“What’s for dessert?” was my question right after I was seated.
“I’ll bring you the menu.” said the astonished server.
I really wanted to make sure I would not skip dessert this time. Everything is so good and the specials always so tempting at this restaurant that, by dessert time, I am just too full for dessert. But not this time. I was determined. I even forfeited alcohol because with me, having alcohol and dessert (sugar) for dinner, especially late-ish dinner, would mean not going to sleep till four am.
I had arrived at the restaurant early, way early, even after dilly-dallying a bit by extending my driving route. I hate being late, and I usually end up being early. When I try to be late, I arrive on time. It is what it is, and after many years of trying to break the habit, I have given up and accepted it. Thank goodness for smart phones and a gazillion Apps!
My friends and I are big fans of this restaurant, and so is just about everyone I know. Either they have been and love it, or have heard of it and can’t wait to go. Chef/owner Kevin Hanney and his team don’t really help this situation, as they continue to create tempting dishes with such excellence. How can we resist? And, more importantly, why should we?
This article is the result of my two most recent visits over a period of 3-4 weeks. I had been there several times BB (before blog) for dinner, though never for their popular happy hour, called Craft Bar, which is only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 5:30 pm and only at the bar counter.
See, the trick is that, at said happy hour, you have access to appetizer-sized specials created and priced especially for it (under $10 each), but you can also order any of the other specials and any dish from the regular menu – at regular prices, of course. Then there is the cocktail special of the night, which bar manager Mike Hall creates using his own developed components from nature’s own ingredients. The cocktail special is usually $5.
One afternoon, about a month ago, my friend and eager dinner companion Tracey and I decided to go for happy hour. I thought I might show up a little early on purpose this time, just in case, which is when I discovered just how popular this event is. I got there at about 5:10p and there were two people already ahead of me waiting on the bench outside. Two more arrived within seconds and, by the time the restaurant opened at 5:30p and we walked in, all the seats at the bar were taken.
I chose the spot on the corner so I would have room to maneuver when taking pics, especially since it was the first time I would use my new LED light. Talk about being unobtrusive!
The previous time I had had a wonderful sangria special, and was really fancying something similar but, alas, it was not in the plan that night. But the very kind and very talented Mike Hall, barman extraordinaire, created something close to it on the spot. I hope he marked down what he did, because it was excellent, refreshing with just a touch of sweet and a little zing. I do remember it included one of my favorite liqueurs: Saint Germain. Yumm!
Above left: the famous Baked Macaroni and Cheese at 12th Ave Grill – a regular menu item.
Above right: Celery Root Soup – a happy hour special for that night.
That night, Tracey and I ordered a few dishes from the Craft bar specials and a few we really wanted from the regular menu. Tracey had walked in craving their famous Baked Macaroni and Cheese (featured in the side dishes at $7), so we started with that, in the Hamakua Mushroom version (add $2).
Sidebar: as it happens, 12th Ave Grill is where I have experienced the American standard of Macaroni and Cheese for the first time. I had, of course, seen it in movies, commercials, in instant-boxed versions at the grocery store (yuck!) and heard about it all over the place – often as a joke. But I had never tried it, not even brought by someone at a potluck. Why would I? It is a non-Italian Eye-talian thing, like spaghetti with meatballs – and please pronounce the latter appropriately with a Little Italy/Brooklyn Eye-talian accent like the cook in Lady and the Tramp.
Like with everything else, there’s Mac and Cheese and there’s Mac and Cheese. I had my first mouthful and I knew what all the hype about this particular one was about. The friends that were with me on that first occasion said that I had been lucky to try this version as my first experience. I agreed.
Not that we don’t have similar dishes in Italy. Italy abounds with various styles of cheese-laced pastas au gratin. But this American standard is now a classic of its own, and in any case, I had actually never tried one topped with buttered bread crumbs. Of course, I will be making some version of one and share the recipe.
Above: one of the happy hour specials that night, their version of a Reuben Sandwich with red cabbage.
Back on track. The Celery Root Soup in a perfect mini size was quite good, just creamy enough, and with a delicate flavor. We slurped that up in no time. We also enjoyed the Potato Gnocchi with Ossobuco (yes, that is the correct spelling) Sauce. I am not an ossobuco eater, but that sauce was seriously good, rich and flavorful, a perfect ragout for gnocchi. The gnocchi were obviously home made, but were just a little hard. maybe not cooked long enough?
From that we moved on to the Reuben Sandwich, which came highly recommended from the server and with good reason. OMD was that good! The home made pastrami was just right, juicy and flavorful. The bread, which looked like a lot at first sight, turned out just perfect at first bite: crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, and did not overwhelm the filling at all, but supported it perfectly. But the winning touch was the red cabbage sauerkraut, which had a wonderful balance of sour and sweet and made me a believer. Whenever I will get around to making my own Reuben Sandwich, maybe for my family in Italy on one of my visits, I will make my own sauerkraut with red cabbage instead of white. Besides, the color adds to the presentation effect.
The sandwich came split in two, ready to share, and we could have had more, but other goodies were on the way. In hindsight I should have ordered one to go. I have had several Reuben Sandwiches around the islands, and this turned out to be one of the best. I hope they will feature it again in the future.
Above: ABCLT Salad (Avocado, Bacon, truffled Crab Salad, Kula Butter Lettuce, Nalo Tomatoes with Orange-Thyme Vinaigrette) – $12 from the regular menu.
The ABCLT Salad you see above was also a very happy experience, with the combination of fresh, tender crab and avocado perfectly freshened by the tomatoes and greens, and the bacon adding a little crunch. The Orange-Thyme vinaigrette both enhanced and rounded the flavors while adding extra personality.
Then came the Crispy Beer Battered Avocado. If you have never tried deep fried avocado you are missing out. The Saffron Remoulade was just the right flavor combination, but then I am partial to saffron, and the freshness of the salad a nice balance to the richness of the avocado. The only thing missing was a sprinkling of sea salt on the avocado.
Above: Crispy Beer Battered Local Avocado with Saffron Remoulade, local Mango, Red Onion, Watercress and house Pancetta Salad – $9 from the regular menu.
That night we could not get to dessert, not even for one of the specials, which is why I made sure I did last week. What follows are the images from last Thursday’s dinner with Tracey and her daughter Amber. I just love eating good food with good friends, don’t you?
The three of us shared the appetizer specials. Ferns and fern shoots are becoming a popular ingredient in Hawai’i, though not found everywhere. We could not not order this dish. I was expecting them to have a green, chlorophyll rich taste, but was pleasantly surprised as both flavor and texture were reminiscent of broccolini and asparagus blended together. The crispy beer batter added the perfect crunch, and the creamy tomato-basil sauce rounded everything out.
Above left: Crispy Beer Battered Pohole Ferns – one of the appetizer specials that night – $9
Above right: Grilled Baby Artichoke Salad with breaded Goat Cheese – another of the appetizer specials of the evening – $11
Just about like every other Italian I know, I am a sucker for artichokes. Therefore, hearing about baby artichokes meant I had to have the other appetizer special, too. I miss the Ligurian artichokes you can only find in Italy during the winter season; you know (or maybe you don’t), the slender, spiky kind that are so tender and flavorful you can slice them thin and eat them raw in a salad or on top of carpaccio. They are non-existent here, and all my recipes require the Ligurian kind, so you will have to wait for my next winter trip to Italy to see some recipes on the blog featuring these wonderful vegetables.
The baby artichokes in this salad were split in two, skewered and grilled, then complemented by a tangy remoulade, supported by a green salad with also cherry tomatoes, and a side of warm, fried goat cheese. I loved all of it. Tracey enjoyed it, though it turns out she is one of the few people I know who is not mad about artichokes. Uhm… I may have to take her to Italy with me at some point, and convert her.
Above: Fresh Squid Ink Linguine with South Shore Tako, roasted Ho Farms grape Tomatoes, Big Island Oyster Mushrooms, sweet Basil, Ikura Roe, Blue Crab and Vin Blanc – a menu regular feature at $26
All three of us ordered an entrée, or, as they are called here, a large plate. Tracey had the Pan Roasted Hawaiian Monchong, while Amber chose the Lamb Shank, both specials for the night. I decided to stay within the menu and try the Fresh Squid Ink Linguine with Tako you see above. I am usually not a large plate person because I like to try as many things as possible, and tend to select two or three appetizers. However, I had been hearing of the linguine for a while, and had also seen them featured among the “100 best dishes in Hawai’i” in Honolulu Magazine just a few days before, so I decided to go for it.
When I read the list of ingredients I thought it could all be a bit much, but not at all. Everything worked together in harmony. The linguine were artfully made, with the squid ink giving a little fishy tanginess to the dish without overwhelming it. I tried to pick up mouthfuls that included a bit of everything, with the sweet basil bringing a pleasant touch of freshness to this flavorful concoction. I would have liked the octopus more tender, but it was otherwise very fresh, and I enjoyed the fact that it had been grilled before being added to the whole.
Above: Pan Roasted Hawaiian Monchong with Big Island Baby Squash, Fingerling Potato & Beet Ragout with a Pickled Watermelon and Hau’ula Tomato Salsa, Artichoke and Sweet Basil Broth – a special for the evening at $28
I only had a bite of Tracey’s monchong (or pomfret) but it was crusty on the outside and juicy on the inside. The combination of vegetables was nicely done and that pickled watermelon just the right touch to add freshness. Again, I should have ordered an extra portion for me to go – though it’s never quite the same heated up the next day, is it?
I did not taste the lamb as I am not much of a meat eater – with few exceptions like that Reuben Sandwich and bits of bacon here and there – but both Amber and Tracey said it was juicy and flavorful, and moaned at every bite. They both really loved the creamy polenta it sat on, and I know they had plans to recreate the polenta at home.
None of us managed to finish our main course, especially since we were all headed for dessert, so we took some to go. I don’t know how the fish and lamb fared the next day, but my linguine heated up wonderfully in the sauté pan. I also liked the fact that the to-go containers were the Earth-friendly, biodegradable kind.
Above: Grass Fed Lamb Shank with Big Island Haricots Verts Provençal and creamy Polenta – a special for the evening at $28.
Finally we come to the dessert. Looking at the menu on my iPhone right now I am wondering how I managed to miss the Smoked Madre Chocolate Flan on the list. I know, I got distracted when I heard the specials: Big Island Lavender and White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Dragonfruit Sauce. How could I pass on that?
Just to tempt you further, other dessert choices on the menu are: Naked Cow Dairy Fromage Blanc Cheesecake with Big Island Cinnamon Graham Cracker crust, Poha Berry and Manoa Honey sauce; Lilikoi (passion fruit) Mochi Cake with Manoa “honeycomb” gelato and Vanilla Ginger syrup: Flourless Chocolate Cake with warm melted center, Caramel Gelato and Rice crispy Chocolate Tuille just to name a few. You can view the current menu on the restaurant’s website.
When our server asked us if we wanted our warm desserts à la mode, I looked up at him and asked: “What do you think?” And he replied: “Always à la mode!” Amen to that!
We thoroughly enjoyed the bread pudding, which was moist and tender, with a delicate lavender hue. And the addition of the vanilla ice cream melting into the dragon fruit sauce added both to texture and color.
Above left: Big Island Lavender and White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Dragonfruit Sauce à la mode – dessert special for the evening at $8.
Above right: Mango and Strawberry Crisp, also à la mode – a regular item on the dessert menu at $8 + $2.5 for the à la mode part.
The mango and strawberry crisp came out golden and hot. This dessert is featured in the regular menu as Seasonal Fruit Crisp, and the filling changes with the season and market availability. This is mango season and – on the Big Island and Maui – also strawberry season, so here they were both featured in this super popular dessert. I only had a bite of it, enjoying the crumbly crisp and the ice cream melting in the fruit juices. I had to agree with Tracey, however, when she said the mango was too sour and filled with filaments. We mentioned this to the server when asked how things were, who said he was glad of the feedback (and sounded genuine). Since we were too full to go for another, he kindly took it off our bill.
Honestly, I think this is a one-off situation, and possibly the wrong mango ended up in our crisp. I have been hearing of the 12th Ave Grill fruit crisp for some time and always with nomnomnoms after it. I am sure it is usually perfect and will be so again next time, whatever the filling will be. I had a restaurant so I know how weird stuff happens even when you are doing everything else right, as they are.
A word about ambiance before I wrap things up: 12th Ave Grill is set in what used to be the former Victoria Inn space, and the dining room is quite spacious, with an airy but welcoming feeling and an Island chic style. It also has a private party room and a kitchen large enough to support all of Kevin Hanney’s operations: the restaurant, catering and wholesale business.
Since these dinners both happened in the old location just before they moved, photos of the ambiance will happen next time I am in Honolulu, in a whole new post after another lovely dinner. The address given below is the current (2015) address. The restaurant is located in an old and charming area of Honolulu called Kaimuki. There is an ample paid parking lot just behind the building, very easy to access. Parking is paid at the exit booth, which is open till 11p.
Just remember to book ahead, because it is always busy. Go hungry and enjoy.
1120 12th Avenue, ste 100 – Honolulu, Hi 96816 | 808-732-9469 | map
If you are looking for more good places to eat on O’ahu: