The exact moment Jon Matsubara became one of my favorite chefs was when he put a bowl of foie gras-topped short rib and micro watercress greens in front of me, poured in hot broth and called it pot-au-feu — French beef stew. I took a bite and almost choked laughing: It was salt meat watercress soup, a staple of the best old-style Hawaiian kitchens. "You know when you're watching Super Bowl, you're eating and drinking, you fall asleep and wake up hung over?" he said. "I woke up and made this."
Food that brings you home in the unlikeliest ways is Matsubara's specialty. It wasn't always. He's cooked at Alan Wong's, New York City's Tabla and Michelin-starred Jean-Georges, Canoe House, Stage. That's a good arc of ambition and haute cuisine. The first dish I tasted from him was impressive but unmemorable, and Matsubara fell off my local radar for a time at Waikiki's Azure and Japengo. When he resurfaced at Forty Carrots at Bloomingdale's Ala Moana, that off-menu pot-au-feu was easily one of my top food memories of 2016. At Joy of Sake 2017 he handed out bite-size bonito rice balls flecked with salmon roe and bubu arare, over which he ceremoniously poured a chilled lemon-salt broth. You ate it and knew at once this was ochazuke, the humble Japanese hot-tea-over-leftover-rice fallback, and felt a momentary wave of incredulity and nostalgia.
Now Matsubara is cooking this style of food — crazy comfort dishes only he can conjure up, at a lunchtime pop-up at Cafe Anasia, a relative's sports bar in Moiliili. The haute cuisine touches are toned down for this stretch of Beretania between auto body shops, but they're there.
This is Matsubara's first restaurant. It’s just him and a prep cook in the kitchen, his wife Jamie, mom Arlene and a longtime colleague working the counter and tables. Uncle Bob, an icon at Cafe Anasia, watches the tiny parking lot where cars during Matsubara's second week have been double- and triple-parked.
Matsubara is serving five sandwiches (there's a McBara burger), five salads, some plate lunches, a daily vegan special called I Am Vegan and anything else he can think of (yesterday there was butter-poached ribeye over garlic rosemary fries with roasted mushrooms). Desserts include churro malasadas and something called Marshmallow Crack, which is a chocolate cake with Valrhona chocolate ganache and marshmallow butter cream. All this you can expect at least through December. After that, Matsubara's aiming to open a spot downtown. Here's a taste of what you can expect at his Feast at Anasia.
Warm butter crab and thick cut bacon sammie, $15. This was the pre-bacon version. Buttery fresh crab between toasted buttered buns is well-seasoned, dreamy and did I mention the butter?
Ono salt beef watercress soup, $15 ($10 for mini). NOT pot-au-feu, this is really salt meat watercress soup, tender salty beef in a chili pepper bouillon. Comes with rice.
Hilo-style hamburger steak, $14 ($9 for mini). Hilo-style because people Matsubara hung out with in Hilo used to coat steaks in oyster sauce and garlic before grilling. This tender, savory, handmade patty is coated in oyster sauce and garlic salt and grilled. Comes with onion gravy al over (this is mushroom-onion gravy because Matsubara had a lot of mushrooms yesterday). As of week two, this is the best seller..
Mushroom bisque and mini-mushroom sandwich, $10. If this is your day's soup and sandwich combo, get it. Intense mushroom flavor between the umami aioli-slathered ciabatta buns; same intensity with amplified umami from dashi cream in the bisque.
Warm butter poached crab and green papaya salad, $15. Fresh sweet crab tossed with pickly strips of green papaya and big mouthfuls of raw kale in a lemongrass dressing. Decadence without too much guilt.
Go, but don't go this Friday — they'll be closed for an event.
Feast at Cafe Anasia
2227 S. Beretania St.
M-F 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Very limited parking in on-site lot