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Thirty Years at the Table

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


(page 3 of 4)

The saddest decline was that of one of the town’s legendary eateries, The Bistro. Not the one that just closed at Century Center, this one stood on Kapiolani until it lost its lease and moved to Monsarrat. Near the end of its life, the Bistro went nuts, draping the walls with swaths of brightly painted fabric, and instituting, of all things, a non-alcoholic drink menu—which flew in the face of what had made it the town’s hippest hangout in the first place.

The food was supposed to become less, too. A trend toward the weird, diminutive portions of nouvelle cuisine gripped top-end restaurants. I remember sitting across a banquet table from the late Dave Donnelly. The waiters whipped the silver domes off the entrées, to reveal three tiny medallions of veal, a few dabs of sauce, a baby carrot, eggplants and zucchinis no bigger than one of your fingers, and a few sprigs of rosemary. “All that damned fuss for this,” said Donnelly.


Kiawe-Smoked Duck with Lilikoi Barbecue Sauce and Maui Blue Potatoes

Everybody wanted something different, but nobody knew what it was. I was convinced Hawaii wanted East-West cuisine. Of course, at the time, that meant stuff like scallop mousse in puff pastry with champagne-wasabi sauce or shrimp pasta in miso-mustard sauce.

The only person who knew what Hawaii wanted was a 32-year-old chef fresh from a spectacular restaurant failure in Los Angeles—Roy Yamaguchi.

When Roy’s opened in late ’88, most of the buzz was about his location. My column asked: Could he possibly survive in that graveyard of restaurants, Hawaii Kai?

Fortunately, I got over the location thing real quick.

I went nuts over dishes that have long since disappeared from Roy’s menu in favor of more sophisticated fare—pork shu mai in mustard-soy vinaigrette, grilled shrimp with wasabi cocktail sauce, kiawe-smoked duck with lilikoi barbecue sauce.

I wrote: “Yamaguchi may very well become a pivotal figure in the creation of a true contemporary Hawaii cuisine—that blend of East and West and Polynesia that’s been long expected and slow arriving.”

King Tsin, one of several upscale Asian restaurants in the ’80s, was famous for its beggar’s chicken.

I wish I were always that smart.

Of course, I was missing a key element in what was to become Hawaii regional cuisine. Even though it was right in front of my face.

I’d eaten at Merriman’s, where Peter Merriman would even climb trees to get coconuts for his kitchen. I’d flown to Maui to eat with Roger Dikon at the Maui Prince.

Dikon, like Merriman, often resorted to guerilla sourcing to get fresh Island ingredients. He grew eggplants and lettuces in his own garden. He would whip up a meal of papio on sesame mustard greens and a duck salad with blue potatoes and fresh Maui onion chutney.

I was so amused by the blue potatoes, which Dikon had found on an obscure farm in Kula, that I just shook my head when Dikon said this was local food, since it was grown locally. “It’s Island regional cuisine,” he insisted.

He was right. It was going to take farmers as well as chefs to create a true Hawaii cuisine. When everyone realized that, we embarked on the most glorious decade in Hawaii restaurant history.

Of the original 12 Hawaii regional cuisine chefs, who banded together in 1991, it’s remarkable how little known most were at the time. Many were Neighbor Island chefs. Roger Dikon, Bev Gannon, Amy Ota and Mark Ellman were on Maui, with Ota hidden away in Hana and Ellman perhaps the best known for his longtime Lahaina restaurant, Avalon. Jean-Marie Josselin had a small shopping center restaurant on Kauai.

Philippe Padovani, Alan Wong, Peter Merriman and Sam Choy were on the Big Island. Choy, who had a restaurant in a bowling alley, was known mainly for a boffo performance in a HECO commercial.

George Mavrothalassitis and Gary Strehl were Oahu hotel chefs. If you weren’t a foodie, the only one you might have heard of was Roy Yamaguchi—at that point a radical young chef on whom the jury was still out.

As these chefs appeared suddenly on the scene, opening restaurants, it seemed every few months, their menus exploding with surprises.

Seafood curry soup, shrimp gyoza with chili beurre blanc, and mahimahi with garlic-sesame crust and lime-ginger sauce at Josselin’s (dear departed) Pacific Café Maui, where the walls glowed Gauguin yellow.

Pohole ferns, opihi and wild boar tenderloin with hoisin at Mauna Lani, where Amy Ota became the first woman executive chef at a Ritz-Carlton hotel (long since become a Fairmont).

Seared ahi with a nori purse of rice and Asian osso buco from Sam Choy, who finally got a white-tablecloth restaurant on Kapahulu Avenue.

I ate some bad meals during this period, mostly at old-style restaurants struggling to redefine themselves. The venerable Third Floor first devolved into a restaurant called The Secret, then into Aqua, where the food, apparently in an attempt to look modern, was piled so high on the plate it toppled to the table when you set a fork to it.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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