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Casual dining Hawaiian style

cpt-gossipgourmet08Text13279VJ5 THE GOSSIPING GOURMET

Step off Pacific Coast Highway and be transported to a little bar in Maui without five hours on a plane and with a chunk of change still in your pocket.

Where does this sorcery transpire? — at The Cabana Bar and Grill.

Even though it has the all the kitschy Hawaiiana of hula dancer light fixtures on the bar and palm tree upholstery on the banquettes, it still manages to achieve the casual, open, easygoing atmosphere of the real thing.

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We sat down on bamboo chairs at a table with a woven rattan top, under a rotating wooden ceiling fan and looked out past the verandah to a slice of the Pacific. And just like in Hawaii, the meal began with a basket of warm homemade “Wonder Bread.”

We had noticed a beautiful brick oven in the kitchen and loaves about to be baked but apparently bread is only served on request so we asked for some and were surprised that the wood-burning oven produced a cottony white loaf. Are they searching that hard for Hawaiian authenticity?

They certainly have achieved it in the service, which is friendly and VERY casual.

Our entrée arrived shortly after we had begun to eat our appetizers. When we pointed this out to our waitress, she asked, “Well, do you want me to put the fish under the heat lamp?” We looked at each other in horror and Elle snatched it from her saying, “No, never mind!” It was not to be a long lingering dinner.

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Perhaps, this problem occurred because the appetizers are generously proportioned and we suspect many people make a meal out of them.

The Kung Pao Calamari is sliced calamari steak very lightly dusted with flour and fried. The result was tender and light. Unfortunately, the Kung Pao sauce wasn’t spicy and was cloyingly sweet.

The dish was really saved by a fabulous Asian slaw. The crunchy red and white cabbage was punctuated with cilantro and dressed with a Thai-style sauce that was a perfect of balance of sweet and sharp.

It was so good that we requested a side order. Then our spicy ahi soft tacos arrived and, lo and behold, more slaw! No problem. We ate every bit and it almost saved the tacos as well.

Sadly, the little bits of fish were over seasoned and overcooked. If only the fish had been as fresh as the delicious little mini-tortillas. Certainly, both of these appetizers were big enough to share.

Other options include: pork and vegetable pot stickers, shrimp lettuce leaf tacos and fondue grill sticks, which are tenderloin tips with a Cambazola cheese dipping sauce.

There are also a variety of salads to choose from. The grilled chicken summer salad has fresh strawberries, feta cheese and candied walnuts.

There is an old-fashioned iceberg wedge with creamy blue cheese dressing and a house salad featuring black olives, hearts of palm, feta cheese, bay shrimp, red onions and tomatoes. The Caesar can be served not only with chicken or shrimp but also with grilled salmon.

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In keeping with their casual style, you can also get burgers and sandwiches at dinnertime. All are served on their home-baked buns with fries and the great Asian slaw.

This eclectic menu features six seafood choices as well as steaks, ribs, chicken and a vegetable plate.

The fish that arrived with our appetizers was a macadamia nut crusted mahi-mahi with a whole grain mustard sauce. Normally, it comes with horseradish mashed potatoes but we ordered extra veggies instead.

Our waiter suggested spinach as a second vegetable. We were more than delighted as it came just the way we like it: barely touched by the pan, flavorful and not at all greasy.

The crunchy mixed vegetables were really good too. The generous portion of fish was nicely cooked and the sauce was a light cream sauce, perky with the whole grain mustard.

The only complaint was that the macadamia nuts, contrary to expectation, were crushed to a powder, thereby crushing out all nutty flavor and texture as well.

The same tasty mustard sauce is served with their grilled shrimp entrée and salmon is pan roasted and topped with lemon caper sauce.

Hawaiian cuisine is really a kind of hodgepodge. Usually it’s a mixture of Japanese elements and barbecue with a pineapple thrown in.

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Authentic Hawaiian food is poi and pig, rarely appearing on any menu except at a luau. Poi (a sour, sticky paste) is definitely an acquired taste.

Some contemporary Hawaiian chefs are now using local produce and other ingredients to create a real island cuisine.

Here in Laguna, at Cabana, the Hawaiian rib-eye is marinated in soy, ginger and pineapple juice. The Maui flank steak features their own teriyaki glaze and the BBQ pork ribs are falling-off-the-bone tender.

Vegetarians will be happy to know there is a trio of vegetables entrée with sautéed spinach, sweet toasted corn and the vegetables of the day, a melange, served with the horseradish mashed potatoes. They really do a great job with vegetables and you can order them from their menu of sides.

Chocolate lovers rejoice! There are only two desserts and both of them are chocolate.

One is a Kona coffee mud pie, a concoction consisting of an Oreo cookie crust mounded with coffee ice cream, smothered in fudge and slathered with whipped cream, then dotted with toasted almonds.

In another galaxy altogether is something called chocolate heaven... and miraculously it is. This may be one of the best desserts in Laguna Beach.

Described as a chocolate brownie soufflé cake, it is delicate in texture and intense in flavor without being overly sweet. It is served warm and topped with some superfluous and not very good vanilla ice cream.

There is a lively bar scene featuring faux Hawaiian cocktails with names like Lava Flow and The Big Kahuna as well as jumbo martinis aplenty. You’ll be glad for the gigantic appetizers to help soak up the alcohol.


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  • ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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