Redefining Ravish: The Modern Honolulu’s Restaurant Searches for Its Identity
A quick rebrand, sudden chef change and evolving menu suggest this latest restaurant at The Modern Honolulu still needs time to find itself.
The ‘Ele ‘Ele entrée ($28) features seafood from the Pacific, squid-ink-infused rice, veggies and a char-grilled lemon.
Photos: steve czerniak
The whole thing seemed odd. Morimoto Waikīkī suddenly closed in December 2016 after six years at The Modern Honolulu, soon after chef-owner Masaharu Morimoto announced plans to open two new restaurants—Morimoto Asia and Momosan Waikīkī—at the Pacific Beach Hotel being renovated nearby.
That same month, the Modern hotel launched a new concept in the cavernous restaurant space, but kept the décor and much of the staff. Veteran chef Fred DeAngelo, who earned acclaim at the helm of Ola at Turtle Bay Resort, took over as executive chef, promising a less-is-more approach to the menu, with dishes that incorporated South American flavors with Pacific Asian foods.
This was already getting confusing.
Grilled octopus ($19) with chorizo breadcrumbs, Romesco sauce, potato, chicory and a Botija olive purée.
Then there’s the new name: Ravish, which has two different definitions. It can mean to overcome with emotion or joy (what the restaurant is hoping to elicit) or to seize by violence (what it’s not). The restaurant’s menu says its name, used as a verb, means to fill with intense delight, to enrapture. That’s not an easy name to live up to. (Names can be tricky. Consider Restaurant Epic in Chinatown, which closed earlier this year.) All the menus—dinner, cocktails, dessert—prominently display positive variations of the word’s definition, though I don’t know how much that helps.
And if that wasn’t enough, DeAngelo left Ravish after just two months—without much explanation—to head BLT Steak less than a mile-and-a-half away at the Trump International Waikīkī Hotel. That left Modern hotel chef Keith Pajinag to oversee a kitchen that had already experienced more upheaval than the current White House administration.
Ravish wasn’t off to the best start.
While DeAngelo lured early interest, Pajinag has stepped in to refine what started as a vague concept, rushed to execution right before the holidays.
“Morimoto is a culinary superstar … and, let’s face it, a tough act to follow,” says Pajinag, who was part of the culinary team that first opened the hotel in 2010. “Everyone knows Morimoto. The most challenging part of the transition has been the timing. We had four days to open right before Christmas. Restaurants come and go all the time. I grew up in the restaurant world … Opening any restaurant is a challenge. Add in the time element and introduction of a new concept to replace a celebrity chef. That’s a tall order.”
For six years, Morimoto Waikīkī served notable signature dishes recognized around the world, alongside original ones inspired by the Islands, such as the popular Loco Moto: wagyu beef with a sunny-side-up egg and hayashi gravy. And there was top-quality sushi, which showcased fresh fish and lured diners that included then-President Barack Obama.
Ravish, on the other hand, remains something of a mystery. The restaurant describes its food as “Pacific inspired, soul infused,” which sounds like the result of an expensive marketing campaign. Pajinag explains it as Pacific Rim with a Latin twist, all served family-style using seasonal, local ingredients that “have a soul, or a story behind them,” he says.
So it was surprising that the menu didn’t reflect this commitment to local sourcing. It didn’t mention that the tomatoes are from Ho Farms, the asparagus from Twin Bridge Farms, the lettuce from Waipoli Hydroponic Greens on Maui. Only three dishes tout their local roots: Kaua‘i garlic shrimp, seared Kona kampachi and a local fish of the day. But that was it.
My first dinner there was on a Wednesday night and we were promptly ushered outside, to a table on the lānai overlooking the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. The restaurant, which was mostly empty, hadn’t changed much from Morimoto Waikīkī, with its contemporary furniture and fixtures. I half-expected to see the grinning Iron Chef behind the sushi bar.
Curious about how the restaurant would blend Latin flavors with local ingredients, I scanned the menu for signs of this fusion. The dishes were split into two categories: communal, which I figured meant larger plates to share, and five entrées. Only a few—namely, the meaty squash empanadas with edamame ($18), and grilled octopus with chorizo breadcrumbs ($19)—hinted at some kind of cultural combination.
PORK BELLY ($12) GRILLED ON A ROBATA AND SERVED ON BAO WITH BANANA KETCHUP AND SCALLIONS.
There’s a third menu, The Counter, from which you can order sushi, chilled plates of ceviche or beet-cured hamachi, and items cooked on the restaurant’s robata grill—a holdover from the previous restaurant.
We ordered a few communal plates, two entrées, some sushi, grilled items and a couple of cocktails—then waited more than 20 minutes for anything, including drinks, to arrive. (Nothing to nosh on appeared—spicy edamame, bread—while we waited.)
First to arrive at our table was the pork belly, slow-grilled on the robata ($12). Squares of braised fatty pork belly were grilled on skewers and served on soft, chewy bao buns. The juicy pork, drizzled with sweet banana ketchup, sat atop julienned carrots and frisée, which added a nice crunch.
THE SURF & TURF ROLL.
The kitchen kept the tradition of serving sushi, adding modern takes on traditional maki and nigiri. There’s a torched salmon dressed in a vodka sauce, hamachi paired with jalapeño and a ponzu gel, and thinly sliced prime strip steak dabbed with uni. We tried the Surf & Turf roll ($14 for eight pieces), with steak tartare draped over a roll of sushi rice stuffed with cubed ‘ahi, topped with diced green onions and a tangy steak sauce. The steak overpowered the fish, though the ‘ahi did add texture.
One of the better plates we had that night was called Three Little Pigs ($17). This dish, part of the communal menu, featured three preparations of pork: tamarind-glazed ribs, braised pork cheek and fatty pork belly. The ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender, but the pork belly was slightly—and surprisingly—dry, especially considering how well-cooked the robata version was.
The grilled octopus ($18) best exemplified the Latin vibe the restaurant was trying to achieve. Beautifully plated, the communal dish featured chunks of tender octopus hidden among small roasted potatoes and crunchy chicory, evoking an underwater reefscape. A ring of Romesco sauce, a classic roasted-red-pepper-and-almond spread originating from Spain, circled the plate, with and dabs of Botija olive purée that complemented the octopus. This dish attained the restaurant’s culinary goals and still made sense on the plate.
The ‘Ele ‘Ele entrée.
What didn’t work as well was the truffle chicken entrée ($24), which I can only imagine is on the menu to satisfy the non-seafood-aficionados who dine here. (It is a hotel restaurant that needs to feed a spectrum of guests.) While the seared chicken breast was cooked well—as juicy as breasts can be—and punctuated with bold truffle flavors, it seemed an odd fit on a menu that touts Latin flavors. There are dozens of chicken dishes that could fit that culinary philosophy. Why not elevated versions of chicken chilaquiles or Peruvian-style pollo a la brasa or chicken dressed in a house-made chimichurri sauce? Truffle-flavored anything is too easy. And, while the chicken was tasty, the way it was prepared, without any nod to either Latin or Pacific Rim cuisines, just didn’t make sense.
On another visit, we tried two of the restaurant’s signature items: the seafood-heavy ‘Ele ‘Ele entrée ($28) and Ravish Charcuterie ($45) board. The first (Hawaiian for black) was a jumble of seafood, gathered from the Pacific Ocean, served atop squid-ink-infused rice with vegetables and a char-grilled lemon. It had a very paella feel. Octopus, shrimp, clams—each stood on its own, despite the unifying briny ink flavor. No doubt this is a beautiful and affordable dish, with the thick ink adding an elegant black sheen to the rice and creating a dramatic backdrop. But, for me, the ink overpowered the seafood.
The charcuterie board was an interesting take on the classic cured meat plate. Seafood charcuterie has been a trend on the Mainland for some time, with chefs swapping salumi with tuna pâté, scallop mortadella and swordfish prosciutto. Ravish’s pescatarian version had an ‘ahi rilette (with crackers), octopus terrine, cured mackerel, smoked Pacific salmon and slivers of pickled onions. The seafood selections seemed too bland to stand alone this way. I wanted something more memorable. But I appreciated the attempt and can see, with some tweaking and maybe the infusion of some of those bold Latin flavors, this could become a signature dish.
The Ravished by Chocolate and Gold.
Where I felt the restaurant excelled was desserts. The Ravished by Chocolate and Gold ($14) combined a pillowy dark chocolate crémeux with milk chocolate ganache, praline crisp and golden candied hazelnuts. The accompanying Thai tea ice cream balanced the richness of the mousse. The Okinawan Butter Chips ($12) had tasty components: honey-drenched purple chips, a spicy chocolate sauce and a surprising pink-peppercorn ice cream. And the liliko‘i soufflé ($12), with a side of milk chocolate anglaise and coconut sorbet, was simple and delicious.
Pajinag is working through the challenges. He has a clear focus and commitment to the food, and I think he just needs more time. He plans to change the menu based on the availability of ingredients and add brunch.
“I’m a believer in seasonality and simplicity,” Pajinag says. “I also like to incorporate the flavors of the Pacific Northwest. … I want locals and hotel guests to think of Ravish as a place to have pau hana plates and cocktails, not just as an occasion restaurant.”
And about that name? Don’t expect it to change. “To be honest, I didn’t care for it at first,” Pajinag says. “But then it grew on me. I think it’s edgy and different—kind of like the restaurant.”
Stick to small plates (sushi, robata grill items and communal dishes) and save room for dessert. Get an outside table and consider a Friday night, when you can see the fireworks from the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
The Modern Honolulu, 1775 Ala Moana Blvd., (808) 943-5900, ravishhonolulu.com; dinner: Daily, 5 to 10 p.m.; happy hour: 5 to 7 p.m.