Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: Mahina & Sun’sRestaurant Insider
September 18, 2022
Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: LAWRENCE TABUDLO
ANNE LEE speaks with Mahina & Sun’s executive chef ERIK LEONG and bar czar CHRISTIAN TAIBI
Sept. 15 marked the first of an 11-day celebration of the Feast of San Gennaro in New York. It was created to honor the spirit and traditions of the early Italians who migrated to the area that is known as Little Italy and showcases delicious Italian cuisine.
The team at Mahina & Sun’s is bringing a little bit of Italy to Honolulu Sept. 19-25 with dinner and drink specials. Executive chef Erik Leong and bar czar Christian Taibi collaborated for A Taste of San Gennaro, creating a bit of nostalgia for foodies in our own backyard.
I got to sit down with the duo to try the dishes and cocktails, as we talked more about the details of the weeklong celebration.
AL: Community events/celebrations are something that Mahina & Sun’s is doing more frequently. How did San Gennaro come to mind?
EL: Christian and his wife, Lisa, are both from New York City, and this is something close to their hearts. This is the first year since the pandemic that New York City is having the San Gennaro Feast and they wanted to honor that — I think that was his excuse to make me cook Italian food.
AL: What are the special Italian dishes that you are offering this week?
EL: I created five dishes to give a taste of the San Gennaro Feast, smaller portions so guests can order each item. When I worked at Town, one of my mentors, chef Dave Caldeiro, was from New York and Italian, so a lot of these dishes came natural to me from his influence.
We are going to start with my favorite, dessert. Nothing says San Gennaro like fried dough. My version are the Zeppoles ($10), fried Italian street doughtnuts, light and airy, with powdered sugar.
There is “El Fungi” Fried Mushroom Arancinis ($12). I made a duxelles from cremini mushrooms, mixed with risotto, set it, rolled it, fried it and placed it on a mac nut arugula pesto, and topped it with pecorino Romano cheese.
Meatballs are a must for many Italians. Instead of a meatball sub/sandwich, I wanted to add a bit of my upbringing to the Meatballs & Polenta ($12). When I worked at Town, we made a dish with soft polenta. I made that into an Italian version polenta as a base and topped it with beef meatballs, basil and pecorino Romano cheese.
You can’t have a San Gennaro Feast without Sausage & Peppers ($14). This is Christian’s favorite, and he basically walked me through how he makes it. It’s onions, tricolored peppers, a lot of garlic and a little bit of tomato paste stewed together in a pan.We finish it in the oven in the same pan with added sausage and serve it on a hoagie roll.
Spicy Hee ($16) is braised and fried to get it crispy. It’s placed on top of a tomato stew made of olives, capers and garlic. It’s reminiscent of a puttanesca, with potatoes, chile flakes and topped with a chile de arbol.
AL: Tell me about the libations that you created for the feast.
CT: The Caprese ($16) cocktail is the embodiment of a caprese salad in cocktail form. We took fresh tomato juice and made a shrub out of it, white balsamic vinegar and sugar to give it that beautiful pink hue, an American white basil brandy to give that basil/hint of licorice flavor, and a fun garnish of bocconcini, cherry tomato, a piece of soppressata wrapped in basil and a drop of Italian olive oil drizzle.
I had to pay homage to the Godfather cocktail, which is traditionally made with blended scotch, amaretto and a hint of lemon. My version is the Il Capo ($16) — aka “Boss,” the cocktail you can’t refuse. I use a nice overproof rye, Disaronno amaretto, a bit of peated scotch. I spray into the glass first to create that smokiness, and a bit of orange bitters.
One of our bartenders, Ian, is a big ’80s wrestling fan, and he created the Captain Lou Albano ($16). This is a tropical spin on a Italian Garibaldi cocktail, but we use campari, gin and aperol, and top it with orgeat and some other secret ingredients. It’s garnished with a bouquet of basil and dried lemon.
This next one is as Italian as you can get. The Bellini ($12) is a prosecco/sparkling wine with fresh housemade purée of peach syrup. It’s a gorgeous palate cleanser and garnished with a bit of baby’s breath.
The New York Sour ($16) connects the dots from a New York cocktail to an Italian cocktail. It’s your typical whiskey sour with hints of lemon and egg white to bring that airiness to it. This is topped with a layer of Italian red wine.
AL: What else can guests expect during the celebration?
CT:We will have the red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths, Italian wines you can order by the glass or bottle, great crooners (Frank Sinatra-style music) and movies playing. We want this to be more than just a glass or a plate of food — it’s a party/celebration. These are my roots, so I take this idea to heart and hope everyone can else feel the joy that I have creating it.