Getting down to business at Elua Restaurant and Wine Bar

With everything that’s been written about Elua Restaurant and Wine Bar this past year – two chefs, two egos, two styles of cooking – the single thing that’s been ignored is the fact that chefs Donato Loperfido and Philippe Padovani have emerged from their first year together, united. By maintaining separate menus under one roof, yet making sure the dishes complement each other, by remaining firmly rooted in their own traditions and by refusing to bend to fusion or bow to Hawaii Regional Cuisine, they’ve created the only truly Mediterranean restaurant in Hawaii.

Oh, I hear the gasps of horror as you think of favorite fine dining spots, led by Michelin-worthy European chefs. But even they, I think, would tell you that it’s true.

At Elua (located on Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu) the food is not “French influenced” or “Italian based,” but food as it might be cooked in Avignon or Marseille or Puglia.

“It’s not the grandma/grandpa kind of Italian food,” says Donato. “It’s French and Italian.”

French on one side of the menu. Italian on the other. “People are beginning to understand Italian food because of Elua,” he adds. “They come to this restaurant and they start to see that this food is not what they expected.”

Italian food, as Donato knows it, does not exist in Hawaii, he says. “Fettucine Alfredo is one of the worst representations of Italian food in America,” he says. “We do not eat that kind of food.”

For years, Donato’s blood pressure would rise when guests at his eponymous Manoa restaurant would ask for American Italian dishes like spaghetti and meatballs or white rice with their tomato sauce. Nowadays he employs a different approach. “I tell them that this is Italian food,” he says, “but not the kind they think of. It’s Italian food by Donato.”

There are those who may think of this as an arrogant remark, but if your family history began in Puglia, where some of the most creative and sensuous rustic food in all of Italy is cooked, and where the bounty from the sea is so incredible (if God had his own fishpond it would surely be the Adriatic), then you, too, would have a swagger about your culinary heritage.

On the French side of the menu, Padovani has returned almost entirely to his classic French roots and to the cuisine he’s worked passionately his whole life to perfect. In doing so, he’s stripped away almost all of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine influence that’s been there these past 20 years. His dishes are bolder because of it.

“The food is always about flavor and about using the best ingredients possible,” says Padovani. “We just buy the best we can get our hands on.”

So if the best is duck breast from Long Island, rack of lamb from Colorado, fish from a local fisherman and herbs from owner Keith Kiuchi’s garden, then that’s what you’ll find on the menu. “Our food is about ingredients and passion.” says Padovani. Taste his Terrine of Foie Gras of Duck – easily one of the best examples of its kind on any menu, or his Duck Confit over lentil ragout and you can almost taste the passion. “I love that dish,” says Donato “I think his duck confit is so incredible.”

There are a lot of incredible dishes at Elua. There are vine-ripened tomatoes stuffed with escargot and served with freshly made pasta and a basil porto sauce; there’s pan-fried weke, a tiny local fish that crisps up perfectly when seared and served over seasonal mushrooms and vegetables a la greque; and there’s one of the city’s best Muscovy duck breasts with a sweet and sour subtle ginger jus. On Donato’s side of the menu, the recipes are written in Italian, because Donato, who has a perfect grasp of the English language, is better able to describe his food in his native language. Open the menu and read of Gnocchi al Ragu Toscano (fresh house-made potato gnocchi with a Tuscan meat ragout and truffle essence) or of Bistecca di Manzo (rib eye) and the seduction begins.

At lunchtime, there are few places better suited to business than Elua. The brown walls are comforting in a solid, sensible kind of way. Like handmade shoes or a well-cut suit, the restaurant décor makes a subtle statement. You walk into Elua and feel that the people in charge of this restaurant are, well, in charge. The dining room, formerly whimsical and full of overly cheerful paintings, now gives a confident, serious air. And in dishes like Nodino di Maiale (a roasted double-cut kurobuta pork loin chop stuffed with speck and Montasio cheese), or Do-nato’s famous Stinco di Agnello Brasato (Colorado lamb shank with porcini mushroom), or in Scallops and Foie Gras, you’ll find dishes that relay the confidence of their chefs. In the evening, in addition to the regular, seasonal menu, there’s a tasting menu that offers diners a glimpse of how well these dishes work together and offers an alternating dish from each chef.

Of all the things that people thought might happen when these chefs announced their partnership, perhaps the last things anyone expected was Donato to become happier in his pursuit of perfection (he has all but given up chastising customers for asking for meatballs and spaghetti or fettuccine Alfredo), or that Padovani would find the confidence to do what he does best – cook Hawaii’s outstanding ingredients the French way. If it is freeing for the chefs, it is liberating for diners.

“Philippe is a master of French food,” says Donato. “I am Italian. At Elua we are unique.”

As if there had ever been any doubt.