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The Honolulu Advertiser
Friday, August 5, 2005
Downtown's Europa dishes up Armenian delights
By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
Frank and Margarit Lavoie, owners of Kafe Europa, offer Armenian/Russian style food with homemade pastries baked by Margarit. Her mother, Kara Mnatsakanyan, right, helps make the daily specials. Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser
Rating: 3 1/2 forks
Tardus Financial Plaza
801 Alakea St., No. 101, at Queen Street
Summer hours: 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays
Starting in September, also open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays
Clockwise from top left: raspberry-almond tart, Armenian style baklava, homemade cream puff, okra appetizer and fava-bean salad.
One midsummer evening in Manhattan, a friend and I swooned as our waiter, Moon, and the rest of the staff at the famed Russian Samovar restaurant treated us like czarinas. Under the rosy glow of red lanterns, they covered our table with dishes of basturma (Armenian dried beef); a royal Baltic fish platter of smoked salmon and sturgeon, salmon caviar and herring accompanied by plate-sized blini; steaming cabbage-stuffed pirozhok (savory turnover) and cold borscht.
Vodkas flavored in-house with pear, plum and ginger had us wanting to try every single one. Russian tea sweetened with cherry preserves provided a warm and deeply satisfying end to the meal just as the live music reached a dramatic crescendo.
And thanks to a tip from a reader named Neal suggesting that I check out a place called Kafe Europa, I'm not going into complete withdrawal back on home ground. This downtown spot is a grab-n-go coffee stand unlike the usual sit-down eateries I go to, but it has the basics that help get me through any hard day - good coffee, sweet pastries and hearty food. It's comparable to one of those quality quickie places that are in most big cities but rare here, and I'm not talking about okazuyas, lunch wagons or Korean plate-lunch joints.
Kafe Europa has a decidedly unique feel, probably because owners Margarit and Frank Lavoie aren't from these parts. Margarit, from Armenia, and Frank, originally a Bostonian, met when Frank was a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia. After visiting Frank's brother, who was stationed at Kane'ohe Bay, they traded Boston's winters for Hawai'i's eternal summers. Without any background in the restaurant business, they are now serving a small selection of homemade Eastern European foods and tempting desserts to the downtown business crowd.
I asked Margarit how she would describe Armenian food, and she answered, "It is very close to Greek and Mediterranean food, and because Armenia was part of the Soviet Union we had an influence from Russia."
You'll find an assortment of seemingly eclectic items on Kafe Europa's menu.
On softly warmed pita bread you can get filling sandwiches of beef kebab ($5.50), vegetarian roasted eggplant with feta ($4.99), or tender, roasted Australian free range lamb ($6.25). Norwegian smoked salmon ($5.95 including side salad) on a freshly baked croissant is another alternative. If this is all too foreign, choose a standard ham or turkey with melted provolone cheese ($5.25, with side salad) on a croissant.
But it's the uncommon dishes that attract me. Daily special plates include a free can of soda and a salad, and most arrive with basmati rice - a nice change from the usual sticky kind. Tuesday's Uzbeki pilaf ($6.50) comes with hummus and pita bread. This saffron rice studded with lamb morsels is faintly sweet with carrots. Russian beef stroganoff ($6.95), moist beef strips baked in a rich sour cream sauce, is a sell-out favorite on Wednesday for those tired of beef stew.
As for the soup of the day ($4.25; $6.50 with mini-salad and bread slice), I've tried borscht, chicken-mushroom and a pinto bean. None of them left me hungry, although I wished they were hotter. I usually eye the deli case for cold appetizers ($3 to $4.50) that come pre-packed in 8-ounce plastic tubs.
These meze-type snacks such as baba gannouj, lentil salad and beet salad are almost meals in themselves, and a great option for vegetarians.
Another treat is cold-pressed, preservative-free Noyan brand juices from Armenia ($1.99 small, $2.49 medium, $2.99 large, $4.99 carton; natural pomegranate without added sugar is $2.50, $3, $3.50, $6.50). Two flavors I've never encountered before are sea-buckthorn that tastes like a zingy, anti-oxidant, power-packed passion-orange-guava and a refreshingly tart, vitamin C-loaded Cornelian cherry that resembles a guava concoction.
Kafe Europa's family recipes extend to its sweets. Although Margarit's mother, Kara, assists behind the counter and with some of the cooking, Margarit does all the baking, which she learned from her grandmother.
Every day, she turns out light-as-a feather pastries that practically float away as customers come in requesting baklava ($2), napoleons ($2) and tiramisu ($2.50). Occasionally, there are delicate cream puffs ($2) with a hazelnut glaze that caused me to have a temporary memory loss about Beard-who and Coco-what. Illy-brand espresso drinks alone or combined with a pastry can jump-start those suffering from sluggishness.
Despite not having any tables or parking, Kafe Europa does have lunchtime lines. Around noon, it's practically impossible to find a seat in the Tardus Financial building with the competition from all the other eateries.
However, Kafe Europa's reasonably priced, homey food, along with Frank and Margarit's genuine, old-world hospitality, work like an Eastern European charm to keep regulars returning.
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