First Look: Japanese Restaurant Rijō Opens in Downtown Honolulu
Finally, a new restaurant at the old Palomino spot.
Molten lava cake with green tea compote.
Photos: Lavonne Leong
When the popular Palomino restaurant at Harbor Court in downtown Honolulu closed its doors in 2007, diners didn’t have to wait long for a replacement. George Mavrothalassitis opened Cassis Restaurant and Wine Bar in a matter of months, but then closed it in a matter of months, too, saying it was “way too big” for what he wanted to do.
Since then, the space has remained stubbornly empty. And too bad, because it was magnificent: a 180-seat dining room and a 110-seat lounge, looking out over panoramic views of Honolulu Harbor. The space, though large, never felt anything less than intimate. You could watch the comings and goings of cruise ships, with sunset thrown in every evening. Plenty of people still miss Palomino, and when you miss a restaurant for eight years, you know there was something great about it.
So we were happy to hear that another restaurant has ventured in: Rijō, which steps up in two ways. It occupies one of downtown Honolulu’s most pleasant dining locales (from an eater’s point of view) and solves downtown’s Japanese restaurant problem: Save for an udon shop on Fort Street Mall, there aren’t very many.
Rijō is named for a castle in Japan, and the name feels appropriate to the 10,000-square-foot space, encompassing a dining room and a lounge that wrap around two sides of Harbor Court’s exterior wall. Not much has changed inside. Former Palomino fans (the woman who seated us said that 90 percent of diners so far had been Palomino regulars) will remember the high ceilings, the panoramic views, the marble countertops in the lounge, the friendly and attentive staff. This is an easy space in which to enjoy yourself.
Left: Crab cakes with truffled egg tofu. Right: Smoked duck tsukemen.
The menu is new, of course, but, in a way, it still feels like a blast from the past. Rijō describes itself as “contemporary Japanese,” but seeing a dinner menu that goes for broad upper-middle-class appeal (filet mignon and ribeye, two kinds of fish, and a shrimp dish) seems almost aggressively retro. Rijō’s menu underlined to us how much the dining scene has changed in the last few years: nary a house-made pickle or artisanal headcheese in sight. Nor is it a sharp-focus version of international street food, or a niche restaurant in any other way.
Now, a new eatery doesn’t need to be any of these things. And (keeping in mind that we visited during the soft opening period, before the menu was settled or the staff fully up to speed) the food that came to our table was fine. But after the sharp-concept food of Honolulu’s past decade—food that does a small thing, often fantastically well—Rijō felt a tad unfocused, particularly with the main courses. Prices are reasonable for the kinds of ingredients you’re getting, though, and entrees come with a choice of white or brown rice.
Open-faced crab and sashimi BLT.
The appetizers, where the stakes are lower and there’s more room to play, were more memorable. Get the Dungeness crab cakes with truffled egg tofu, where crispy cakes sop up an umami-rich sauce that incorporates generous slices of truffle. The duck tsukemen was a playful idea. On the next visit, we’re going for lunch instead, and have our eyes on the Kobe beef Philly steak sandwich. Appetizers remain the same across lunch and dinner menus; the temptation to just order a bunch of small plates is strong.
And, unless constitutionally opposed, get a drink. Prices for beer are excellent: $4 and under for draft. The lounge, as ever, seats many but feels intimate, and there is definitely room in this district for a place like that. Happy hour is planned for the near future, so things are going in the right direction.
We’d love for Rijō to succeed, because there really should be a place like this to gather for a slightly high-altitude lunch, or wander down to at the end of the work day. Let’s hope it’s able to fill its 10,000-square-foot shoes.
66 Queen St., 208-8180, rijorestaurant.com