New Restaurants Open on Oahu

New Releases: We check out three new restaurants, two big time, one better.


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Like an old movie, an established restaurant may be a classic, worth revisiting. But the excitement comes when both movies and restaurants are new.

I love to sniff the air of a new restaurant, feel the crackling, nervous anticipation of the new staff, open a new menu.

With three new restaurants to visit, I had a wonderful month in store.

Two were big deals—multimillion-dollar hotel restaurants. One sprang up along the semicircular lagoon at the new Disney Aulani Resort; the other’s the result of the $20 million renovation of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki’s third-floor pool deck.

Restaurants like that are like summer blockbuster movies, so much riding on their success.

Those two weren’t bad, but the best of the three newbies was like a sleeper indie film—a storefront restaurant in a Kailua shopping center, from a chef whose last restaurant was a food truck.

Such are the surprises of art.

Ama Ama

Aulani, 92-1185 Aliinui Drive, Kapolei, 674-6200. Daily Breakfast 7-11 a.m., Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Free validated valet parking if you spend more than $35, major credit cards.
 

I had a great time eating at the new Disney Ko Olina resort. Not entirely because of the meal.

Now that our children are more or less adults, there’s far less dining en famille. It was a rare occasion to have the little one fly home from Washington, D.C., and the other to find her way home from the wilds of Pearl City.

It called for a gala dinner, but where? It’s not like they’ve ever agreed on anything.

Gotta love that Disney magic. One mention of Aulani, and suddenly everyone was on board.

“Can we do Breakfast with Mickey?” asked the oldest, who’s 24. I presumed she was kidding, and booked a table at the resort’s top eatery, called Ama Ama.

Disney “imagineered” Ama Ama within an inch of its life. It’s supposed to look like an extension of a 19th-century building, including a rustic-looking concrete fish tank. There are lights to make it look like it’s filled with illuminated fish.

For all the efforts, Ama Ama looks like what it is, a high-end, beachfront resort restaurant.

 

For the true Disney experience, order dessert (cookies and cream mousse with banana milkshake) from the keiki menu at Ama Ama.

The coolest things about Ama Ama came right at the beginning and the end of the meal.

To begin, I ordered an Aulani Wave, a cocktail only a tourist would order: coconut rum, a mango-and-passion-fruit liqueur, and pineapple juice.

The menu promised that the drink came with a “Souvenir Multicolored Glow Cube.” I had no idea what a multicolored glow cube was, but, deep in my immature heart, I knew I had to have one.

You could see the drink coming across the dining room, flashing alternately blue, red and orange.

“Oh, whenever someone orders one of these, everyone in the dining room suddenly wants one,” said our waiter, Kevin. (Technically, Disney does not have waiters; Kevin was our “cast member.”)

How was the drink? Not bad, though I had insisted it be made with plain instead of coconut rum. At the bottom was a frosted plastic “ice cube” stuffed with LEDs. True to its word, Disney let me keep it, and it’s blinking redblueorange on my desk as I write this.

Flash forward to the end of the meal. Patrick Callarec, Aulani’s executive chef, wandered into the dining room. We’ve known each other for decades, most notably when he was cooking up a French storm at Chez Paul in Olowalu, perhaps the best restaurant ever in the middle of nowhere.

“You didn’t email me you were coming,” he said accusingly. Well, no. He brought us out a couple of extra desserts, hardly necessary because my wife and the girls had already ordered almost every dessert on the menu.

Still, he was a huge hit. He set down a chocolate-covered cookie sandwich shaped like Mickey Mouse, filled with cookie-and-cream mousse, with a banana milkshake on the side. Decades seem to roll backwards: The girls were suddenly 9 and 10 again. “This wasn’t on the menu,” they said.

“It’s on the keiki menu,” said Callarec. They turned and looked at me, like, How come we never got to see the kid’s menu?

Next time, they get Breakfast with Mickey.

I suppose I ought to mention what we ate between cocktails and dessert. Expensive hotel food, nothing bad, nothing that made church bells ring and fireworks go off. Safe food.

Among the appetizers: A chopped tomato salad atop a creamy burrata. A Maui onion and apple-banana soup that disoriented me at first because it was pumpkin-pie sweet. Finally, best: battered croquettes of melted Manchego cheese atop Romesco sauce, topped with strips of Serrano ham, and underscored with a rillette of kalua pig. (A rillette is similar to a pâté, and usually eaten on something like toast.) Lots of flavors in this bowl, though they remained separate flavors, not an integrated dish.

Among the entrées: A perfectly nice filet mignon with amazing potatoes, perhaps the only touch of magic. They looked like fingerling potatoes, but they were thin, hollow, crispy and salty shells. “These may be better than McDonald’s french fries,” said my oldest daughter, high praise in her book.

The grilled Keahole lobster was wonderfully presented, but entirely conventional. It was propped up on what was billed as a Korean pancake. I love Korean jun. But this one rose up as a thick, gooey, unpalatable round, serving mainly to hold the lobster higher on the plate.

 

Finally, a mahi filet, on a paella rice that was a little soupy, but, to its credit, actually tasted of saffron. The fish was surrounded by all the high-end seafood you might want: a plump sautéed scallop and two prawns that aspired to be lobster tails, so large were they. It was enough seafood to justify being a $39 special.

Dinner was $420 with everything, including tip. “Next time we’re eating at the buffet restaurant,” said my wife. “It had laulau.” (The buffet, I checked, was $49.95.)

“Isn’t the buffet where they have Breakfast with Mickey?” said our older daughter, with a deep undertone of reproach. “I wonder if I can get my friends to go with me sometime.”

Japengo

Hyatt Waikiki, 2424 Kalakaua Ave., 923-1234, Wednesday-Sunday Lounge 5:30-10 p.m., Dinner 6-10 p.m. Free validated valet parking, major credit cards.
 

The spicy ahi at Japengo is generous with ahi and seriously tasty.

As I walked onto the third-floor pool deck of the Hyatt Waikiki, the history seemed to tug at my sleeve. In the mid-1970s, Chris Hemmeter’s $75-million Hyatt was the newest, hippest, most spectacular thing in Waikiki.

Jimmy Borges sang at Trappers. In the basement, Spats was Waikiki’s upscale disco (anyone remember disco?).

Upstairs on the third floor was Bagwells 2424. Waiters in tuxedos would bring entrées to the table covered in silver domes, which they whisked off all at once, so you could ooh and ahh at chef On Jin Kim’s artful nouvelle-cuisine plates.

As the Hyatt was eclipsed by newer development, Bagwells was transformed into Ciao Mein, a Hyatt chain concept that combined Chinese and Italian food on the grounds that everyone liked one or the other or both. It was hotel think: something for everyone.

Now, with the third floor of the Hyatt getting a $20 million makeover, there’s a new pool and two new restaurants, SHOR (steak and seafood and highly enjoyable) and, taking over the old Bagwells/Ciao Mein spot, the even newer Japengo.

Japengo is an exonym for the country that people who live there call Nippon. In ancient times, Chinese called the country Cipan Guó, which sounded like Cipango to Marco Polo, and got turned over time into both Japengo and Japan.

Japengo, the restaurant, is a dazzler, deep amber and gold with black accents. It’s large, 160 seats, lounge with couches, booths on the perimeter, tables in the back, a private dining room. The menu, more than most hotel menus, reflects the way Hawaii eats, with Asian favorites from a range of cultures.

The menu lists a baker’s dozen maki sushi rolls, like crispy salmon skin, or a combo of snow crab and crunchy softshell. The spicy tuna roll is one of the best I’ve encountered, quality ahi, not heavily mayo’d or overseasoned with Sriracha. It even comes with a heaping portion of the ahi mix piled on top of the cut-up roll, just to make sure you get your $14 worth.

The gyoza grabbed my attention, big, plump dumplings, stuffed with gingery pork mix, served with the traditional red-vinegar sauce. Classic Chinese food, done well.

 

Japengo executive sous chef Jeff Szombaty.

Similarly, the eggplant and tofu plate took the Chinese restaurant flavors of salt-and-pepper pork (salt, Szechuan pepper, green onion, those little Thai bird peppers) and applied them to lightly battered eggplant slices and tofu squares, a dish that I am going to crave for a long time.

The entrées were not as dazzling. The Chinatown pork ribs reminded me of growing up in California. We didn’t know from char siu in California. What we ordered were “Chinese spareribs,” which were coated in a thick, red paste of honey (or often sugar), hoisin, dark shoyu, five spice and red food coloring. They were, in effect, char siu on the bone.

That’s what Japengo’s are as well, except they are a lot richer, meatier spareribs than we ever got at White Horse Chinese Restaurant in Oakland, Calif. They ought to be, since they cost $36.

The kalbi arrived, as it does at many a Korean restaurant, on a sizzling platter, but it was overcooked, the sugary kalbi marinade virtually carbonized by the heat, toughening up the obviously high-quality meat. It was $37.

One of my friends had already complained to me that the fried rice was $25. To be fair, that’s for quite a large serving. You can buy just a heaping rice bowl full for only $8, and you might consider it. It’s stuffed with shrimp, char siu and chicken.

However, what you really want among the starches are the kim chee mashed potatoes, a beautiful orange color, just the right touch of spice, a few bright green edamame thrown in for texture.

Desserts are where Japengo shines. Should you desire something sweet while out on the town in Waikiki, you’d do worse than end up in Japengo’s lounge ordering from the dessert menu.

The fresh coconut crème brûlée comes in a hollowed-out half coconut. The profiteroles with hazelnut ice cream are fine, although the most dazzling thing on the plate is the scatter of macadamia nut brittle and chocolate that at first seems like mere decoration.

But allow me to praise the dessert you are unlikely to order: the chilled papaya soup. The soup, virtually pureed papaya, not too gussied up, comes in a pitcher. You pour it over those perfect bits of fresh fruit that you only seem to get in high-end hotels—cubes of pineapple, crescents of papaya and jackfruit—and eat it with lychee-ginger sorbet. A sane sweet at the end of a big meal.

The meal was $200 with tip for three of us, only me drinking, a daigingo sake, since the wine list lacks the kinds of wine that go well with Asian foods.

I was lucky enough to have been given a Hyatt Ohana card, which offers a 20 percent discount at Japengo (also at SHOR and the new SWIM bar, although it may have limited utility in a bar since the card doesn’t discount drinks).

The Hyatt won’t tell you about the Ohana card, but will give you one if you ask, and discount the meal you’re currently consuming. That takes some of the sting out of the menu prices, which may be the otherwise enjoyable Japengo’s biggest problem in attracting a local audience.

 

Prima is a sort of DIY project for its young partners.

Prima

108 Hekili Street, Kailua, 888-8933. Lunch Monday-Saturday 11-2 p.m., Sunday 11-4 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Free parking, major credit cards.
 

Prima is in an old Blazing Steaks location, in a Kailua strip mall. Hard to spot, because it has no sign.

Inside: Not a lot of money, a fair bit of style, fairly industrial looking. The collection of young partners did 75 percent of the work themselves. They built the bar out of used lumber, with a friend in the sheet metal business supplying the top.

Another group of young guys, from Honolulu Furniture Co., built the tables out of plywood and the benches from recycled beams.

Keola Rapozo, who normally designs hats and T-shirts, contributed the red paint accents on the walls and chose the chairs: molded plastic Eames chairs in the eye-jarring turquoise that was popular about 1958.

It doesn’t look like any other restaurant I’ve ever been in, and you have to love a place that’s built on youthful ambition, sweat equity and nerve.

The main culinary team is Alejandro “Aker” Briceno and Lindsey Ozawa.

Who?

They’re refugees from the kitchen at Nobu Waikiki, where Briceno was pastry chef and Ozawa executive chef. From there, they opened V Lounge near Ala Moana, where the pizza is better than the dive-bar setting.

Then, suddenly, Ozawa was more famous than he’d ever been at Nobu, dishing up grilled-cheese sandwiches out of a beat-up old food truck called Melt.

Prima has the wood-fired pizzas you get at V Lounge, including the boquerones (white anchovy) pizza that made Food Network Magazine’s 50 Best Pizzas list. In Kailua, the crust is slightly different, a nicer texture, since the partners popped for a spiral dough mixer.

However, the real joy is the menu of things you have never eaten before.

 

The food, such as the chocolate torrone, is anything but amateur.

For instance, how about fennel panna cotta with pickled slices of fennel stem and screaming green fennel puree? Or smoked white fish with purslane, a salty-sour green that’s usually considered a weed here, though it’s eaten around the world. Ozawa trades for it at artist Gaye Chan’s “Eating in Public” collective store.

Hardly the same old, same old.

Even things that seem familiar get a twist. The most mainstream dish on the menu is a meatball the size of a softball, made with Shinsato pork and Hawaiian red veal, stuffed with melted mozzarella, sauced with a thick tomato ragu that gets its wake-up-your-mouth from crushed red pepper oil and Korean chili threads.

Or even better, the “Buffalo” clams. Usually, you find clams steamed in white wine. These clam get cooked in beer, just beer, plus crispy bits of grilled duck confit, which add texture as well as meatiness.

Why “Buffalo?” Because the beer broth is hit with Frank’s Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce, which gave the original Buffalo chicken wings their addictive appeal.

One of my dining companions and I fought over the last of clams, chasing bits of confit around the bowl, complaining about how spicy it all was, and then immediately dipping in for the next bite. “There should be a law,” she said. “From now on, all bars should stop serving chicken wings and serve this instead.”

Not wild enough for you? How about this? Take a classic Bolognese sauce, veal, pork, a little pig’s ear because we are all head-to-toe diners these days. Add the spicy components of curry—star anise, cinnamon—and a restrained amount of Madras curry powder. Serve it with pappardelle and top it with fried curry leaves.

Yes, there is such a thing as curry leaves. They are leaves from a small tree that grows, among other subtropical places, at Mao Farms in Waianae.

You can have mahimahi, but the dish is really about Mao Farms organic carrots, a smoked paprika carrot puree with fingerling potatoes and a carrot mostarda, an Italian accompaniment usually made with candied fruit and a mustard syrup. Carrots are sweet enough to do the trick.

You can also have Hawaiian Red Veal, an inexpensive cut called veal breast, which explains how Prima can do a veal entrée for $23. Veal breast can be tough; it takes 24 hours of sous vide cooking to render it as tender as Prima serves it, with a slightly sweet Marsala sauce, mushrooms and Mao Farms famous kale, which in this preparation actually tastes good.

 

Recognize the green on Prima’s smoked local fish? It’s purslane.

Desserts are equally unexpected: strawberries and whipped cream on a brioche, a hardly sweet ricotta tart with peach jam, and a torrone that wasn’t a torrone. A torrone is usually a nougat. Here the soft, rich, hazelnut-flavored cylinder of milk chocolate contained at its heart an apple banana. I don’t even usually eat much dessert, and I hogged this.

There’s nothing safe about the food at Prima, but it works (well, maybe not the purslane). You can bring your own wine for a $5 corkage, and it’s not terribly expensive. We spent $125 for an appetizer-entrée-dessert for three, and you could always fill up on $14 pizza if you’re keeping your cost down.

It was the most fun we had all month.

John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.

 

 

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