Sitting in the leafy courtyard of the Mission Houses Museum, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Noguchi’s Mission Social Hall & Cafe opened just last week, his first real restaurant since those magical months when he ran Heeia Kea Pier General Store and Deli. He’s cooked at other places since, including Lunchbox, the employee cafeteria kitchen he still runs inside Hawaiian Airlines corporate headquarters. But Mission is where you and I can come and eat his food.
Noguchi is the one chef whose flavors can awake in me forgotten memories of times long past, which is always a powerful surprise. Is that the nod to history? Or is it the setting we’re in? On sunny days the dappled shadows of milo leaves play on the white facades of 200-year-old missionary homes. Across the lane is Kawaiahao Church, whose bells I never noticed chime on the hour; across King Street are Honolulu Hale and the Hawaii State Library.
Is it something in the dishes? The small menu starts with luau stew, the soulful dish Noguchi has been saddled with since he introduced it at Heeia Pier. He learned the recipe from his uncle in Waipio Valley, a fool-proof simmer of luau leaves, pork shoulder, onion, ginger and salt. Everywhere he’s cooked it, customer demand prevents him from taking it off the menu. He challenges me to pick out the one key change he’s made to it at Mission; I can’t.
There’s also a kajiki sandwich of swordfish salad dressed with housemade takuan pickles and topped with bacon, along with other sandwiches, a daily soup, salads of cooked and raw vegetables, and big chunks of steamed taro dressed in salt and sesame oil and flecked with creamy-crunchy toasted macadamia nuts.
Dessert is a calamansi or lilikoi-guava tart topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Both make everyone at the next table pucker approvingly. For me there’s sweet, fresh kulolo, heartier than the squishy stuff I buy that’s been frozen and steamed back to life. And here’s an awesome P.S. The taro for every week’s kulolo comes from a different family around Hawaii, so you’ll taste different varietals.
“We’re sitting here, surrounded by history, but it may not be what you think,” he says. “It’s not food or recipes from a certain era. It’s all kinds. It’s the haole brownie, the kulolo, this luau stew, the kimchee chige we made last week. It’s food that reminds us where we came from.”
So it’s all of the above. But mostly it’s the power to evoke, which is what can make Noguchi’s food magical. I’ve been waiting a long time.
It’s good to have him back.
Mission Social Hall & Cafe • 553 S. King St. • 808-447-3913 • Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.