Jeff and I had dinner last night at Ate-oh-ate on Burnside. I am from Oahu and, as far as I’m concerned, an expert with regard to plate lunches. This was not impressive.
Let’s start with the food, since it is the essence of a restaurant. They purport to be a “Hawaiian-Style” establishment, so I can’t skewer them too severely. They are not claiming to be authentic. In fact, “authentic” might be a bad word to use with regard to plate lunch because, after all, a plate lunch is really a mash-up of many cultural flavors. However, much of the food is not…authentic. In a way it is too good to be authentic. The mac salad has too much going on. That is the opposite of a good Japanese-Hawaiian style mac salad. Mayo, a little shredded carrot and the essence of a Japanese tabi, as my grandfather used to say. That kind of mac salad is the holy grail of plate lunch. This salad was ok, although a little under seasoned, but it had something else in it that was wrong. Maybe it was a little tuna or some finely chopped cabbage, not sure, but for the first time in perhaps my entire life I left some salad on the plate. One of my friends just gasped.
I ordered “Japanese style” curry. First, it was not Japanese style–it was Thai style, with too much coconut and a distinct flavor of lemon grass. Second, they did not understand my request to put the curry, rice and mac salad all on the same plate. Once I got the food it made sense. The curry was more soupy than Japanese style curry so it really could not be on a plate but had to be in a bowl. That meant I could not have the quintessential plate lunch experience of the curry and the rice and the salad all touching each other and–can I say out loud–mingling on the same plate. On a positive note, the chicken katsu was excellent.
Jeff had fried saimin, which is yakisoba by another name. This is not an uncommon dish but, in my opinion, they messed it up with upscale ingredients. Jeff is not fond of pork belly (I know, crazy but stay with me). It’s too fatty for his taste. Frankly, I didn’t like it either in this dish. Usually it is Chinese bbq pork, which is leaner than pork belly, and is cut into thin slices. The distinct, sweet flavor of Chinese bbq pork lends itself better to this preparation. Pork belly, though delicious, seems out of place to me, as it vies for attention in the mix instead of playing along, like a good plate lunch food should.
Perhaps most importantly the place was cold and without aloha. I know, “aloha” is a difficult quality to define but when it is missing a local person knows it. High ceilings, minimal decoration and the constant drone of “Jawaiian” music did not make for a good atmosphere. Now, I know that Jawaiian is a legit category of Hawaiian music but I contend it is crap and just the over-influence of hippies high on ganga. Sorry, my opinion. When I go into a Hawaiian establishment I expect to hear the greats of Hawaiian music like Gabby Pahinui, Genoa Keawe, Cazimero Brothers, Iz and so on.
My advice: Stop trying to be what you think mainlanders think Hawaii is all about and go back to roots. Make the food the way it is remembered and loved, play a variety of Hawaiian music in addition to a little Jawaiian, bring in some people with some aloha and warm up the decor. You may find that this appeals to everyone.
I might stop in again in the Summer, when a cold restaurant feels good but, at the moment, I can make my own katsu and Japanese curry and mac salad. Ok, the mac salad is a work in progress but I have connections in the meantime.