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#DoThis: Okinawan Festival this weekend

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Every summer I think about how lucky we are to live in Hawai‘i.

There’s always surf on south shores and bright skies for daylong hikes. The weather is balmy, the oceans is warm, and everyone seems to be just a little happier.

And then there are the festivals, from Duke’s Oceanfest in Waikīkī to the dozens of bon dances at Japanese temples all over the state.

One of my favorites, though, is the annual Okinawan Festival, happening this weekend at Kapi‘olani Park.

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In its 32nd year, the festival, organized by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, celebrates all things Okinawan, from music to cultural arts.

But the real draw, at least for me, is the food.

Andagi (deep-fried doughnuts, top), champuru (shoyu pork, stir-fried veggies and luncheon meat with rice) and taco rice (exactly what it sounds like) top my list of favorites.

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But the one Okinawan delight I’m desperate to try — and I can’t believe I haven’t eaten it before — is the Oki Dog, a hot dog topped with Zippy’s chili and wrapped in a soft tortilla with shredded shoyu pork and lettuce.

Oh, yeah.

The only thing it needs is maybe a dollop of mayonnaise.

More than 3,000 of these culturally confused dogs are sold every year since its introduction.

I really am surprised I haven’t had one yet.

Well, I guess there’s always this weekend!

The 32nd annual Okinawan Festival, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Aug. 30 & 31 at Kapiolani Park in Waikīkī, Oʻahu. For more information, visit here.

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A peek inside ‘Dumplings All Day Wong’

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The first time I ate at Koko Head Cafe in Kaimukī, I ordered the dumpling of the day.

It just so happened to be the best dish I had eaten all year.

I thought about that pork-stuffed potsticker topped with a housemade XO sauce crafted by “Top Chef” alum Lee Anne Wong (@leeannewong) for weeks.

Turns out, it’s the recipe on Page 4 of her new cookbook, aptly named “Dumplings All Day Wong,” on shelves now.

I flipped through the 256-page cook — gorgeously photographed, by the way — and practically licked the images of sesame jin dui, California roll gyoza, dan dan pork wontons, and white chocolate wasabi pretzel dumplings.

But my heart stopped on Page 122: BBQ Chicken Dumplings (top).

Oh, the perfect combination of things I love, namely chopped barbecue chicken and deep-fried dough. It’s really the perfect dish for leftover chicken — easy to prep, simple to make. I was sold. (Recipe below)

So I chatted with the busy chef/owner — and now cookbook author! — about this new endeavor and how the OG_KarateGuy got into her book:

CT: Where did the idea for the book come from? What were hopes/goals for the project?

LAW: Interestingly enough the photographer in the book, Ken Goodman, whom I have known peripherally through food and wine circles for a few years, contacted me and inquired if I’d be into writing a book. Page Street Publishing was looking for some new culinary authors. I had just filmed a one hour special — “Food Crawl with Lee Anne Wong” for The Cooking Channel/Food Network — which was focused on my interactive tour through NYC in search of awesome dumplings and noodles. It is now and has always been my theory that you’d be hard pressed to find a single soul on this planet who wouldn’t like a hot fresh dumpling. I agreed to write it because while I am no dim sum master, I enjoy feeding people and I love making (and eating) dumplings. With only the hopes that it was a topic that would be universally loved, I set out to write a book for dumpling lovers of all skill sets, from the home cook to the professional.

CT: Why dumplings?

LAW: Almost every culinary culture in this world has their own version of a dumpling of sorts. I focused on the Asian variety because I’m obsessed with them. I also feel like when you’re in the kitchen making dumplings people tend to flock first in curiosity and then in anticipation. “Dumplings bring people together.” If I were a politician that’d be my slogan.

CT: I’m obsessed with your dumplings at Koko Head Cafe. Obsessed. Why do you have such a knack for it — and what do you love about making them?

LAW: Speaking of obsessions, haha, thanks, Cat. Dumplings on my menu at Koko Head Cafe is part of my nod to Asian culture. If it’s 7 a.m. and you put a plate of dumplings in front of me, and then a plate of eggs and bacon, etc, I’m gonna go for the dumplings first every time. Having spent the past 20 years in NYC, favorite early morning activities included dim sum, congee, and noodles in Chinatown, where especially on really cold winter days, it became a morning food religion, soulful comfort food kinda stuff, you know? I have folded many dumplings in my life and when we first opened I was the only one who knew how to do it. I knew I had to teach my cooks at some point. Now at least half of them are quite skilled at it, and I’m no longer folding dumplings on the fly at 7 a.m. hoping the first three tables that sit down immediately don’t want dumplings (and they usually do, only proving my point). I do enjoy the repetition of folding though. It’s my “me” time to think about whatever. And I’m pretty fast.

CT: How do you get inspiration for your recipes?

LAW: I’m inspired by what’s delicious. Classic and favorite flavor combinations make it easy to conceptualize what works, which is pretty much anything. You like meatloaf and mashed potatoes??? OK, let’s put that in a dumpling and drown the thing in mushroom gravy. Yum. Nom nom.

CT: Looks like you did a lot of the shooting and cooking here in Hawaii. True? Why Hawaii and not, oh, NYC?

LAW: Right in my backyard in Mānoa. It was timing, where I had just moved here in December and had to get the book photographed by Jan. 15. I was still in the middle of writing it while we shot the recipes (in a whirlwind of three days — thank you [chef] Will Chen for helping me), so while it was an undoubtedly painful process, I am relieved it is done and now I will always be able to look at my cookbook with that little kid pride: “I did that :)”

CT: Is there anything you can’t do in a dumpling?

LAW: Tell me your favorite food and I’ll tell you how to make it into a dumpling.

CT: The name of the book is perfection. How did that come about?

LAW: The publisher had asked me to start thinking about titles and so I fired off six, “Dumplings All Day Wong” being the first one. I think he glazed over the email or it just didn’t sit well with him the first time. So they tested the concept to a few audiences with some other titles they made up, that in the end I railed against because they said nothing about me or the tone of the book. At which point we had a phone call and I said, “What about ‘Dumplings All Day Wong’? C’mon, it’s funny. It’s very ‘me.’ And it immediately brands the book.” He reacted like he had heard it for the very first time, and everyone else on the conference call chuckled too, so when he said, “I like it, I think it could work.” It was huge victory for me.

CT: I’m stoked the OG_KarateGuy made the book! Is he your muse?

LAW: Yes my little buddy (@OG_KarateGuy on Twitter), who has traveled the culinary universe with me, made it into the book. I actually need to create an Instagram for all of his past adventures, and take him out of my coffee table, where he currently resides, and start creating some fresh ones. Stay tuned. Hai.

***

BBQ Chicken Dumplings
From “Dumplings All Day Wong” by Lee Anne Wong

Ingredients
Filling:
12 oz (340 g) cooked chicken meat, dark meat preferably
¼ cup (15 g) minced scallion, white and green parts
1 tsp (5 g) minced garlic
1 tsp (5 g) minced ginger
2 tbsp (30 ml) maple syrup or dark brown sugar
1 tbsp (15 ml) oyster sauce
1 tbsp (15 ml) soy sauce
1 tbsp (15 ml) apple juice or cider
1 tbsp (10 g) cornstarch
1 tbsp (15 ml) Chinese red vinegar or rice vinegar
1 tsp (5 ml) sambal paste or Sriracha
½ tsp dry mustard powder
¼ tsp ground white pepper
1 recipe Bao Dough (page 30)
Oil for deep-frying

Directions:
To make the filling, chop the cooked chicken meat into small ½-inch (1.3-cm) pieces and shred. In a separate bowl, mix the remaining ingredients until smooth. Fold the sauce into the cooked chicken meat until well combined. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Divide your dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a 1-inch (2.5-cm)-thick rope and cut into ½-inch (1.3-cm) pieces. Keep the dough covered with a damp towel. Roll each dough ball into a 3-inch (7.5-cm) round wrapper using a rolling pin, about ⅙-inch (0.4 cm) thick. Fill each wrapper with 1 tablespoon (12 g) of filling. Lightly wet the edges of the wrapper and form the dumpling using the round or puck-shaped fold. Keep the dumplings covered on a lightly floured tray or plate. Preheat the deep-frying oil to 350°F/176°C. Carefully fry the dumplings in small batches until the skin is golden brown and the dumplings are floating in the oil, about 3 to 4 minutes, gently tossing the dumplings in the oil so all sides cook evenly. Drain on paper towels. Allow the oil to come back to 350°F/176°C before frying the next batch. Serve immediately with the dipping sauce of your choice. Makes 32 dumplings.

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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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