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.
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 Hanney and Denise Luke own this place, too.)
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.
So this is what we ate:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.