“Why limit happy to an hour?”

– W.C. Fields

THE PROBLEM WITH HAPPY HOURS...

My first problem with happy hour stems from the fact that my mind is wired to think a certain way. The way that it’s wired always leads me to be at least mildly irritated at “happy hour” specials that last longer than an hour. I know that it’s silly to most people, but I can’t help that I gravitate toward the literal interpretation of the phrase.

The second problem I have with happy hour(s) is that they are, at least for me, almost universally boring. I rarely consume much in the way of alcohol, so discounted drinks are usually not a draw for me. When it comes to food, most happy hour(s) offer discounts on a very limited selection of menu items. It seldom happens where the dishes I actually want to try are those offered on the happy hour(s) menu. I get all the reasons why this is the case, but unfortunately this usually leads to a less-than-happy experience for me.

MAKING HAPPY HOUR HAPPY AGAIN

“People say they have a good happy hour menu”.

I‘ve heard that many times before. An Italian restaurant happy hour… in my head I could already see the garlic bread (or knots), fried calamari, and margherita pizza.

“The whole menu is 50% off”.

Wait… did I hear that right? The whole menu is 50% off? Not just a few basic items?

Yes indeed, it’s the entire menu. For just one hour after opening (5:30pm-6:30pm) the limited seats at the bar feature what has to be one of the best deals on the island. The entire food menu, everything from appetizers to dessert, is half price. The opportunity to take advantage of this happy hour is limited due to the short time window. There is really only enough time for one group of diners to come in, sit at the bar, and eat a meal.

To be sure we could get a seat, we arrived at Restaurant Row at 5:00pm. Much to our surprise, we were not the first people in line. By 5:15pm all the happy hour bar seats were accounted for by hungry line-standers. We all knew we were in for some happy prices, but at such a steep discount, how good would the food be?

THE FOOD

Crispy Cauliflower - Cumin aioli, pickled red cabbage, zatar brown butter

A sadly underrated ingredient, cauliflower has become one of my favorite vegetables.  Vino’s cauliflower appetizer incorporates Mediterranean influences with the mild spice of cumin and the distinct citrusy-herbaceous flavor of za’atar. The brown butter adds a welcomed layer of richness to the otherwise wholly plant-based dish. This was just our first taste of Vino’s food, but we were off to a great start!

Left: Bristol Bay Scallops with local corn ragu and truffle butter. Right: Stracciatella cheese with pesto, tomato, and crostini.

Scallops at Vino are well cooked, with a nice sear and tender texture. The scallops taste fresh and are prepared with a lightly sweet corn ragu. The truffle butter adds luxuriousness and forms a sauce for the pasta. While I enjoyed this dish, I think the pasta felt a bit mismatched and I would have preferred some polenta or a mashed potato instead.

As a precursor to burrata, stracciatella cheese has many of the same qualities as its more familiar cousin. In the absence of the burrata form’s thick cream, stracciatella has a firmer texture, but still maintains a pleasant mild buffalo cheese flavor. The accompanying house bread is nicely toasted, providing a crunchy texture with which to enjoy the soft cheese.

Jumbo Lump Crab Gnocchi with sage brown butter sauce

Here we have a rustic cheese gnocchi with vegetables, lump crab, and a brown butter sauce. The gnocchi are soft, but not quite as airy or light as I would prefer. When mixed together all the flavors meld together into a balanced dish. The savory cheese gnocchi, sweet crab, and fresh vegetables are all complemented by the brown butter.

Mini Veal Osso Buco - Slow braised veal shank, seasonal vegetables, mashed potatoes, red wine reduction

Our final entree of the night did not disappoint. The cross-cut veal shank was perfectly braised, leaving it infused with flavor. The shank was juicy and fork tender. The combination of braised beef and buttery mashed potatoes make this a heavy dish. Once again fresh vegetables help to balance the heavier elements. The red wine reduction, with its subtle fruit notes, also helps in this area.

Warm Apple Tart - Puff pastry, granny smith apple, caramel sauce, vanilla ice cream

For dessert we decided to try this apple tart, which was recommended by our server. The warm, crisp tart had just the right balance of sweet and tart flavors from the granny smith apples. The caramel sauce is homemade and envelopes all of the elements in an added layer of sweetness.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS

Although it’s just a few blocks away, I haven’t been to Vino before this visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to food quality, but I’m happy to say that I enjoyed everything. It’s obvious that the kitchen takes care to use fresh ingredients. I appreciate the touches of homemade components like the gnocchi and the caramel sauce. Being able to order anything off the menu is a big plus for Vino’s happy hour, as it allows diners to order what they would like to eat.

Our server at the bar was outstanding. He was warm and personable, with great knowledge of the menu. Our order mostly followed his recommendations. The timing of our dishes and the attentiveness of our server enhanced our experience.

In terms of atmosphere, Vino has a welcoming and warm feel to it. The staff are all genuinely inviting. Several regulars throughout the restaurant would chat with the staff, which added to the restaurant’s “neighborhood bistro” feel. The only knock on atmosphere is its location in Restaurant Row (a clinical lab is painfully visible right across from the restaurant which detracts from the vibe a little I think), but that’s more of a reflection of the complex than on Vino itself.

The quality of the food and service at Vino add up to a good dollar value, even at regular price. However, given the 50% off happy hour discount, our meal came at an incredible value. All told we had three appetizers, two entrees, one dessert, one cocktail, and a hot coffee for just under $50.

SCORECARD

Food 90/ 100
Service 90/ 100
Atmosphere 80/ 100
Price Value (based on happy hour price) 100/ 100
Overall Score 90/ 100

Vino
500 Ala Moana Blvd Suite 6F
Honolulu, HI 96813
808.524.8466
https://vinohawaii.com/