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#FUUD: Izakaya Torae Torae in McCully

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Back when people still read newspapers, there was a rule for food critics: wait a couple of months before reviewing a new restaurant.

The reason? You want to give new chefs and owners a chance to work out the kinks, tweak their menus, and get into a steady flow. It’s really only fair.

Well, thanks to something called the Internet — specifically, food bloggers and sites like Yelp — restaurants get reviewed almost before they even open. And it’s not uncommon for a new spot to get a buzz during its first few weeks of opening, then fizzle.

That didn’t happen with Izakaya Torae Torae.

This izakaya (Japanese tavern) in McCully opened in February to a lot of online chatter — and it’s still super popular nine months later.

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Inside the izakaya. The sushi bar peeks into the open kitchen, where you can watch your food being prepared.

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The wooden walls are adorned with hip art by Chanel Tanaka. Very different.

Hide Yoshimoto, the popular chef from Doraku Sushi, opened this neighborhood izakaya to rave reviews early on. (It helps when you organize a soft opening for all the social media foodies and bloggers.)

The menu here is extensive, likely part of the appeal. You can find just about whatever you want here, from salads to donburi (rice bowl dishes) to sushi to desserts. (The website calls it a “kitchen sink menu.” I like that!) And it’s obvious Yoshimoto brought along his Asian-fusion flair.

I went with a friend recently who’s been there before — that helps! — and here’s what we ate:

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The gyūtan (cow tongue), or tanshio, is one of my favorite izakaya staples. The salted meat has to be super thin and fried to an almost crisp, and this didn’t disappoint.

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Our server recommended the snow crab and cream corn croquette, a richer, softer version of what people would think of when they hear the word, “croquette.” The white cream filling was creamy — just a hint of Alaskan snow crab, really — and flavorful.

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The pupu-style jidori chicken plate was a surprise. You can get this seasoned with yukari (salt) or curry. I had heard the curry seasoning was a bit intense, so we went with the yukari and it was nicely done. Simple — and great with yaki onigiri (which isn’t on the menu, but ask anyway).

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My girlfriend loveloveloves the hamachi carpaccio, which comes with ponzu sauce and a hint of truffle oil. The fish was crisp, the onions added some crunch. Really a perfect dish.

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Another signature dish is the pork belly kakuni, a slow-braised pork belly from Sunterra Farm simmered in a shoyu sauce and balanced with an ontama and daikon. The fall-off-your-fork pork is packed with flavor. I think I moaned after each bite.

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One of my surprise favorites was this Angry Buta roll. Get this: pork belly and kim chee stuffed in this sushi hand roll. You can’t get better than that!

Some thoughts: You want to make reservations. We did — and though we were the first people in the izakaya, the place filled up quickly. And it was a weekday! And if you don’t get a stall out front — there are only a few and it’s not the easiest to back up onto McCully Street — you can park at Central Pacific Bank for a $2 flat fee.

Trust me, the walk across the street will be well worth the effort.

(CORRECTION: Now that the izakaya has its liquor license, it’s still BYOB, but you have to pay a $20 corkage fee.)

Izakaya Torae Torae, 1111 McCully St., Honolulu, O‘ahu. Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday; happy hour 10 p.m. to last call. Phone: (808) 949-5959.

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#FUUD: Salted Lemon in Liliha

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I’m always on the lookout for a good acai bowl.

And when Salted Lemon opened up near my (new) ‘hood this summer — and I heard it sold sizable acai bowls filled to the brim with fresh fruits — I had put it on my list of places to try.

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Outside the shop on Liliha Street.

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Inside — decorated for Halloween!

It’s not the easiest place to find — unless you’re familiar with the Liliha area.

The shop is in an old shoe store on Liliha Street next to the iconic Jane’s Fountain. (I love that place.) It really brightens up the neighborhood, giving this aging community a boost of cool.

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Salted Lemon was opened by Patrick Nguyen, whose parents ran Bob’s Market for 26 years. He started making juices for his mother when she was battling cancer — and that became the basis for the menu here.

Taking up an entire wall behind the counter, the blackboard menu has three basic categories: juices ($7 for 16 ounces), acai bowls and smoothies (between $4 to $5 each). Nguyen prefers to use the natural sugars from fruits and veggies, with simple syrup, to sweeten the drinks.

I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a juice person, despite my attempts at juicing in the past. I came for an acai bowl — and that’s exactly what I ordered.

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The acai bowl — with soy milk.

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The acai bowl — with apple juice.

Salted Lemon’s acai bowl ($9) looks like this (above, both). The acai made with soy milk is nice and thick, perfectly chilled with the consistency of sorbet (my preference). It’s got apple banana slices, strawberries, blueberries, bee pollen, lehua blossom honey and granola.

We ordered acai sweetened with apple juice instead of soy milk — and it took about 10 minutes longer to make. (The acai is pre-made.) That made the acai not as thick and it melted a lot faster. (I’d opt for the soy milk version next time.)

And at $9 a bowl, it’s a bit pricey.

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The couple next to us ordered the papaya bowl ($7), a half Kahuku papaya filled with Greek yogurt and topped with blueberries, bananas, granola, honey and chia seeds. This looked pretty refreshing and tasty.

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I had to order the shop’s signature drink, the Salted Lemon ($4), and I was surprised at how much it grew on me.

At first, it was a bit unusual. It’s made from lemons that are brined and fermented in the sun for months, then combined with bits of lemon peel. I feel like if I were sick, this would be the surefire cure. It was salted and sour and sweet and perfect. I could have had six of them.

It’s nice to know there’s a shop so nearby that serves the kind of refreshing drinks perfect for these humid days.

And yes, there’s WiFi, too.

Coffice, anyone?

Salted Lemon, 1723 Liliha St. in Honolulu. Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Phone: (808) 538-1291

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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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#FUUD: Brunch at Koko Head Cafe in Kaimuki

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This has been a long time coming.

I finally — finally — visited Koko Head Cafe after it opened earlier this year.

In fact, the day it opened I got a text from chef Lee Anne Wong (of “Top Chef” fame) asking if I was going to pop in.

Alas, I was in the hospital. (Rememeber that?) So I missed her soft opening, I missed her media preview, I missed her grand opening, and I’ve just about missed everything else going on over there.

So the other day I had a meeting scheduled for another restaurant in Kaimukī, which was closed, so we changed our location to Koko Head Cafe instead.

And I couldn’t have been more excited.

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We got there at around noon on a weekday — and I was shocked there wasn’t a line. From Instagram photos and chatter on Twitter, it seems like there’s always a pretty long wait outside the little eatery, once the site of 12th Avenue Grill. (12 Avenue Grill owners Kevin Haney and Denise Luke own this place, too.)

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While the outside hasn’t changed much, save for the sign, the inside is markedly different. It’s bright, it’s lively, it’s fun. It’s got a cool beachy vibe that makes you feel like you’re actually having relaxing gourmet brunch on vacation — not having a lunch meeting where you had to go back to the office. It was a nice reprieve.

The restaurant is all Wong — with innovative twists on traditional breakfast and brunch dishes. Like kim chee bacon cheddar scones, a skillet dish with miso-smoked pork and five-spice pork belly with scrambled eggs and chicharron, or a poi biscuit topped with a soft-poached egg and mushroom gravy.

Oh, yeah.

So this is what we ate:

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We started with the breakfast bruschetta ($6), made with local fruit — in this case, papaya, strawberries and pineapple — with a macadamia nut yogurt on a crispy, buttery Japanese rusk. This was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long, long time. Seriously. I didn’t want to share this.

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Next, we ordered the Kitchen Sink Salad, which changes daily. Today, tossed with the micro greens was bacon, avocado, buttery housemade croutons and a perfectly tempered dressing that made this salad one of our favorites, too.

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The star of the menu is Wong’s signature Dumplings All Day Wong dumpling of the day. Today, it was a pork-stuffed dumpling topped with a housemade XO sauce that was perfectly prepared in every way. The dumpling was soft but sturdy, the sauce with just enough heat to keep it flavorful. Well done. (Her cookbook, “Dumpling All Day Wong,” drops soon. And if she can teach me how to make dumplings like this, I’m buying 10.)

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We tried the daily special, a frittata with loads of cheese, creamy eggs, and lots of green onions.

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Next was the Ohayou Eggs ($15), featuring baked eggs, heritage ham and locally grown mushrooms, topped with a Parmesan cheese cream and bonito flakes. This tasted better as you ate it. Can’t explain it.

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One of the most interesting dishes on the daily special menu — which I’m glad we got — was this: fried poke (using kakimochi, by the way) atop Okinawan soba noodles with a creamy aioli with tobiko (fish roe). Such a decadent, flavorful dish full of layers and textures that just made sense. A really cool eating experience.

Actually, the entire experience far exceeded my expectations — and they were already high considering I knew who the chef was. But Wong blew me away, and I’m already planning my next visit there. My mission is to try every single dumpling she makes. It can be done!

Koko Head Cafe, 1145c 12th Ave. in Kaimukī. Hours: 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. Phone: 808-732-8920.

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#NewEats: Breakfast at Tucker & Bevvy in Kapahulu

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I’m always looking for great breakfast spots.

And it didn’t take much convincing on the part of my pal, Melissa Chang (@melissa808), to get me to meet her at 7 a.m. on Wednesday for some ricotta pancakes and roast beef hash at a new breakfast spot on Kapahulu Avenue.

It’s called Tucker & Bevvy (Aussie slang for “food and drinks”) and it’s located in the space vacated by an okonomiyaki shop on the second floor of the Hee Hing Plaza.

Actually, its first location in the Park Shore Waikiki Hotel opened last year, offering ready-to-go picnic food such as turkey cranberry sammies, smoked ‘ahi wraps and veggie stack panini with eggplant and sweet potatoes.

This second location, which opened today, offers fresh and hot breakfast items, from Italian baked eggs to croque madame.

Owners Tony and Cecily Ho Sargent spent the last 17 years running three food businesses in a beachy suburb of Sydney, Australia before moving here. (Cecily is from Hawai‘i and an alum of Punahou School.) So they know what they’re doing — and it shows.

Here’s what the first day of operation looked like and, of course, what we ate:

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We got here at around 7 a.m. and there were already people eating! Good sign!

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Here’s the menu. The drinks — T&B is known for its freshly made juices — are on the back.

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I dined with fellow — and hapa! — bloggers Lena Strong-Morris and Sean Morris. It’s always great eating with foodies because 1) they order everything and 2) they don’t get mad when you want to take photos of their food.

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We ordered the Lean Green ($7.65) with kale, cucumber, celery, green apple, lemon and ginger; and the C Holiday ($7.65, with pineapple and orange juices with some mint. It’s a bit pricey, but the quality of the drink is worth it.

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The restaurant makes a few house-made breads including this cornbread, which comes buttered and grilled. (I asked for extra butter.) It’s not sweet, more of a traditional cornbread, and it was a great way to start the meal.

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One of the standout dishes was this chicken fried rice ($9.50). The chicken is seasoned with garlic and pepper and the rice is tossed with a variety of ingredients including carrots, onions and scallions. It comes topped with two eggs, any way. I seriously couldn’t stop eating this — and it wasn’t even my order!

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We also tried the roast beef hash ($14.50) made with small chunks of prime rib roast and paired with roasted fingerling potatoes and red onions with two eggs. The saltiness of the beef went well with the potatoes and eggs. A very hearty breakfast, for sure!

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Next up, the ricotta pancakes ($9.50) with a strawberry compote. To be honest, the pancakes were so fluffy and sweet, you didn’t even need the compote. Yes, it was that good!

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I was very fond of this omelet with roasted veggies ($10.50), including eggplant, peppers, sweet potato and zucchini. I loved the house-made pesto and melted mozzarella cheese on the top. It really added something special to this omelet.

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Another favorite of mine was this mushroom rosti ($12.50). I loved the combination of the salty and crispy potato cake (hash browns) with mushrooms and wilted spinach tossed in balsamic vinegar and topped with two eggs.

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The most intriguing dish on the menu was this Tim Tam waffle ($9.50) topped with vanilla ice cream and syrup. The waffles are beer-battered and super light. And, of course, there’s the Tim Tams, those super popular cookies from Australia that I can’t get enough of. And now they’re in a waffle? Oh, I’m so coming back!

Tucker & Bevvy (breakfast), 449 Kapahulu Ave. Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. Phone: (808) 732-0050.

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