tom Hanks, I'm excited to go to Bubba Gump's for reasons beyond just the culinary. And I'm also hanging for some shrimp especially as my travelling companion refuses to let me go to the shrimp truck that's just down the road from our hotel for supposed hygiene reasons.

There's a small waiting list when we get to the door but we easily wile time away in the adjacent gift shop, packed with Gump memorabilia. I pick up a few too many items, but can I really leave without a Bubba Gump tee, a Gump stubby holder, Gump playing cards, a Bubba Gump soft toy and a Gump keyring? No, I can't. We just finish paying as we're called to our table, a booth surrounded by walls of Gump, shrimp and hot sauce paraphernalia. Kitsch is an understatement.

By now we're veterans of this American system of food - we know what we're getting in terms of serving sizes and we order comfortably. At Bubba Gump's, it's all about the shrimp. As Bubba says in the movie: "Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That - that's about it."

The restaurant concept is based on the movie with cute touches absolutely everywhere. The drinks and desserts menu is shaped on a ping pong paddle; there's flip signs on the table with 'Run Forrest Run' and 'Stop Forrest Stop' to indicate when you want your server to pass or stop at your table; the bathrooms are labelled 'Bubba' for men and 'Jenny' for women. It's all a bit of fun.

We have a Caesar salad for our greenery with other dishes of shrimp and more shrimp.

Shrimp and salsa cocktail from Bubba Gump's

This dish is downright odd. A server brings the food to the table: a dish of shrimp, a dish of salsa, a pile of tortilla chips and a cocktail shaker. Before we can say "mai tai?" the server has the shrimp and salsa in the shaker and is shaking vigourously by the table. She pours this mixture out onto a dish and thus serves us the shrimp and salsa cocktail. It's a far cry from the 80's style prawn cocktail that my friend was expecting but we dig in interestedly.

The shrimp is served chilled - they're just boiled but certainly verging on raw. The salsa is made up of tomato, Spanish onion, avocado and coriander and is a nice partner to the shrimp with lime juice all over. The sizeable chunks of both the shrimp and salsa make it hard to scoop up with the chips, but it's a healthy-feeling dish. My order is somewhat less healthy feeling.

Shrimp New Orleans

It looks healthy. And aside from the load of butter in the sauce, I think it was healthy. A good, generous serving of sauteed shrimp with rice and garlic bread in a supposedly spicy Cajun sauce. Maybe they meant spicy in the way of 'lots of spices' rather than 'hot' spicy. Either way I was very happy with this dish. The shrimp was firm with a fresh crunch; the sauce most closely likened to a diane sauce that you get with steak; and the rice perfect for soaking up the sauce. I don't know any Aussie dish that would be so generous with its prawn/shrimp serving, but I happily clean this plate up.

Again, I feel like dessert is completely superfluous but again, I am encouraged. Or forced. I earlier noted a Key lime pie in the desserts menu and my interest is piqued as I've heard of this dessert often in American movies or television shows. Once it arrives at the table, I wholeheartedly regret it.

Key lime pie

Aside from the huge glob of cream, the pie filling itself looks thicker and richer than cheesecake. I am honestly scared as I take a small spoonful. The biscuit base is thin and a touch too oily. The filling is oh-so rich and sweet, but tartly lime as well. We concede defeat about halfway through the shared dessert. I do note the lime zest sprinkled on the cream is really sharp but sweet, better than the lemon zest I've had in my experience.

The Key lime pie has tipped me over the edge and as we manoeuvre ourselves back into the gift shop for another pack of Gump playing cards, I have to worriedly wonder if the new denim short shorts I just bought will still fit me.

Pineapple Room on Urbanspoon

Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (Ala Moana Center) on Urbanspoon

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