Thirty Years at the Table

A 30-year memoir of Honolulu restaurants, served in five courses.


Published:

(page 4 of 4)

Wild boar loin prepared by Amy Ota, the first female executive chef at a Ritz-Carlton, circa 1993

Michel’s briefly hired Jean-Marie Josselin, who brought along his lobster potato salad and wanted to change the name to Jean-Marie’s. When Josselin left, Michel’s served inedible meals for perhaps a year, until it was sold and restored.

The ’90s, you’ll remember, were an almost endless recession in Hawaii. A number of the Hawaii regional restaurateurs floundered in the choppy financial waters. But, on the table, the restaurant news was very, very good.

I knew Hawaii food had arrived nationally during the ’90s when I walked into a restaurant in New Orleans—then perhaps the greatest food town in America. Written on a chalkboard, the day’s special: “Hawaiian Mahi Mahi in Thai Curry Sauce.”

 

Soup and Sandwich

As the ’90s wound to a close and the new century dawned, the Hawaii restaurant scene either consolidated or went to hell in a handbasket, depending on how you looked at it.

The good side, first. Many of the best ideas in Hawaii cuisine seem to start on the Neighbor Islands and then make their way to Oahu. The real consolidation of Hawaii’s signature restaurants began when Alan Wong, George Mavrothalassitis and D.K. Kodama all made their way back to Oahu.

Wong had established a serious reputation at the Mauna Lani, first among chefs, who called him Wongie and tended to steal his recipes, then among the interisland foodies. The buzz was so great when he arrived in Honolulu, in an unpropitious King Street location, that I was skeptical.

Until I had his soup and sandwich. By now this little Wong lagniappe is legendary. If you’ve never had it, it’s a champagne flute filled with a garlicky red and yellow tomato soup. The soup was not much more than liquefied Big Island tomatoes—and tasted a lot better than any tomatoes in the supermarket back in ’95. With tomato soup, Wong figured you needed a grilled cheese sandwich—so you got a small one, with kalua pork and foie gras.

Let’s deconstruct this dish. It’s Hawaii regional (vine-ripened Big Island tomatos, kalua pig). It’s high-end (foie gras). It’s as artful as anything you might get at, say, the French Laundry, which is why everyone owes Wong a vote of thanks for putting Hawaii on the high-end foodie map of the United States.

However, in fine Island fashion, the dish doesn’t take itself too seriously. I once took a national food writer to the counter at Alan’s. When she got the soup and sandwich, she burst into laughter. She loved it, but she was right: It was funny.

Mavro returned from exile on Maui—and did similarly startling things just down the block from Wong’s. Mavro could have coasted for decades on his onaga in salt crust with ogo-herb sauce. He kept progressing into foams and essences and remarkably slow cooking, becoming more international on the one hand, making Fodor’s list of the 10 best restaurants in the world. On the other, he’s become more local, since he now makes the best malassadas in town, filled with coconut ice cream.

Hawaii regional cuisine icons (from left to right) Jean-Marie Josselin, Peter Merriman, and Amy Ota and Philippe Padovani, circa 1992.

I originally met D.K. Kodama on Maui, when I dropped by his small sushi bar on the advice of Peter Merriman. I was absolutely blown away by his menu: Thai ahi carpaccio in red pepper-lime sauce. Peppery Chinese-style snapper sashimi. Asian rock shrimp cake in a powerful ginger-lime-chili butter. Very Hawaii, not a wimpy flavor in the bunch.

Of course, Kodama has since become one of Hawaii’s best known restaurateurs, branching into wine bars and steak houses, and partnering with Hiroshi Fukui at Hiroshi’s Eurasion Tapas.

When Fukui began cooking at L’Uraku 15 years ago, I gave him a terrible review. L’Uraku back then was the sort of place where, when I asked the waitress what kind of chardonnay they had, she answered, “White, sir.”

That was before Chuck Furuya, then a wine broker, now wine director of all the Kodama restaurants, got a hold of him.

Fukui raided Nalo Farms for new ingredients, and proved himself one of the most inventive chefs in the Islands, turning out refined and elegant Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

But while these chefs became stars, pillars of the community, something odd happened. We stopped getting restaurants put up by Hawaii chefs and started getting national chains: Cheesecake Factory, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, P.F. Chang’s and Yardhouse. Now, heaven save us, a Señor Frog’s and a sushi bar from Miami are on the way.

 

Pop Tart with Cinnamon-Balsamic Ice Cream

The explosion of new retail and dining space in Waikiki has shown precious little imagination in the restaurants it has fostered, with the exception perhaps of Nobu.

Young chefs George Mavrothalassitis and Philippe Padovani play with beluga caviar and Maui tomatoes, circa 1989.

While Nobu is an international brand, Nobu himself had been coming to Hawaii for two decades to cook at food events and squeeze in a little golf with Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi.

Nobu’s big problem may be how Hawaii his food actually is. His sizzling sashimi in ponzu, for instance, has been so frequently imitated here that it’s hardly going to strike anyone as revolutionary, as it did in the Los Angeles of the ’80s.

But at least the general construction boom has been providing plenty of restaurant locations. The new Honolulu Design Center has given us the most ambitious independent restaurant in a decade, Stage. I am still salivating over Chef Jon Matsubara’s coq au vin and still amused by pastry chef Mark Okumura’s apple “Pop Tart” with cinnamon-balsamic ice cream.

Of course, Mavro has opened Cassis, his “casual” restaurant downtown, not without some criticism of its prices and formality. But anyone who knows Mavro knows he’s going to tinker with the restaurant until it blows people away.

I’m not even mentioning the Maui restaurant scene, about which I said some harsh things in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and which now rivals Oahu’s. Try Mala Terrace in Lahaina or DUO in Wailea.

The present palmy days, with construction cranes everywhere, remind me of the late ’80s. I am hoping that somewhere in the state there’s another revolutionary chef/restaurateur, another Roy perhaps, though totally unlike Roy, who’s ready to redefine Hawaii restaurants in a way that make us all say, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted all along.”


John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.

 


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