The Do-Overs: 53 by the Sea and Lucky Belly
In which two decades-old restaurants give way to new ones. One is an outright replacement of the old John Dominis, the other took over a long-time Chinese greasy spoon.
53 by the Sea
53 Ahui St., 536-5353, 53bythesea.com.
Appetizers: $8 (green papaya salad) to $30 (seafood showcase)
Entrées: $18 (spaghetti Bolognese) to $42 (Maine lobster linguine)
The old John Dominis, that 31-year-old institution, is completely gone. The mid-century modern building cantilevered over the water—razed. In its place: a gleaming, hulking $16-million palace. Or, more accurately, a wedding venue, occupying the entire second floor, and, at ground level, a restaurant: 53 by the Sea. But call it the new John Dominis to be safe, because otherwise people might not know what you’re talking about, so nondescript is the name, so out of the way is the restaurant. Its two closest neighbors are the surfers at Kewalo’s and the UH research station next door, which looks even darker and more abandoned next to the new building.
This new John Dominis is overly dramatic—12-foot-tall double doors swing open as you approach. You’re greeted with a grand staircase of white stone and intricate ironwork: a stage for hundreds of future brides and grooms.
Ocean Investments, the Japanese company behind 53 by the Sea, composed a page-long treatise on the architectural details: the design inspired by buildings of Hawai‘i’s Territorial period, the use of cut and cast stone, the incorporation of the naupaka flower in the motif. But rather than coming off as authentic or beautiful, it looks imposing and cheesy, not unlike Las Vegas’ castles and palaces and one-stop wedding chapels. I know many people who disagree, but it is easy to confuse awe with beauty.
One step past the grand staircase and none of that matters. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame the view, from Waikiki to Diamond Head, a dynamic postcard of shifting ocean landscape and surfers exploding off the waves. It is breathtaking as the sun sets and all the buildings in the Honolulu skyline turn the color of the Royal Hawaiian and, even at night, when you would think there would be only blackness, the skyline lights up. This new place is surely romantic, but I wouldn’t know; each time I have come, I have spent more time gazing at the view (and the surfers) than at my date and companions.
This is the best view from any Honolulu restaurant. Perhaps you are closer to the water at Michel’s (incidentally, another restaurant by the Honolulu developer Andy Anderson, who owned John Dominis), but this sweeping landscape is infinitely more interesting.
Not so much the menu, which offers a little bit of everything for everyone—seafood, steak, pasta. Some of the dishes include exotic ingredients, such as bottarga on the calamari salad, but the product is disappointingly pedestrian—the bottarga reduced to a decorative sprinkle around the plate and the fried calamari cold. The best plates are handmade pasta: a tagliatelle with shrimp, garlicky pesto and bursts of roasted tomatoes; a satisfying fettucine laden with sausage and mushrooms. Frankly, the kitchen should jettison everything else from the menu and focus on this.
But there are wedding parties to please, special-occasion audiences to cater to. The seafood is not bad—a seafood stew with meaty chunks of opah and chock full of mussels and clams in a creamy tomato sauce is comforting, and the special one day featured moi pan-fried until the skin was crispy and the meat still delicately moist. It arrived, though, on a heap of cabbage that Charlie Bucket and his family would recognize (pre-golden ticket to the chocolate factory). And this is the biggest reason it’s hard to recommend plates at 53 by the Sea. While every waiter recites that the vegetables are locally farmed, the little heaps of broccoli, cauliflower and carrot taste as if they were dumped out of a Costco vegetable medley freezer bag. The contrast can be jarring. Flavorless carrots are stuffed into a flavorless tomato next to a perfectly browned and juicy veal chop, draped in prosciutto.
Actually, the most innovative use of produce ends up being in dessert: the eggplant cioccolato—fried eggplant topped with chocolate, custard, walnuts and raisins—but the eggplant is soggy and bitter even with the chocolate. Our server tried to warn us away from this—you’d do better to heed the warning.
The most pleasurable way to take in the view at 53 by the Sea may be to adopt everyone’s favorite wedding strategy: hang out at the bar. Actually, I would go to 53 by the Sea’s bar even if it didn’t have the view—the drinks are knockouts. The Eastern Blend improves on a Manhattan with Yamazaki Suntory whisky as its base, and the Shiso Italiano is as refreshing as a spa day with cucumber vodka, Campari, shiso and ginger beer. A highlight from the Libations by Gin section of the menu is the Kaka‘ako Sling—gin fortified with brandy and Benedictine, lightened with fresh pineapple and lime juice. Tim Rita, formerly of Lewers Lounge, is behind the menu, and the wine list has over 100 bottles selected by master sommelier Roberto Viernes.
Drink here, enjoy the view, go home with a groomsman.
50 N. Hotel St., 531-1888.
Dishes: $3 to $14
Elsewhere, in the old Mini Garden space, Lucky Belly continues the hipsterfication of Chinatown.
Where 53 by the Sea was built for $16 million, Lucky Belly worked with a budget of $150,000, with most of the labor contributed by partners and friends. They ripped out walls to expose the original brick, softened the lighting, tore out the linoleum floor and polished the concrete. Little details make it comfortable, like the frosted stripes in the window that run at eye level, offering diners privacy from the bar hoppers and crazies (sometimes one and the same) that roam Chinatown. It’s now one of Chinatown’s best looking dining rooms.
We have excellent ramen bars around town. Many a skeptic will walk into Lucky Belly and compare it to her favorites—Yotteko Ya, Ramen Nakamura, Goma Tei. And while I wouldn’t claim Lucky Belly's ramen to be the best in town, it’s a new favorite spot. Nowhere else can you get the combination of great ramen, terrific appetizers and access to a full bar that lists Buffalo Trace as its well bourbon.
The well-edited bar is no doubt Dusty Grable’s doing. Grable, the front-of-house manager and partner in Lucky Belly, was the manager at Formaggio Kailua before he worked at Gary Danko, one of San Francisco’s most famed fine dining restaurants, and then went on to run the beverage program at Ame, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the St. Regis.
The ramen is as stylish as the restaurant, served in deep, wide bowls. The noodles stay firm until you get to the bottom of the bowl, and while the broth at times can be uneven—salty one day, a little flat another—it is usually just right. Garnishes include a soft, steamed egg, which oozes molten velvet into the broth, a tangle of wakame, a sprinkle of sesame, and a smidge of grated ginger for a touch of zing, all the supporting cast to the meats: pork belly, arabiki sausage and bacon in the Belly Bowl, or brisket, short rib and oxtail dumplings in the Beast Bowl. A table evenly divided between Belly and Beast Bowls will give way to a miniature barter economy. In the end, the market settles that one oxtail dumpling is worth one slice of pork belly and half the sausage.
But if you really want to experience the full glory of an oxtail dumpling, order the appetizer version, the rich, shredded meat encased in thick, chewy rice paper, (similar to har gao, the shrimp dumplings at dim sum), served atop a soy mustard sauce with bite.
Skip the duck lumpia, which taste mostly of the fried wrapper and only faintly of duck. Pork belly bao may be overplayed by now, but as with bacon and party drugs, it’s hard to say no.
The appetizers you must get are the watercress salad with chicharrones, which are really chunks of roasted pork with crispy skin, the salad tossed with generous portions of tomatoes and onions, the dish like the Filipino classic, lechon kawali, dolled up. Spiced beef tartare is perfect, perked up with togarashi and capers, topped with a raw quail egg yolk and accompanied by a smear of sweet, roasted garlic. Raw, chopped beef is an odd thing to crave, but now I do.
The beet salad looks like pink layered jello, which is a bit off-putting, but never mind: tangy goat cheese and the candied nut crunch (more please!) bring it back to tasty sophistication.
If you find yourself roaming Chinatown streets Thursday to Saturday night, you should belly up to Lucky Belly’s takeout window. The menu, which changes about every week, is a piece of butcher paper taped over the window, with three or four items, all $5. At 2 a.m., it could have just been some deep-fried mess for those looking for hangover-prevention provisions, but it’s much more refined. When we go, it’s bratwurst with sauerkraut sitting in a whole-grain mustard spiked potato mash; a grilled cheese sandwich with Gouda, prosciutto and tomatoes with a touch of citrusy mayo. A silky corn chowder with smoky bits of pork is the highlight, and we see it making cameos all over Chinatown—in the hands of after-shift line cooks, bar hoppers sobering up, a bouncer that just wants to be left alone with his bowl.
Before opening their restaurant, the Lucky Belly partners thought about opening a New England-inspired seafood shack, based on the corn chowder alone. But the ingredients would have been too difficult and expensive to get. Now, though, we get to have both: ramen inside the restaurant, corn chowder from the window. Lucky us.
Japanese vs. DIY
Honolulu’s newer restaurants these days seem to be either Japanese-investor backed dining rooms or DIY enterprises erected by the young and hip. A sampling of each:
Vintage Cave (opening this month): Japanese developer Takeshi Sekiguchi (most famous for building the Grand Wailea) bankrolls a restaurant in the basement of Shirokiya.
Nanzan Giro Giro (opened in May 2011): A kaiseki-only restaurant. Its namesake, Nanzan, is a ceramicist based out of Kyoto.
Bernini (opened April 2011): The Bernini Restaurant group has three restaurants in Japan, all focusing on authentic Italian. It serves some of Honolulu’s best Italian, perhaps not surprising—there are an estimated 2,000 Italian restaurants in Tokyo.
The Whole Ox Deli (opened March 2012): Raised funds via a Kickstarter campaign to build a meatery in Kakaako, Honolulu's latest urban renewal project.
Inferno Pizza (opened in Vice nightclub in July 2012): Kiawe-fired pizza, housed in a nightclub, sharing space with a brewery. Started out as an oven trailer in a Kalihi parking lot.
Downbeat Diner (opened January 2011): Punk rockers renovated a Vietnamese joint into a late-night diner with a big vegan following. It turns out vegans also like to stay out late and need deep-fried sustenance just like the rest of us.