The 22nd Annual Hale 'Aina Awards
Click here for the full list of 2006 Hale Aina Award-winning restaurants.
Whether you are a dedicated "foodie" who has to try every new dish, an oenophile toting a wine carrier into a BYOB hot spot or the relaxed type who just wants a bowl of comforting macaroni and cheese, it's safe to say that you have an opinion on restaurants. That's why we turn to our subscribers to determine the best dining options in the Islands, and to honor them with the 2006 HONOLULU Magazine's Hale 'Aina Awards.
Called Hale 'Aina for the Hawaiian words "eating place," the awards debuted in 1984 and were the first to recognize local tastes, rather than those of Mainland publications.
A note on our process: Each year, HONOLULU subscribers fill out a ballot that is included in our August Restaurant Guide. An independent research firm counts the ballots, then HONOLULU gives the winners their plaques and acknowledgement at the Hale 'Aina Awards ceremony.
Here, we take a look at some of the top restaurants, with a spotlight on our two new categories: Best Ambience and Best Wine Program. Our complete list of winners can be found at the end of this article.
Wong credits two groups of people for his success. "Our staff and employees are hard-working, dedicated and loyal," he says, and Wong returns this loyalty by investing in training and development. "If you allow people to have the same passion as the company's passion, you have something going there," he notes. Second, he values his patrons and their feedback. "Whether they are telling us what we need to work on or telling us what they like, we continue to evolve our service with them."
Wong has put a lot of mileage on his chef's jacket this year. In Peru, he discovered the country's culinary inflection has been shaped by Chinese and Japanese immigrations, evolving into an inspiring Contemporary Peruvian Cuisine. "It parallels what happens in Hawai'i; new people come and change the culture and the way we cook, sometimes just with new ingredients."
"We were in the land of ceviche, and a close cousin to that, tiradito [another fish dish "cooked" using acidic ingredients, rather than heat]. Ceviche is like poke, while tiradito is cut thinly, like sashimi. We learned how they make authentic ceviche. To see it done in front of your eyes, to taste it each step of the way, you see the root of the dish. We often have only a bad impersonation of ceviche in the U.S."
So will we see ceviche all over his menu? Sort of. "People would rather eat poke or sashimi than ceviche; maybe they haven't had good ceviche yet," Wong says. "It has some time to go still. I can put it on a tasting menu, but not on the regular menu yet. It makes for a good special."
In Singapore, Wong sampled black-pepper crab, and has now created a black-pepper sauce for his restaurant. He also traveled to Japan three times, visiting his restaurant there to create seasonal menus. "I ask them to gather all the seasonal ingredients for me, and after about three days of cooking we have the menu. That is always a learning experience."
The low-carb craze has come and gone, but diners are still increasingly interested in their health, says Wong. "I see a growing group of people who are in tune with what they want to eat and what they want to put in their bodies. They're looking for hormone-free, organic foods and are more sensitive to what is good for the animals and what is good for the environment. I'm trying to meet that demand."
Wong continues to work with farmers on that front. "We've always done business with Doc Lum and his North Shore beef. Hawai'i has less pork and chicken, so that is coming from the Mainland, but they're all free-range and free of antibiotics and growth hormones. The meat tastes different, smells different. Once you've had it, it's hard to go back. And I now serve only wild Alaskan Salmon. I prefer to buy a salmon that comes out of a natural habitat."
This year, Wong plans to close his restaurant for a short period of time, just to spruce things up a bit. "We're going to take care of some kitchen needs, as it's 11 years old," says Wong. But don't expect many other changes, as Wong prefers to leave well enough alone. "It's established itself as a little restaurant on King Street," he says. And it will stay that way, no matter how many Hale 'Ainas come his way.
"A lot of Japanese restaurants are either food court level or very expensive. Our prices are pretty reasonable and the service is casual," points out Yuki Yokoyama, Shokudo's marketing manager. "Our food is good and a lot of people have commented about the dŽcor, that it looks very fresh."
This mix of high style and an accessible menu have won Shokudo a Best New Restaurant, Gold award. Shokudo, which means "dining room" in Japanese, opened in March. "We didn't have a room just for dining in Old Japan," explains Yokoyama. "Western culture came in and brought the concept of a dining room; we chose the name to show the concept of mixing the various cultures."
The restaurant's bold design is by a well-known Japanese interior designer, Yasumichi Morita. "He did the design for Megu, in Tribeca," says Yokoyama. "Young people in Honolulu are more keen to look for fashionable environments now."
Popular dishes include the fried chicken with tartar sauce and the Ishiyaki, a rice dish that comes in a heated, stone bowl. "You don't see that dish in other restaurants here; it's actually a Korean dish," says Yokoyama. "We assimilated it."
The bar, with everything from beer and sake to cocktails (try the Lychee Vodka Soda), is another draw. "We get a younger crowd later, as we're open until 2 a.m.," she says.
In the next decade, the company that operates Shokudo, Dream Dining Honolulu, also plans to open 50 more branches of the restaurant throughout the United States. This year, the first of the expansions will open, on the West Coast.
"My main goal was to have a neighborhood place, a comfortable place," says Town's chef/owner Ed Kenney. Town is also a Best New Restaurant, Gold winner.
"We seem to be known for our pastas, which are made here daily," says Kenney. "We always have three: our gnocchi, a pasta and a risotto. Depending on the fresh ingredients available that day, we add the sauces. The one item we haven't been able to take off is the 'ahi tartare. Luckily we have 'ahi year round."
Kenney works with Dave Caldiero, his operating partner, to collaborate on the menu. "The thing we continually said is, 'We hope people get it.' People are used to Hawai'i Regional Cuisine. We're the opposite; five ingredients max on a plate."
Kenney says he's had opposing feedback from patrons: "Never change the BYOB" on one side, and "Why don't you have a wine list?" on the other. Both sides are likely to be pleased this year.
"We're having our final liquor hearing and, if all goes well, we should have a liquor license," says Kenney. "I'm building a wine list in the $30 to $40 a bottle range, with interesting, boutique wineries. We'll have a good representation of Old World wines, to match the food, lots of wines from France, Italy and Spain, and an interesting cocktail list, about five or six, that will change seasonally, such as during mango season and lychee season."
At the same time, the restaurant will allow you to bring in your own wine, with a $3.50 glass charge remaining in effect.
Next, Kenney plans to turn his attention to curing meats to create prosciutto, salame, sopressata or pancetta. "We've been working on it. We've thrown out a lot of meat," says Kenney. "All the research I've done says that's normal."
But whether he's serving food or testing out new ways to preserve it, Kenney stands by his mantra: "Local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always."
Compete with Mother Nature? Not if you're smart. "Our decor is very understated and subdued," says Alicia Antonio, manager of Bali by the Sea, a Gold winner for best ambience. "We don't want to distract from the ocean. It really captivates our diners; people come in to the podium and say, Wow!"
Bali by the Sea makes the most of its oceanfront location, opening at 6:00 p.m. in time for sunset, and offering wide, comfortable chairs so that patrons can relax.
If you haven't been to Bali by the Sea in a while, the winter's a good time. "The sunsets are better now," says Antonio. "Reflections in the ocean are purple, fiery red, blue. It's different every night. I'm in awe, and I see it every day."
Toss back a couple of Monkey Business cocktails, and between the booze and the creative dŽcor, you'll swear you've traveled from E&O Trading Co. to another country. And that was the idea, says Kenwei Chong, partner in the restaurant.
"For us, the dŽcor comes from a story line. Each of our restaurants falls somewhere along the story line, it gives continuity. Our first one in San Francisco is like a trading warehouse. In Marin County, it's a Southern Thailand retreat, more playful. Honolulu is an outdoor Asian marketplace."
At E&O Trading, which also won a Hale 'Aina, Silver, for best new restaurant, you'll see elements of both the indoor and the outdoor. "The bar and kitchen have their own roof lines, and we use brick fa?ades with awnings and doorways," says Chong. "We didn't want Disney, but we wanted to take people away. The Hawai'i diner is becoming more sophisticated, the value perception is no longer about food quality and quantity. Now it's about the whole experience, food, service and ambience."
E&O is a popular spot for Thursday night live music, and you can find a bar/lounge atmosphere on Fridays after 10 p.m.
The best selling dishes, says Chong, are Indonesian Corn Fritters and a Char-Sui Styled Smoked Mero (smoked sea bass filet). "We continue to rotate the menu, to keep it fresh. For cocktails, our glasses are twice the normal size, so these drinks can sneak up on you."
No wonder you leave feeling transported.
I have a friend who always orders vanilla martinis at Formaggio, and indeed, it's the kind of relaxed spot where no one is required to be a wine expert. That said, it's a great place to try an ever-rotating assortment of reds and whites. The two-ounce tasting portions make it easier, too, to sample several different wines.
The appetizers, sandwiches, salads and pizzas on the menu are as well prepared and thought out as the wine selection, but it's also hard to resist the good, old-fashioned cheese plate. The place is, after all, called Formaggio.
Vino has won a Gold honor for its wine program, but it also backs that up with solid service and tasty, interesting food.
"We feature hearty, rustic, robust, contemporary wines at Vino," says master sommelier and wine consultant Chuck Furuya. "We try to find wines that are made from indigenous grapes, that have a sense of culture and of heritage. The two key things that we try to show through our wine program is there's over 10,000 different grape varieties, and that different foods need different wines."
Furuya says that Vino has a wine dispensing machine that replaces the air in a bottle with nitrogen to keep the bottle fresh for three to four weeks. "We have 20 spigots so that we can serve 20 wines by the glass," he explains. The restaurant takes good care of its Riedel glasses, too, with two dishwashers dedicated to cleaning them and keeping soap residue at bay.
The menu includes Italian favorites such as house-made gnocchi in sage/brown butter sauce, as well as more daring options, like the Asparagus Milanese, which features a sunny-side-up quail egg. "We try to show people interesting, artisan wines," says Furuya, "but the fun really starts when you pair it with food."