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#NewEats: The Nook Neighborhood Bistro

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I had meant to write a review of a new brunch spot in Puck’s Alley weeks ago — but I kept going back to eat there.

I guess that’s a good sign.

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The Nook Neighborhood Bistro opened earlier this summer in the former space of Southern eatery Kiss My Grits in Puck’s Alley near the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa campus. I had heard about it through, of all things, Instagram. A friend who follows me saw my recent posts about two other brunch spots, Koko Head Cafe in Kaimukī and Tucker & Bevvy in Kapahulu. He told me about The Nook and I promised to go.

I went — then I went two more times.

The menu here features breakfast and brunch items all day, using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients like local eggs, produce, milk and meats. The 700-square-foot restaurant is run by childhood friends Hailey Berkey and Anicea Campanale — both 27 and from California. They both come from families who run their own businesses, so entrepreneurship was in their blood.

In order to raise money to open the restaurant, they used the crowd-funding platform Foodstart, which helps restaurants and food trucks to raise capital online in small amounts. The pair was able to raise more than $12,000.

So why brunch?

“Over the last few years, we have seen the burgeoning brunch scene on O‘ahu,” says Berkey, a self-trained cook, “and we saw the opportunity to bring some new flavors and combinations to standard breakfast here.”

Like the popular kale Benedict ($10) with poached eggs and sautéed kale atop an English muffin and hollandaise sauce. Or the haupia oatmeal ($6) with coconut milk rolled oats, apple bananas and coco nibs. Or — my favorite — the Asian pear grilled cheese ($9) with sharp cheddar cheese, Asian pear and caramelized onions on ciabatta.

“The Nook menu is all your favorite breakfast, brunch and lunch with a modern twist,” Berkey says. “The atmosphere in the restaurant is modern yet cozy, and the menu reflects the feeling you get when you walk inside the front door.”

If you can find it. It’s hidden inside Puck’s Alley with no street frontage. You won’t know it’s there unless you literally drive in and look for it.

“At first when we saw that this space was available, we were concerned that it was tucked away from street view,” she says. “However, it wasn’t long before we embraced the quaintness and hidden qualities and imagined the perfect name for it — the Nook.”

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Here’s the the BLT ($13.50), with a fried pork belly under micro greens, local tomatoes and spicy avocado on an open-faced baguette. These two know how to prepare pork, let me tell you.

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This it the malasada sandwich ($6.50), with a house-made sausage and fried egg on a split malasada. It’s small but tasty.

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While the menu features a variety of brunch options, it’s also got a few salads. This one is my favorite: the kobocha spinach salad ($9) with roasted pumpkin, baby spinach, lehua honey-glazed pecans and sweet ‘Ewa onions with a miso vinaigrette.

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And here’s one of the most popular dishes at Nook: the mochiko chicken and mochi waffles ($12.50), mochi buttermilk waffles paired with mochiko chicken and a bacon maple syrup. I haven’t been there without seeing just about every table order this dish. It’s THAT popular.

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In addition to full plates of food, the Nook also serves freshly made scones and a nice selection of teas.

Stay tuned: the restaurant is planning to expand its lunch offerings, add more daily specials and — wait for it — get a liquor license.

It will only get better!

The Nook Neighborhood Bistro, Puck’s Alley, 1035 University Ave. Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily except Mondays. Phone: 808-942-2222.

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#FUUD: New menu items at Arancino Kahala

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Confession: the last time I dined at Arancino at The Kahala was when it first opened.

A year ago.

So when I was invited to taste the first anniversary menu, I was a bit embarrassed.

I did love dinner there last year. But at the time, it was a prix fix menu that took a full three hours to partake. I wanted to go back — but I just didn’t have the time!

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Since then, though the restaurant, situated at the posh Kahala Hotel & Resort, has begun offering its menu items a la carte for dinner. (You can even order brick-oven pizzas baked on site.) So you can pick and choose what you want.

And now you can pick and choose from even more dishes.

To celebrate its one-year anniversary, Arancino, which has been serving authentic Italian food in Waikīkī for nearly 20 years, is serving up some brand-new menu items in Kāhala, including casarecce ragu di polpo (octopus and casarecce pasta with spicy garlic tomato sauce), tagliatelle con orechiette di mare (Kona abalone with fresh house-made tagliatelle pasta tossed in an abalone bouillon garlic cream sauce) and spaghetti alla carbonara (a deconstructed version of the classic Italian dish with a poached egg, crispy pancetta and truffle butter).

I was most excited about bistecca alla lavanda, a 5-ounce lavender-infused sous vide A5 Miyazaki premium wagyu beef, served with roasted petite potatoes and onions petals. Miyazaki is a region in Kyushu in Japan that grows high-quality cattle. And I had heard that this particular cut and preparation was mind-blowing.

I like having my mind blown.

So here’s a glimpse into the new menu at Arancino:

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Here’s how I like to start my meals: with a drink. This is called the Arancino ($11), one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails made with Skyy blood orange vodka, Combier Liqueur D’Orange, passionfruit puree and sweet-and-sour.

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This is one of my all-time favorite amuse bouche (though it’s not a traditional single bite): Kahuku corn foam with prosciutto. Great texture and flavors.

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Arancino knows how to serve up a memorable bread plate. Here, rosemary foccacia, a whole wheat square and — my favorite — a parmesan crostini. It was all served with softened butter and Hawaiian sea salt.

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One of the restaurant’s popular dishes, if not just for its stunning presentation, the crostacei di mare ($19) features Kona abalone, Moloka‘i ama ebi and scallops with micro greens and topped with herb oil. It’s arranged by Chef Daisuke Hamamoto to resemble a coral reef.

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Our server recommended the fegato d’oca ($19), sautéed foie gras with a wild raspberry red wine reduction. It was a nice piece of decadent goose liver, seared and topped with the slightly-sweet-but-savory reduction. The small bread squares were great to sop up the sauce at the end.

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One of the menu’s highlights — and a new dish — is the spaghetti alla carbonara ($25), chef’s take on the classic Italian dish. This one, though, features a poached egg, tons of cheese, cream, pancetta and truffle butter. Thanks to the cream, cheese and poached egg, this dish was rich and creamy and delicious.

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I’m surprised to even write this, but this risotto primavera ($23) was one of my favorites of the night. The perfectly prepared risotto was paired with 14 different seasonal vegetables and topped with parmigiano reggiano cheese. Light but filling and incredibly tasty. The crispy kale chip on the side was a nice bonus.

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Another new menu item is the grigliata di mare ($38), a plate of grilled lobster, scallops, shrimp, calamari and the fresh catch of the day, with watercress pesto and a spicy tomato sauce.

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But the star of the dinner was the 5-ounce Miyazaki beef. The bistecca alla lavanda ($70) was infused with lavender and served sous vide style. This beef, rare to find in Hawai‘i, has been the winner of the Prime Minister’s Award in Japan for the past 10 years for its outstanding quality. And it’s obvious why. You literally didn’t have to chew, the marbled meat was so soft and tender. It came with salt, pepper and a house-made mustard, along with a super unique shoyu gelee (that I gobbled up). Trust me, though, the meat could stand alone.

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While I really wanted the torta al cioccolato (a dark chocolate torte with a kumquat compote) or the panna cotta made with a house-made Hamakua tomato sorbet, I let my husband pick dessert. He chose the Monte Bianco ($10), a nugget of custard-filled chestnut puree with chestnut meringue triangles and a yuzu honey sauce. I was surprised I could eat any more, after that meal! But then again, there’s always room for dessert!

Arancino’s current five-course tasting menu is priced at $85 ($110 with wine pairings by Japanese world champion grand master sommelier Shinya Tasaki) and provides great value, with some of the restaurant’s newest and most popular dishes available to order. And there’s often live music, too.

Arancino at The Kahala, The Kahala Hotel & Resort, 5000 Kahala Ave. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 5 to 10:30 p.m. for dinner daily. Phone: 808-380-4400.

To learn more about Arancino at The Kahala, follow @arancinokahala on Instagram or like the restaurant on Facebook.

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#LovingNow: Nene Goose Bakery in Kailua

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The other day I had to pick up my dogs at Nalowinds Boarding Kennels in Waimānalo.

It was early in the morning — well before 7 a.m. — and I needed to pick up something to give the Duartes, who had watched my dogs that weekend.

I was already on the Pali Highway, halfway to Waimānalo, and I couldn’t think of a quick place to grab something small, like a box of donuts or a custard pie.

I went down my mental list of bakeries on O‘ahu’s windward side: Deluxe Pastry Shop with its cream-filled long johns, Kaneohe Bakery next door with its custard pie, Agnes’ Portuguese Bake Shop in Kailua with its to-die-for malasadas.

All of which were too far. I was in a hurry.

So I Googled bakeries nearby and up popped Nene Goose Bakery in the Keolu Shopping Center. It was practically on the way!

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It’s a very unassuming, Japanese-style bakery, tucked away in a very quiet shopping center that boasts a movie theater and an okazuya, among other things. You can barely see the sign, though the bright interior lights and glass cases filled with colorful pastries will definitely draw you in.

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The bakery, started by the Nagai family in 1995, churns out all sorts of delights, from glazed donuts to cinnamon rolls to savory pastries. The specialties here, though, are breads, particularly the French and spinach loaves, not to mention small breads in the shapes of animals.

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I’ve been here before, in the early afternoon, and it’s almost a faux pax to ask for spinach bread, as the bakery’s signature loaves sell out very quickly. You have to go early in the morning to grab a half loaf. (The bakery makes raisin, walnut and whole wheat breads, too.)

The spinach bread doesn’t taste like spinach at all. It has a soft texture, typical of Japanese-style breads, and a clean flavor. It’s not laden with preservatives or overly sweet. It’s a perfect loaf, to be honest, even with the speckle of green.

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Another signature item here is the mochi anpan, a Japanese bread pastry filled with sweetened red bean paste and a small, round ball of mochi. It’s expensive, but the size of the anpan — about a big as a baseball — and the uniqueness of this pastry make the price tag worthwhile. The bakery makes about 100 pieces a day.

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I love that this is a true, old-fashioned neighborhood bakery — there aren’t many left on O‘ahu! — that serves high-quality baked goods, including breads, butter rolls, donuts, even pies (on Saturday only).

My favorites are the mochi anpan (of course), the spinach bread (duh), the glazed donuts (best on the island, for sure), the old-fashioned cake donut (loaded with white sugar), the cinnamon rolls (made with a butter flake roll), and the buttermilk donut (perfection).

Of course, I haven’t tried everything on the menu, so that list isn’t definitive. But it’s a start!

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Nene Goose Bakery, 1090 Keolu Dr. #111 in Enchanted Lake, Hours: 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays through Sundays, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays and during lunch from noon to 1 p.m. Phone: 808-262-1080.

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A ‘Top Chef’ and a top chef cook tonight

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Colin Hazama and Louis Maldonado met at the California Culinary Academy, lived as roommates, and went their separate ways — Hazama back to O‘ahu and Maldonado stayed in California.

Hazama, who’s now the senior executive sous chef at the Sheraton Waikīkī, worked at such top restaurants as Alan Wong’s and Roy’s Restaurant and was selected as a semi-finalist in the 2010 James Beard Foundation Awards “Rising Star Chef of the Year. Maldonado earned a name for himself at Spoonbar, elevating it to three-star status from the San Francisco Chronicle. He catapulted into mainstream fame as being among the Top Four finalists on Bravo’s “Top Chef” this year.

Despite their equally busy schedules, the two friends remained in touch — but had never cooked together. Ever.

Until tonight.

The two are collaborating on a six-course dinner called “From the Islands to the Bay” at Cookspace Hawai‘i tonight, showcasing local ingredients and their individual flair in the kitchen.

I got to talk story with the two chefs about their friendship, their cooking styles and this dinner that’s been a long time coming.

CT: So how did you two meet?

CH: It was in 2001, right after 9/11. (Louis) was actually in a different class. I used to see him at the gym a lot. Yes, I used to go to the gym. (Laughs) We met at one of the dorms drinking one night.

LM: Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened. I think we hung out a few times. We literally saw each other around, then started hanging out. I ended up going to Hawai‘i for spring break that year.

CT: So this is the first time you guys have worked together?

CH: Yeah, we’ve never worked together. This is the first time we’re going to cook together for real. We lived together — we were roommates right after culinary school — but we’ve never actually cooked together.

CT: How do you think you’ll be in the kitchen together?

CH: We are very similar culturally. Even though Louis is Mexican and Sicilian and I’m Asian, our core values are similar. I think he and I are very intense people but very laid back. When I’m at work, I’m very intense. But at home, I’m not. And (Louis) is super humble. He’s not very talkative and not outspoken. But when he’s at work, he’s pretty intense. He and I are not the easiest chefs to work with. (Laughs) We are just very passionate about food in general. That’s why we really connected, too.

CT: How did this collaborative dinner come about?

CH: I did a dinner series at Cookspace Hawai‘i with Wade Ueoka and Chris Kajioka, and I really liked the venue. So I talked to Melanie (Kosaka) and doing something else this year.

LM: When Colin asked me to do this, my main thing was to do a seafood focus. Just like the kind of food we serve at the restaurant, which is 75 percent seafood. It’s what I like to work with, what I like to cook, what I like to eat. If we did a dinner, I wanted to make stuff I enjoy, not just base a menu around concepts.

CT: Anything special about the menu tonight?

LM: I’m bringing some things from the restaurant that I make special using ingredients we get from about three miles from the restaurant. Like our own flour, seaweed, geoduck clams from further north that’s rarely seen outside of California. These things are unique and don’t necessarily make their way to the Islands.

CH: I’m using scallops from Hokkaido. I wanted to do something that would pair differently with the lamb. So I’m using a Chinese smoking method, but I’ll use the regular smoking method with wood chips with sugar and rice.

CT: So Colin, did you watch your friend on ‘Top Chef’?

CH: I never watched ‘Top Chef’ before. When he first told me he was going to be on the show, I was, like, ‘Really?’ I can do media and I’m comfortable with all that camera stuff, but I’m not one to go and do a series like that. I thought it was great that he did it. It gave him even more publicity. And knowing his talent, this was just a great exclamation point on his career.

CT: What was that experience like, Louis?

LM: It’s what you make of it … If you’re there for the right reasons, you’ll get what you want out of it. I was in a good position in my life and with the restaurant that I could leave for two months and my staff could run the restaurant for me. The restaurant needed me to push it up nationally and to the next level.

CT: Did it help your career?

LM: I mean, obviously it made the restaurant a lot busier. But I knew who I was before doing the show, so it didn’t make my food better. If anything, it’s allowed more people to eat my food and business-wise it’s been a good thing. That was the biggest benefit.

CT: Wouldn’t it have been interesting if you two were on the show together?

CH: We probably would have tried to not have been on the same team. Every time I watch the show, I see how the ones on the same teams become the worst enemies. Business is business, but I wouldn’t let it ruin our relationship.

LM: Yeah, it’s a contract to your next career move and there’s the money. But if you know how to cook, you’ll always have a job. If you cook from the heart, you’ll always find something great. (Pause) But (us on the show together) would have made for some good drama!

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Tonight’s Menu
Presented by Chef Colin Hazama and Chef Louis Maldonado

Light Pupus or Snacks
Local Sourdough toast with avocado, radish, urfa pepper, kampachi
Chicharonnes3 with shichimi, malt vinegar, yogurt poppyseed foam

6-Course Degustation
Shaved geoduck clam, fermented chili, picked herbs

“Ho Farms Salad” with pearl onions, golden kahuku & currant tomato gelee, butternut squash, Gerkin cucumber pickles, crisp purple long beans

Kona Abalone roasted in Sonoma Coast seaweed with porcini bouillon, Kahuku sea asparagus, beech mushrooms

Guinea hen roulade, sweet Kaua‘i shrimp, corn, cabbage, shellfish emulsion

Prickly Ash Sonoma lamb saddle with Hawaiian Vanilla HOP fondue, tea-smoked scallop, peach, cilantro essence

“Pina Colada” — coconut truffle pacojet gelato, kaffir lime, compressed sugarloaf pineapple, ‘ulu chips, mango ice

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Interested in attending tonight’s dinner? Click here for more info.

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#Done: Pop-up brunch with Anthony Yang

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In case you missed it — and you really shouldn’t have — Anthony Yang was in town this weekend and hosted one of his cult-popular pop-up brunches in Mānoa.

Just about every food-obsessed person I know — including Honolulu Magazine food editor Martha Cheng, Frolic‘s foodies Melissa Chang and Grant Shindo, Henry Adaniya of Hank’s Haute Dogs, Hawaii Luxury Magazine‘s Sarah Honda, Good To Grill‘s Jason Kim, Roy’s Restaurant‘s Robbyn Shim — was there, ready to sample some of Yang’s creative brunch dishes.

Yang, who sharpened his culinary knives at Per Se and Michael Mina, started hosting pop-up brunch events — called Ante Meridian — for his coworkers and friends more than a year ago. Since then, they’ve become so popular, they take place twice a month and often sells out within hours of releasing the menu. (He’s even started a dinner pop-up called, of course, “Post Meridian.”) (Read more about him here.)

Yes, it was a bit pricey — almost $50 per ticket — but it would certainly cost most to fly to San Francisco to attend one of his events there.

Here are some snapshots from the morning:

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The kitchen was bustling with local chefs — including chefs Chris Kajioka and Mark Noguchi — working with Yang on how to prepare and plate each dish.

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The first of four courses of this prix fixe menu was this plate with dollops of yogurt from Naked Cow Dairy Farm and Creamery, coffee granola and lilikoi. Really tasty and not overly sweet.

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The second dish was a brioche bread pudding — using bread crafted by Christopher Sy, who was also there — with corn, macadamia nut and squash compliments. I was slightly obsessed with the corn puree.

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Next was the rice porridge with togarashi pork, homemade pickles and a poached egg. I loved the pickled cucumbers, radishes and kim chee cabbage. The pork, too, was a great balance of salty and smoky. This was my favorite dish, hands down.

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Another highlight was the famed black truffle waffles, perfectly crispy and light with a hint of black truffle.

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Yang thanked the sold-out crowd in attendance and gave everyone donut holes to take home. I gotta say, it was well worth the money — and missing a south swell, too.

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Congratulations to Amanda Corby and Pili Hawai‘i for another great event!

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