PHOTOS BY NADINE KAM / email@example.com
Imperial Rolls are filled with a mix of juicy shrimp and pork in a delicate rice paper wrap at Rice Place. Delicious! They're part of a larger dinner appetizer platter that also includes bulgogi rolls and Bae Bae Cakes of sticky rice topped with char siu and lup cheong.
Rice Place owner Trinh Vo notes that in many cultures, to say "Let's eat," literally means to eat rice.
Indeed, those were among the first words I learned when studying Cantonese in college, and again now that I am studying Mandarin. "Sik faan" translates literally in Cantonese as "eat rice," and to ask, "Sik faan mei ah?" or, "Have you eaten yet?," is the equivalent of saying hello. It's the same when you ask, "Ni chi le ma?" in Mandarin.
And so, Vo's restaurant is a celebration of Asia's rice tradition, with many of the dishes offering her fresh, contemporary take on Vietnamese cuisine, while other dishes take their cues from Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisine.
Some people who read my columns may remember that I have an aversion to rice that started in infancy, when, as a young food critic, I refused to eat a mixture of rice and chopped steak that my parents were attempting to pass off as food. At 1, I would sit in my high chair for what felt like hours, while my dad tried to coax then force me to swallow that squishy wad of food. I wouldn't do it, so dinner time always proved to be a traumatic experience for both of us.
Rice Place owner Trinh Vo must be good at getting her kids to eat, because I gladly ate two things at her restaurant that I don't usually enjoy, rice and cucumbers. She made cucumbers palatable in this dish of Refresher Deluxe, the cucumber "noodles" tossed with grilled ika and poached shrimp in a light vinaigrette.
As I grew older, all my suspicions about that white, flavorless, flabby material were confirmed, that polished white rice was devoid of nutrition and was simply filler material for lack of better ingredients.
At Rice Place, though, it ain't like that. Instead, Vo explores the world of rice flours, noodles and fine lacy rice papers that she treats with utmost respect.
Although she describes herself as a home cook, that doesn't take into account the fact that she grew up in the business. Her mother ran a catering business and at one point, five food trucks in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Vo—who eventually grew up to work in the fashion industry—always provided an extra hand. Unlike her two other siblings, she found food preparation fun instead of a chore.
This is not street fare, so flavors are more muted than your typical Chinatown Vietnamese restaurant. At times I miss the intensity of in-your-face fish sauce and Asian herbs heaped on unapologetically, but there is a spare elegance at work here that is a breath of fresh air and gives us a glimpse of Asian cuisine of the future.
The Rice Place is at 725 Kapiolani Boulevard, C119B, where Ah-Lang, or Angry Korean Lady, used to be. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, Saturday brunch from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m. Call 799-6959. Visit thericeplace808.com.
TOP 5 DISHES
Usually I narrow my choices to Top 3 dishes, but I couldn't do it here. I liked so many of them, so here's my Top 5:
Báhn xèo, described on the menu as "Lettuce Wrap Rice Flour Crepe" looks like an egg crepe, but the rice batter cooks up extra crispy, a nice counterpoint to soft savory fillings of shrimp, pork belly and bean sprouts. It's served with lettuce and mint for wrapping, plus a mild sweet garlic chili sauce for dipping.
The Imperial Rolls star in a dish of Noodles and Rolls served with steamed rice noodle cakes and lettuce for wrapping. Taste the rolls solo too.
Flat, translucent rice noodles are a joy in this dish of pesto boat noodles. The housemade pesto contains no nuts ito address those with nut allergies.
The Asian Cajun makes my list because I love spicy food. Others will find this tom yum version of a Louisiana seafood boil way too hot to handle. Due to the delicacy of the other dishes, when ordering, eat this last.
Housemade condensed milk gelato is rich and creamy as expected, served with housemade azuki beans with a touch of lemon for preserving texture, and housemade mochi that's soft, not as chewy as the commercial variety. It melts quickly, so work fast.
Though we've seen many a rice bun over the past two years, the rice is usually too soft, the texture flabby. Not so the scaled down crispy rice buns of Rice Place's Go! Go! Rice Burger Sliders of beef bulgogi and cucumbers. The perfectly crisped rice was the best part.
The Rice Place offers daily stew specials. I didn't quite get this one with bean sprouts, look funn rolls and baked pork with side of broth. I felt like they were disparate ingredients in need of a binder. Hold out for beef brisket stew. Now that one's a keeper!
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner is a take on Hainanese chicken rice, a dish I find boring. It's perfect for those who can't stomach spices and herbs.
The Carnitarian dish comprises ribeye wrapped asparagus with a thickened teriyaki sauce. I found it less interesting than the Vietnamese- and Thai-style dishes.
Sticky rice and mango for dessert.
A rice cream sandwich dessert with green tea ice cream is tricky to share because the ice cream oozes out when you try to cut it.
Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her food coverage in print in Wednesday's Crave section. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.