A 4-word conclusion on lunch at Panya Bistro this lovely Thursday afternoon:
Service: Nonexistent Company: Wonderful!
Today I met Gail Jennings of HawaiiDiner.com, Hawaii’s ultimate restaurant and food site. I’ve been a long time admirer of Gail’s site, always keeping up to date on her podcasts (think food radio!) and reviews. After email communication and phone calls comprised of “oooh, and the bread pudding there was sooo good!…we need to find an amazing macaron…the most succulent braised short ribs…” I met up with Gail and her close friend and awesome food photographer, Adriana.
Gail invited me to meet them at Ala Moana’s Williams Sonoma where Elmer Guzman of The Poke Stop in Waipahu was doing a rather scrumptious cooking demo. He made two dishes, an Entouffee and localized version of a Calamari Po’Boy. Adriana was there shooting photos (how I envy people with photography skills) and Gail over seeing the operation – this lady has everything covered! A few pieces of golden crispy calamari straight out of the deep fryer and sprinkled with a good hand for Guzman’s signature seasoning was indeed satisfying. With a welcome chew and slight sweetness, the combo of smooth squid with a light crunchy batter was enhanced by the addictive heat of Guzman’s seasoning – the roots his experience working with Emeril Lagasse imparting a slight Cajun influence.
With a bit of calamari to whet our appetites, the three of us made a short walk to Panya Bistro. Panya is one of the main Japanese bakeries in Hawaii (the other being Saint Germain and Ginza Kimuraya), but what sets them apart, (and brings in lots of additional revenue) is the “bistro” operation of the bakery. There was a brief wait for a seat during this peak lunch hour, but our time was well spent ogling the pastry cases on either side.
It’s a very “hip” looking restaurant, no? Definitely mall material for the fashion conscious Japanese tourists and higher end mall trekkers. The staggered mirrors and strands of shimmering silver discs predicted the coming of hip Japanese fusion restaurants like Shokudo.
Service was a bit spotty at the beginning, with the waiter hovering over, asking us if we were ready to order before we had barely been seated. The next time he bussied on over just minutes later, we placed an order for drinks and appetizers, not yet having decided on the entrees. The waiter gave us a slight look and sashayed on off. Time passed and nothing came. I think the bartender finally took pity on us for he came by to inquire about our order. I was starting to think we were invisible.
The Tropical Fruit Iced Tea came shortly. It’s a aesthetically attractive drink, the vibrant red with tiny bits of fruits like apples and kiwis floating on top. Cool and sweetened just so, the clean flavor of the tea blended well with the mixture of fruit juices.
And if you thought the tea was good, the Cucumber Apple Ginger Juice was even better. I initially ordered the Pineapple Ginger, but they were out of Pineapple. Touted as a “skin cleansing drink,” the juice was thick and bordered the verge of smoothie texture. I could barely make out the presence of Ginger, but the Cucumber flavor was strong. Mingling with sweet summer taste of apples, this essentially vegetable drink rivals any smoothie you’ll ever have!
So we drank. And waited. And waited. “Maybe we should order our entrees.” But no one came. “I don’t think they see us.” By now the place wasn’t even full though waiters keep on walking by here and there, not really doing anything, including taking our orders. Luckily the three of us had a mouthful to talk about. Everything from food to dining services and travel, the otherwise extensive wait was fill with genuine excitement and chatter. Once you get eaters on a roll about eating, there’s no stopping us! Who you dine with is important. Eat only with people who like to eat. Otherwise you are doomed. Or that’s my conclusion, for what it’s worth.
Consider it a blessing our House Gyoza appetizer arrived. It was already an hour since we were seated. I had higher expectations and was disappointed by the thick and chewy gyoza skin. While you could forgive the fact that the pork and shrimp filling were left in big chunks, the skin was not tightly binded together at the ends, resulting in an unraveled gyoza after the first bite. The dipping sauce was mediocre, and Gail noted that the oil tasted a bit stale. It’s a mall restaurant, but even the noodle shop in the food court downstairs does a superior job. I’d take my grandma’s woorteips over these in a second.
The Fried Shrimp on the other hand was a palate pleasure. About 8 large pieces of butterflied shrimp were deep fried and tossed in a spicy/crispy mixture I’ve yet to identify. You also find the same cooking method and mix at Chinese restaurants, only it’s typically done with crab. Served in deep bowl the chopped lettuce and shredded carrots proved to be excellent vehicles for scooping up the crunchy nuggets.
Appetizers all pau…but we were not even give an opportunity to place our entrees! Maybe the waiter was peeved when we place only an appetizer and drink order first, without doing everything at once, so he decided to take revenge on us by NEVER allowing us to place an entree order. Fine. We waited, hoping someone would be kind enough to notice this lonely table with no food. And then we waited. But NOTHING happened. When the same bartender came back to fill our now empty glasses of water we asked for a dessert menu.
Deny us entrees but we’ll get our desserts!!!
The Panya Panna Cotta came beautifully presented with chopped fruits sprinkled over. (These were the same fruits that went into the Iced Tea). The Panna Cotta itself was on the bland side and we could barely discern the vanilla flavor. Texture wise, nothing to complain about, a cross between a thick custard and jello. It’s not a difficult dessert to make and it certainly deserves more effort.
Unanimous. We all declared this the winner. The Japanese do brilliant things with cheesecake. I’m sure most locals have tried Japanese cheesecake at a local Japanese bakery, but this one rivals even Saint Germain (which I so wrongly thought had the best). Start off with an Italian cheesecake, heavy rich and dense. Then, make it less sweet, give it a bit of fluff, make it more cake, almost muffin-like than cheesecake, but keep the cold creamyness of the dessert while adding body. Bake till the crust separates a bit, turning into a thin layer of golden crunch. A light dusting of powedered sugar, and there you have it, The Japanese Cheesecake.
The summer after high school graduation, I enthusiastically decided that it was my duty to try every single bread pudding in Hawaii. As it is simply my favorite (ok, I know I have many favorite, but this is really a favorite) I busted on with full gusto from Kaka’ako Kitchen, 3660, Cafe Laufer and Plumeria Cafe at the Mandarin and OnJin’s. I only got to a dozen before having to leave for college. See how school interferes with eating? Well, I’m back for summer and let the festivities resume! The Panya Bread Pudding is the first I had since coming home and let me tell you, this would have been awesome…if it were not served coooold. Noooo. Bread pudding in my dictionary needs to be warm, with vanilla anglaise or a thick custard a la Kaka’ako Kitchen poured on top. But it should never be this cold. Or this flat. I want to dig into a piece, not pry off a inch high bit with a spoon. The pudding was thick, with a more custardy bottom. Bits of raisins added flavor to the lackluster dessert and while I cringe at overly sugary treats and prefer lighter sweets (ooh but when I crave chocolate, that’s a whole nother ball game!), a hint of nutmeg, cinnamon sugar, or something would have helped.
Well what do you know. We’ve been here for over two hours, “feasting” on appetizers and desserts. Funny thing, there seemed to be no time lag when bring us the check or clearing the tables in anticipation of our departures. Another thing worth nothing – we were the only “invisible” table despite being seated practically in the hub of waiter paths. Others appears to be served their Laksa, Beef Stew and Curry Fried Noodles (our never placed orders) in a timely manner. Did the waiter really get mad at us for not ordering everything at once? Or were we simply forgotten? Either way, I’ve got no incentive to come back, that wonderful cheesecake can be taken to go (at a lower price) along with buttery round loaves of their famous Hokkaido Bread. I will stop in to pick up a few curry pan and a chocolate horn, but dine in again? We’ll have to think that through. (Note: Scoot on to eat at Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room for the same price!)
Despite the long wait and nonexistent service, this was one of the most enjoyable lunches I’ve had in a long time. Gail and Adriana were both incredibly sweet and conversation just flowed naturally. There’s so much (food) to talk about! We made plans to visit the newly opened Yannis in Restaurant Row for an evening of Greek, a day of fooding, food shopping, food looking and pointing and food eating though Chinatown (concentrating on dim sum and Vietnamese sweets) and then a full tour through the dessert menu at Sam Choy’s :) Hawaii, you rock!
Ala Moana Shopping Center
1450 Ala Moana Boulevard