Central Bakery

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A voluptuous Caprese topped with crispy basil and toasted almonds serves as the centerpiece of the Antipasto Misto starter.

Few joys in life compare to the basic pleasure of spreading a generous knob of just-softened butter over a freshly baked chunk of bread, and watching it melt into the newborn crumb before taking that first, glorious bite. Kahala’s newest boulangerie, Central Bakery, not only takes this concept to heart, but also builds an entire dining experience around it.

Visiting the young eatery on Kilauea Avenue, located next to Olive Tree Cafe in the space formerly occupied by Wahoo’s Fish Taco, offers an escape to a simpler world of rustic European comforts, at the center of which are traditional French loaves. In today’s gastronomic environment of elaborate foams and hard-to-follow fusions, it’s so refreshing to see such a stripped-down culinary concept emerge.

As I get to know this place, I come to understand that the Central Bakery experience is twofold: It is at once a charming bake shop, ideal for stopping into on the way home to get my weekly supply of breads, and, at the same time, it is a friendly neighborhood spot for enjoying a sit-down brunch, lunch or dinner, complete with mostly Italian, but also French fare and wine.

I make my first visit to Central Bakery on a weekday afternoon. Sunlight streams through tall windowpanes, illuminating a smorgasbord of breads that greet patrons as they enter. My eyes are drawn behind the display case to the baker’s corner, filled with bread baskets lining the back wall with classic baguettes and homey mounds of campagne, or country rye. In addition to these hearty loaves, I try some of the more delicate showpieces, such as a fanciful fig bun spotted with honeyed fruit, and the petite Salz roll, a buttery yet crisp white bread that needs no accompaniments beyond the salt crystals that top it. I’m in and out of the shop quickly, but I feel all the richer for leaving with a bag full of artisan goods.

The craft of Western breadmaking at Central Bakery—exhibited through rugged crusts delicately balanced with soft, cloud-like interiors—opens up a new side of the market to island residents.

“It’s hard to find nice, European-style bread in Hawai‘i. You see bakeries, but they’re more Japanese-style or casual, so that’s why we wanted to provide this kind of European tradition in Hawai‘i,” says general manager Rey Toshinaga.

Central Bakery is also uncommon in the way it creates the menu for its adjoining eatery, keeping it closely linked to the shop’s signature, carb-o-licious wonders.

“We are really confident in our bread products,” Toshinaga continues. “Our approach is a little bit different, because other restaurants have so many types of food with bread [on the side]. But at our store, bread is the central focus, so we always think about which dishes or drinks will match with the bread.”

For this, only fine Italian cuisine and wines, with French inspirations here and there, will do.

When I return to Central Bakery on a Saturday evening, I am quickly drawn to the romantic dining space, dimly lit with contemporary hanging glass bulbs. The restaurant’s interior feels cozy without being old-fashioned, as the overall French country design is made hip with the addition of modern, clean-lined chairs and tables. Large, trendy chalkboards fill wall space with menu items handwritten in cursive, while the vintage vibe of matte wooden hutches brings warmth to the venue. One of these buffets houses an extra virgin olive oil and vinegar bar, where servers prepare accouterments for bottomless bowls of fresh bread that begin each meal.

On this night, the recently baked offerings of the moment are wonderfully dense sesame, flawless baguette and buttery brioche, all of which perfectly pair with the small bites presented to us on an Antipasto Misto platter. The appetizer is emblematic of Central Bakery’s current state of evolution—showing some areas of excellence and others with room for improvement.

The antipasto’s highlight is lightly smoked salmon, which is made in-house and beautifully decorated with pesto, arugula and supple red cabbage. I also favor prosciutto-wrapped fresh pineapple, balanced to all glory with the welcomed bitterness of raw endive. As the dish’s centerpiece, a Caprese impresses with skinless tomato filled with toasted almond slivers and balsamic-coated Italian mozzarella, which takes on the unmatched creaminess of burrata. The other tapas on the platter—a quiche and grilled vegetables—are pleasing, but not as memorable, while pieces of marinated fish are overcooked for my liking.

I quickly overlook that, however, as soon as I try an exquisite seafood stew. As a shareable entree, this number shines with a perfectly cooked myriad of scallop, mussels, jumbo prawn and white-snapper fillet peeking through zesty and slightly spicy tomato sauce. Each bulk of protein, as well as coarsely chopped onion, zucchini and carrot, adds a homemade quality to the provincial stew, which seems as though it could have been cooked up in a small seaside village.

While I sip a glass of French chardonnay from the eatery’s brief yet sophisticated wine and Champagne list, a toque-donned baker weaves her way through the tables, stopping to refill our bread basket with still-warm focaccia straight from the oven. I use the bread to soak up every last drop of sauce from the stew, and this gesture brings sheer delight to my evening.

Though quite spacious, Central Bakery is divided into two separate dining rooms. This gives the impression of a more intimate venue, as each area feels like a distinct, quaint bistro. I am seated near the semi-open kitchen, where the familiar clamor of utensils melds with the murmur and laughter of guests surrounding me. Toshinaga brings one final entree—the standout of the night—to the table. Shrimp Crema is simplicity at its best, showcasing a short list of supreme ingredients that sing with huge flavor. Al Dente Spaghetti is covered in an honest, creamy rose sauce speckled with bits of roasted garlic and adorned with plump shrimp. With one bite, the pasta creation provides every ounce of comfort I could hope for in an Italian specialty.

For patrons who have the stamina to indulge in dessert after devouring these carb-filled creations, a light sampling of almond souffle, with fluffy chocolate cake and caramel-glazed almonds, brings utmost satisfaction.

From here, I look forward to seeing how Central Bakery continues to develop. Th e still-new space is likely to grow into the community and refine its offerings along the way, but the handcrafted European fare that already is drawing in full houses is evidence enough that this spot is one to watch.