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Food & Dining // Table Talk
Jo McGarry

Crazy For Crustaceans At Willows’ Karai

Leave it to me to have lunch at Karai Crab on one of the busiest days of the year. Who knew 12.12.12 was such a popular day to get married?

The Willows – and nearly every other wedding venue in town – was bursting at the seams last Wednesday, so it was a relief to be able to slip from the happy madness of wedding guests arriving through a side door in the Willows gardens and into Karai Crab. Formerly an office space that’s been ingenuously transformed into a small restaurant with two separate entrances (one from the Willows’ garden, one from Hausten Street), the recently opened seafood restaurant defines unpretentious with simple tables covered with white paper, chalkboard menu and unadorned walls. But don’t let this casual appearance deceive. There’s some excellent food being served here. And there’s enough variety that it’s worth making the trip to Hausten Street even if you’re not crazy about crab.

We had an order of fried catfish as an appetizer (yes, a lot of food for an appetizer, I agree, but in its crisp, golden loveliness it was a perfect indicator of a kitchen that cares enough to get details right). The moist, white fish is served with fries and a house dipping sauce, but add a little salt and vinegar and you could be eating the British equivalent of hearty fish and chips. And while there’s plenty of crab on the menu – snow, Dungeness and king – it’s the sides, appetizers and sauces that bring this humble little restaurant together and make it great.

A combo bowl of shrimp, clams, crawfish, mussels, potato, corn and sausage is worth the work of opening claws and picking through shells – although I’ve still to be convinced that crawfish is ever worth the effort. Choose seafood, and then choose from seasonings that include garlic butter, lemon pepper, bouillon, lemongrass and a house secret special broth. I chose Cajun spice and asked for it at medium (Cayenne) heat. Don’t be fooled into thinking the heat levels here are akin to those at the average Thai restaurant, where often a medium-spicy papaya salad has little kick. Be warned that medium heat Karai-style is plenty hot. At the seriously spicy level (Habanero Heat) you’ll definitely be chalking up some hefty Scoville units, but leave the extra-spicy level (Ghost Pepper Heat) for professional heat lovers. So few patrons have chosen ghost pepper heat that the restaurant should start a Wall of Flame to honor those bold customers up to the challenge.

“Nobody has been brave enough to try the ghost pepper while I’ve been working,” said our waitress.

If you go in a group, you can try several of the excellent sides that include shrimp/crayfish etouffee ($8) as well as local corn that appears sweet and crunchy whether it comes in a combo broil or on its own. Salt and pepper shrimp ($12) is another worthy side, and don’t leave without trying the bacon jalapeno cornbread – at $3 a portion, there’s enough to eat, dip, soak with sauce and even take home.

A couple of daily specials have been added to the menu, including a dish that should have seafood lovers rushing to the restaurant: cioppino. The famous fisherman’s stew – all too rarely found in Honolulu restaurants – is served as a dish for two ($42) and offers more evidence that the head cook in this kitchen wants to exceed the expectations of his customers.

While executive chef Miles Miyamoto could easily have been distracted by his new duties transforming The Willows’ buffet, it’s clear that he’s committed to taking care of the details at Karai. The food is executed well, service is fast and friendly, and the pricing offers seriously good value. With the holidays here, Karai should be bustling with seafood lovers gathering for hearty food in a casual, fun environment.

Just remember, you were warned about the ghost peppers.

Happy eating!

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