Talk about polar opposites. Hawaii and Iceland don’t share a lot in common when it comes to climate or cuisine. Except in the fog-covered coastal village of Montara, best known for its beautiful state park beach between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay, where Kauai and Iceland come together courtesy of husband and wife Michael and Leilani Riis’ 10-month-old Montara Café and Bakery
That doesn’t mean the counter-service-only café’s menu is full of eye-opening Icelandic-Hawaiian fusion, as intriguing as that sounds. Montara mostly a typical neighborhood corner café that excels at a limited roster of baked goods and sprinkles in a few specialties from back home which should be at the top of your must-order list.
For those seeking food from Kauai (where Lailani hails from), that means any dish with Kalua pork. On Michael's Iceland side, it’s the pönnukökur
Kalua pork traditionally is steamed in an undergound "imu" oven for luaus. Without the oven or the luau, the café instead slowly cooks the pork in a crockpot to on-point tenderness, its meat fragrant with Hawaiian sea salt and banana leaves. Think of the ideal carnitas with a few of those coveted crisp pieces sprinkled about from your favorite taqueria, subtract a little of the lard funk flavor, and you have this Kalua pork. Unfortunately the promising-sounding Aloha Banh Mi had about a 3-to-1 ratio of romaine lettuce to pork meat, making the pork seem like the supporting cast member. Sampling the pork instead with tacos or a rice and veggie bowl.
Meanwhile as dessert, or as breakfast if you have a morning sweet tooth, definitely consider the pönnukökur. Five crêpes neatly folded into triangles come to an order, sporting a healthy tan from cooking on a 150 year old cast iron pan meant exclusively for the dish. Each pancake has a bit more of a sour-tangy personality than the traditional sweet French crêpes. A pile of sweetened whipped cream comes on the side for rolling up with the crêpes, along with the oranges and strawberries on the side. The cream has the texture of Miracle Whip with the taste of a glazed donut’s icing. I could also envision these pancakes rolled with Chez Pim jam or Nutella.
The new café is showing some clear growing pains that I'm hoping will go away soon because it also shows a lot of heart and promise. That Aloha Banh Mi ($9.95) wasn’t a banh mi at all, lacking the menu's promised cilantro, cucumbers, and Sriracha. A kale and quinoa salad had about a tablespoon of quinoa. The five crêpes only had two orange slices and both were dominated by huge, hard-to-get-out seeds.
However, I was quickly won over at the end of lunch by the baking program. There are fresh-baked fruit galettes and scones that tempt. But the standouts are the peanut butter cookie and the croissant. The croissant isn’t among the supremely flaky, buttery elite of Paris but a solid rendition nonetheless. That soft, vividly flavored peanut butter cookie could serve as the standard for the genre.
Currently the café only is open for breakfast and lunch, though occasionally there are special dinners by guest chefs. You can’t miss the bright red cabin just off Highway 1, even in the fog. It fits the rustic small town, and could be at home in Old Town Koloa or in the woods of Iceland.
1400 Main, Montara; (650) 728-1188.