2012 Hale Aina Awards
You voted, we counted, and here they are, the best 128 restaurants in Hawaii. On these pages, you’ll find a complete list of the winners and a closer look at some of the specific, delicious dishes that put these eateries on top.
By the time a restaurant has won a Hale Aina Award from our readers, it has excelled on any number of fronts—fantastic food, terrific service, great atmosphere. But especially fantastic food. It makes that part look so easy that we take for granted the thought, technique and good, old-fashioned practice that make the dishes so unique, so irreproducible at home. You might learn Alan Wong’s recipe for ginger-crusted onaga, or Town’s recipe for gnocchi, but there’s no substitute for the experience of making it every day for years, reading each batch the way an experienced surfer reads a wave.
HONOLULU Magazine’s Hale Aina awards are the Islands’ oldest, most prestigious dining awards. Across 35 categories, 128 Hawaii restaurants have won Hale Aina awards, out of thousands of restaurants statewide. You can find the full list of winners on the foldout in this issue. For these pages, we interviewed some of the winning chefs about their restaurants’ most popular or remarkable dishes to find out how they make magic on a plate.
One thing that struck us in our conversations was that, whether these restaurants have been open for one year or 50, they’re keenly in tune with their diners, which is probably why you voted them to the top.
Best New Restaurant, Gold
Restaurant of the Year, Bronze
Best Japanese, Silver
There are multiple locations of Morimoto restaurants around the world, but Morimoto Waikiki offers dishes available at no other outpost. There’s the Big Island abalone takoyaki, for example, a riff on traditional takoyaki which contains octopus (tako) in a cooked (yaki) flour ball. In Masaharu Morimoto’s other restaurants, he swaps out the octopus for lobster or foie, but in Waikiki, he uses local abalone. “Takoyaki is actually a street food in Japan,” Morimoto says, “but with Big Island’s delicious abalone, Morimoto’s takoyaki became an elegant dish.”
Another Morimoto dish with a local twist is the Loco Moto, a take on the classic loco moco with influences from a popular Japanese comfort food—Hayashi rice, a thick beef stew on rice. The Loco Moto incorporates Wagyu beef, a sunnyside-up egg, Hayashi gravy and fukujinzuke, a crunchy Japanese relish. Even the rice receives a luxe touch: it is polished in house, the husks removed right before cooking.
Particularly addictive is the pineapple tempura, wrapped in jamon iberico, the Spanish equivalent of prosciutto. Why not use the more widely available prosciutto? “Because the Hawaiian pineapple we use for this dish has a delicate sweetness, I thought jamon iberico’s less salty, subtle flavor would be good for the fruit,” says Morimoto. 1775 Ala Moana Blvd., 943-5900.
La Tour Café
Best New Restaurant, Silver
La Tour Café will never be a gluten-free haven. Chef Travis Inouye says the menu revolves around the artisan breads from La Tour Bakehouse, an 80,000-square-foot production facility above the café. So the croque madame may be laden with black forest ham, béchamel, roasted tomatoes, gruyere cheese and a runny, fried egg, but these are all supporting actors to the thick slice of rustic, country-style bread underneath.
The baguettes at La Tour are different from those it ships to the Ba-Le franchises. Here, they have a more crackly crust with a tender interior. The French dip, a simple roast beef sandwich dressed with caramelized onions, is composed to “accentuate the bread,” Inouye says. Imagine that—roast beef second to bread. One exception to all this bread love might be the porchetta sandwich, in which the baguette competes with a roasted pork belly stuffed with parsley, garlic, lemon. The pork belly is finished off in the pizza deck oven, so the skin is as crispy as a chicharron.
But La Tour can’t be blamed for showcasing the bakehouse breads. Rodney Weddle, baker and partner in La Tour Bakehouse, says the flour for the all-natural, old-fashioned breads comes from a specialty mill offering mostly organic flours. The mill maintains such a close connection with its growers, Weddle says, each bag of flour can be traced back to an individual farmer. 888 N. Nimitz Highway, 697-5000.
Best New Restaurant, Bronze
If there were one item that epitomizes Monkeypod Kitchen, it might be the cream pie, in variations of chocolate, banana, coconut or strawberry. It’s a humble slice of pie, but everything’s made from scratch, like the crust, custard and whipped cream, with high-quality ingredients such as the chocolate and locally grown strawberries and bananas. “A lot of what I like is comfort food, things that people can remember from their childhood or times gone by,” Peter Merriman says. “I like to make what are often homespun items and do them with a real high-level, sophisticated approach.”
This philosophy also applies to the burger: the Portuguese sweetbread bun made in-house, the patty made with Maui Cattle Co. beef, topped with Maui tomatoes and lettuce, and a housemade pickle. Even the ketchup is made from scratch, with 14 ingredients (including ginger, fennel and clove), hours of simmering and three stages of straining. Double-fried, thick-cut french fries accompany the burger and ketchup.
This sort of comfort food is “something I always wanted to do ever since I opened my own restaurants—real simple, homegrown food,” Merriman says. “When I opened Merriman’s in Waimea 23 years ago, I intended it to be a café. But my customers kept telling me to increase the price.” He laughs at the absurdity of diners requesting higher prices; nevertheless, raise them he did. “But I always wanted to do what I call approachable food. It’s still high-quality food, it’s just the prices are a little lower.”
Monkeypod Kitchen has a fancy, Italian kiawe-burning oven. The cooks hand-toss the pizza dough. (“A pizza comes out more tender when you toss it than when you roll it,” Merriman says. “It’s more than just for show.”) There are fig and arugula and goat cheese on one of the pizzas. But in the end, underscoring Monkeypod’s homeyness, the Proletariat pizza steals the show, with unpretentious, classic toppings such as pepperoni, sausage, onion, green peppers, olives and mozzarella. 10 Wailea Gateway Place, Suite B-201, Kīhei, (808) 891-2322.
Restaurant of the Year, Gold
Best Oahu Restaurant, Gold
Best Service, Gold
Best Seafood, Silver
Best Dessert, Bronze
If you think Roy’s Waikiki chef Jason Peel is content to churn out Roy’s signature dishes night after night, you’re wrong. Braised short ribs and blackened ahi? As it is, Peel tires even of his own specials, changing them whenever he gets a fun new product. At the moment, it’s Kona kampachi. He sears a kampachi filet skin-side down to get it crisp, crusts it with chili, garlic and lemongrass, and serves it alongside a coconut polenta with lime and roasted corn. In a more avant garde preparation, kampachi crudo is accompanied by red curry pickled cauliflower, carbonated pineapple and coconut bubbles (more aptly described as coconut suds). It’s a study of contrasts—fatty kampachi playing against sweet, sour and spice—flavors that pop, literally, thanks to the fizzy pineapple. Peel’s dishes are bright with touches of acid and a profuse use of herbs, inspired by Thai cuisine.
The evolution of Roy’s is best represented in Peel’s beet duo: on one side, a relatively traditional salad of roasted beets and goat cheese mousse, on the other, an arugula shave ice, beet gelato and goat cheese condensed milk. Peel, as part of a successful 23-year-old restaurant brand, is well-versed in the classics while keeping current in modernist cuisine. He’s a chef of Roy’s restaurants, where you can have something old and something new, hoisin baby back ribs and beet ice cream. Multiple locations, original Roy’s at 6600 Kalanianaole Highway, 396-7697.
Restaurant of the Year, Silver
Best Oahu Restaurant, Silver
Best Service, Silver
Best Dessert, Finalist
Alan Wong’s most popular dish is the same as 16 years ago, when his namesake restaurant first opened: ginger-crusted onaga. Its origins go back to when Wong was cooking at the Canoe House at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. “I wanted to create cold ginger chicken,” Wong says. “It became hot ginger chicken, became ginger steak, ginger mahi mahi, ginger everything. And, finally, the one that really took off, that the customers really enjoyed, was ginger-crusted onaga.” The onaga is served on a bed of Hamakua mushrooms and Kahuku corn, in a pool of sweet and nutty miso-sesame sauce. What ties the onaga to Chinese ginger chicken is the oil-scalded ginger and scallion spooned over the onaga. The Chinese technique of scalding raw ginger and scallion with smoking-hot oil softens the bite of the ingredients while opening up their aroma. Wong has tried taking the onaga off the menu many times, but, every night, the restaurant would get special requests for it.
“People say, ‘Ginger-crusted onaga, that’s the only thing you can do, you’re not creative.’ Really? I can be,” Wong says. “But the customers say they want this, so why reinvent the wheel here? It’s a balance of keeping some of the signature items and evolving.”
Keeping current is important; Wong’s customers travel a lot more than they used to. “They’ve eaten so many things from around the world,” he says. “Their palates are more sophisticated than they were. The majority of them have been to the French Laundry and Per Se, restaurants in Paris and all over Europe. Maybe some of them have been to El Bulli and dined in Spain. Then there’s Japan, and people going to Southeast Asia and going to Singapore, Vietnam and Bangkok.” Wong says he and his chefs travel as well, and they incorporate international influences into their menus.
But every time Wong creates a dish, the goal is: “We want our guests to taste Hawaii.” To do this, he draws on Hawaii’s plantation immigrant history. “The Europeans keep going back to Escoffier,” Wong says. “We keep going back to what we used to eat, back in the plantation days.” 1857 S. King St., Third Floor, 949-2526.
Chef’s Choice Winner
Best Oahu Restaurant, Bronze
Best French, Gold
If success is in the details, it becomes immediately obvious why Le Bistro is ever popular. Chef and owner Alan Takasaki is meticulous even in his descriptions of each dish preparation. On the foie gras appetizer: “We take a cippolini onion, caramelize it, add some brandy, some Banyuls vinegar, a little bit of sugar. In a separate pan we’ll add some quince. We’ll caramelize it almost black and then cook it all together … We cook the foie gras for a really long time and it takes on a texture almost similar to the quince, kind of firm but yet it melts.” Why quince, an apple and pear relative (though virtually inedible raw), which is practically nonexistent on Hawaii menus? “One of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco is Quince,” Takasaki says. “I dream of their pasta … I saw quince (the fruit) there, and I wanted to do something with it. The foie gras was a good match.” On the Banyuls vinegar: “I like the fruitiness of it. It has that really cider-y, almost apple-y taste—that’s probably my favorite vinegar.”
Le Bistro’s black cod is another beautiful dish: black cod marinated in grated apples and bay leaf. “Then we just brown it, get it black,” Takasaki says. “We’ll make a sauce with ginger, white wine, a little bit of butter. We’ll finish the dish with that, a splash of yuzu, a garnish of tangerine or blood orange … The apples give the fish a nice glaze [and] it cuts all that fishiness and richness. When I taste the residue, it reminds me of a sour miso.”
Takasaki, like Wong, has noticed diners’ palates becoming more worldly over the years. Paradoxically, the more sophisticated the diners become, the more Takasaki finds he can simplify his menu. “People really understand that you don’t have to do too much to fish,” he says. “As long as you have a really beautiful fish, you can showcase it. You can go lighter. You can go subtler and they’re going to appreciate that ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful, fresh fish.’” 5730 Kalanianaole Highway, 373-7990.
Best Wine Program, Silver
As Vino’s Hale Aina award for Best Wine Program will tell you, people come here to drink. Master sommelier Chuck Furuya oversees the wine program, changing wines by the glass weekly. By necessity, the food changes to match the wines, though Chef Keith Endo always keeps some variation of handmade pastas on the menu. Endo uses three basic recipes: one, for the Ligurian trofie pastas, is made with 00 flour (a fine, Italian flour with a lower protein content for more tender doughs), water and salt; the other adds egg yolks to 00 flour, water and salt; the third is two-thirds semolina, one-third 00 flour, whole eggs, white wine and salt. “Ligurian pastas are really labor intensive but are good because they have a really meaty texture as opposed to one of the really delicate, fine pastas,” Endo says. He tends to toss Ligurian pasta with Genovese pesto and serve it simply. The semolina-less dough is more delicate and good for ravioli, perhaps stuffed with a pork ragu. The semolina dough is for pappardelle, fettucine and linguine. One of the latest linguine dishes is paired with corn, jalapenos, lobster uni sauce and fresh Dungeness crab.
Whether Furuya is highlighting big California reds or Champagne, Endo tweaks his food to match. “Sometimes just adding a certain herb or tomatoes, or leaving it out makes a dish more wine-friendly,” he says. “We use a lot of corn and mushrooms that soak up tannins and add texture, umami … We can change any dish to go from Riesling to a Chardonnay to a Pinot or a rosé.”
Vino’s wine list leans on Old World-style wines, and the food that goes with them is comfort food. “It’s very soulful,” Endo says. “They’re dishes your grandmother made, how they made things a long time ago. I love the old stuff because it’s very comforting, it’s not fancy. It’s the kind of food I’m sure in Italy they put down on the table and everyone sits down and drinks wine and just enjoys the conversation and the food.” 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 6D-1.
Best Vegetarian, Silver
Peace Café, a vegan eatery, may have won a Hale Aina for Best Vegetarian, but chefs Megumi Yamaki and Ari Moriya say each dish is created to be fulfilling and to satisfy meat eaters and non-vegans as well. Take the Heart and Seoul, Peace Café’s most popular entrée. It’s a take on the Korean bibimbap, with local and/or organic veggies including kale, bean sprouts, shaved carrots, a salad of greens and a choice of textured vegetable protein or fresh tofu from Aloha Tofu, so soft it’s like custard. The greens come from a variety of sources: Mohala Farms in Waialua, the farmers’ markets, or, more recently, Farm Roof, a local company that utilizes roofs for growing vegetables and lettuces. A dollop of sweet-and-spicy miso paste ties the Heart and Seoul together, and the vegetables are served on a bed of brown and black rice, giving the overall rice color a pinkish tinge. The black rice “is a type of heirloom rice and high in nutritional value,” Moriya says. “We use it because it tastes great and gives a great texture.”
Sweets at Peace Café also satisfy vegans and non-vegans alike, particularly the mochi, the flavors of which change everyday: coconut banana, apple cinnamon, pumpkin spice, lemon berry, matcha berry, kinako chocolate … the list goes on. “Everyone goes crazy for mochi,” Moriya says. As far as inspiration for dishes and desserts, “In the beginning I just created what I wanted to eat, but now I create what customers want to eat,” she says. What do customers ask for? “Anything chocolate. Also, I got a lot of requests for something cold, sweet, creamy—basically they wanted ice cream.” So she created a vegan ice cream with soy milk, coconut milk and maple syrup, in chocolate, vanilla bean and avocado flavors. 2239 S. King St. #C, 951-7555.
Best Lunch, Gold
The one menu item Marc Freiberg could probably never take off Mariposa’s menu (along with the complimentary popovers and chicken consommé) is the lobster club. Meaty pieces of lobster are married with bacon, roasted pepper and avocado and layered between toasted bread like a traditional club sandwich. It’s the No. 1 bestseller on the lunch menu.
But if he can’t change the lobster club, Freiberg adds his own touches elsewhere, all the while catering to an upscale, mostly female, health-conscious clientele. For lunch, this means a lot of filling, one-dish salads, like the king crab salad with Big Island hearts of palm, Kula butter lettuce, baby radishes, frisee and avocado with a green goddess dressing, redolent with herbs, creamy with avocado, with a vinegary bite. It’s a throwback dressing that complements the crab and lettuce.
Another relatively healthy and hearty item is the ahi tuna melt, a whole ahi steak smeared with lemon-caper aioli, Fontina cheese and grilled red onions on a whole-grain roll.
Freiberg says he takes an Italian approach in his use of ingredients. There may be few actual Italian dishes on Mariposa’s menu, but he’ll highlight seasonality and ingredients, a philosophy acquired while working in Italy. Freiberg’s last gig was at Sergio’s at Hilton Hawaiian Village, a job he took because the owner promised him a paid trip to Italy if he worked for him for a year. “I got to spend a month over there, work and just really soak it up.” 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., #2101, 951-3420.
Restaurant of the Year, Finalist
Best Little Neighborhood
Best Vegetarian, Gold
Gnocchi has been on the menu at Town since the day it opened, but the recipe and technique have evolved over the six years since. The recipe “used to have two eggs to every five or six potatoes,” Ed Kenney says. “We would make it twice every week and freeze them and then boil them straight from the freezer. After some trial and error, now we make it every day, and we got it down to one egg to every 10 potatoes.” Other secrets to Town’s super-light gnocchi are baking the potatoes for the dough and a deft touch when shaping them, the latter acquired after years of practice.
Another menu item years in the making is the salumi platter, which has at least five different salumi every night. It might include salami, lardo (cured fatback), capicola (cured pork shoulder), soppressata (a spicy salami) or head cheese. “It took a while for us to figure out the formulas and the whole process and how [charcuterie] works,” Kenney says. “Sometimes we’d get a batch that was delicious, and sometimes we’d have a whole batch that we’d have to throw away.” After years of experimenting, Town finally has the salumi platter on the menu, a success Kenney also credits to its now well-seasoned meat curing box, which he likens to a cast-iron pan. “It’s got a little ecosystem in there. I’ll put in a piece of meat, and within 48 hours, it’s covered in beneficial white mold without even having to use a cultured starter. So, yeah, it’s working well.”
Kenney is a self-proclaimed pork guy, but his restaurant also won a silver Hale Aina for Best Vegetarian, an award he attributes to Town’s approach to vegetables as more than a garnish. Restaurants might be “focusing on the braised short ribs and the green peppercorn sauce. And maybe [the kitchen] will put a couple baby carrots on the plate just because they need to. For us, the vegetables have as much importance on the plate as the protein.” On any given night, it might be baby corn with smoked paprika butter; bitter greens braised with pine nuts, raisins and garlic; broccoli with breadcrumbs; bok choy with red salt; grilled escarole with vin cotto and fresh mozzarella. It’s not on the menu, but vegetarians in the know will order the vegetarian platter, a chef’s choice of five or six vegetables served over polenta. 3435 Waialae Ave. #103, 735-5900.
Michel’s at the Colony Surf
Best Restaurant for a Date Night, Gold
Michel’s turns 50 this year and, fittingly, its tuxedoed waiters continue to serve classic dishes with tableside flourish. Now, its dishes are so retro as to be en vogue again. The lobster bisque has been on the menu since its inception. For the soup, Maine lobster heads are split and roasted, then added to a stockpot with rendered bacon, mirepoix (a flavor base of onions, celery and carrots), fresh tarragon, smoked paprika, tomato and strong fish stock made from scratch. After simmering to extract and meld flavors, the whole thing, shells and all, is chopped fine and strained before adding a touch of cream. To finish, a waiter flambées fresh lobster meat in cognac tableside and adds it to the lobster bisque.
“There are no shortcuts in that kind of soup,” executive chef Eberhard “Hardy” Kintscher says. “A lot of our dishes are very time-consuming to prepare. We roast bones everyday, for jus and demi glace. That’s really what gives the plate some depth. You don’t get all that out of sauces that are quickly made. I know a lot of chefs that like to use fruit puree and drippings and make a sauce, but it’s not the same.”
Part of the appeal and romance of Michel’s are the tableside waiter preparations, which are put to good use with the steak au poivre, a black peppercorn-crusted prime New York steak flamed tableside with Jack Daniels, creating a glaze of whisky and meat juices.
Dessert could be a chocolate soufflé, another classic featured at Michel’s from the very beginning, but Strawberries Foie Gras Forever is a more adventurous, popular dish. Inspired by a Michael Mina (a celebrity chef and restaurateur) appetizer incorporating strawberries and foie, Kintscher sweetens the dish and serves it for dessert. Strawberries are flambéed with balsamic vinegar, port wine and foie gras and the whole rich and creamy sauce goes over Il Gelato vanilla gelato.
The menu may not change enormously at Michel’s, but Kintscher keeps it fresh by incorporating new ingredients, whether it’s local produce he finds when he moonlights at his Chef Hardy the Mobile Chef stand at KCC farmers’ market, or products not often seen in Honolulu, such as California red abalone, Jerusalem artichokes or Snake River Farms beef. 2895 Kalakaua Ave., 923-6552.
Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar
Best Big Island Restaurant, Bronze
The story of Sansei’s crab truffle ramen begins with a packet of Sapporo instant ramen and a block of truffle butter. “When I was working in the restaurant, at work I didn’t feel like eating, but when I came home, I started to get hungry,” DK Kodama of Sansei says. “The fridge had nothing, the cupboard had Sapporo ramen.” He worked with what he had, adding fresh herbs from his garden to his instant ramen—Thai basil, green onions, cilantro. It wasn’t rich enough, so he threw in some truffle butter he happened to have in his freezer. (With his expensive palate, it’s lucky that Kodama is in the restaurant business: “I love anything expensive. I can eat caviar by the spoonful—forget the accoutrements!”) After coming home to this souped-up ramen, he figured it’d be great in the restaurant—it just needed something more lush, something more “special occasion.” He settled on king crab to complement the heady truffle broth. Other than that addition, plus fresh ramen, Sansei Waikaloa’s version is pretty faithful to Kodama’s original after-hours snack, topped with cilantro and Thai basil.
Kodama’s other favorite, the Takah Sushi Roll, is an homage to the sushi restaurant where Kodama learned to make sushi, in Aspen, of all places. It’s a beefed-up California roll—an inside-out roll crusted with masago and stuffed with shrimp, ahi, crab, avocado and cucumber. As one of his favorite rolls, Kodama says, “I used to take two of these, four beers, and, instead of popcorn, eat that in the movies.” 201 Waikoloa Beach Drive, #801, Waikoloa, (808) 886-6286.
Best Breakfast, Gold
Here is one week of pancake flavors at Cinnamon’s: carrot, red velvet, guava chiffon, lilikoi chiffon, peanut butter and jelly, oatmeal raisin, blueberry corn, banana, gingerbread, pumpkin, pumpkin crunch, pumpkin cranberry. That’s the way it’s been since Carsie Green (with other partners) started Cinnamon’s 26 years ago. Green’s philosophy is: “If it’s a cake or cookie, it can become a pancake.”
The flavors are comfortingly familiar, refashioned in pancake form. In the pumpkin crunch, pumpkin sauce and whipped cream crown pumpkin pancakes that hide nuggets of crushed-up pecan cookies. Guava chiffon pancakes arrive as pink as a girl’s birthday party present: Plain pancakes are blanketed in two guava sauces, one almost airy, the other a clear, tangy glaze. For the red velvet, a red (of course) pancake is drizzled with a vanilla white chocolate. In the carrot pancakes, fresh-grated carrot and raisins are folded into the batter and the stack of cakes arrives with whipped cream cheese butter.
Green also has a German chantilly pancake (a chocolate pancake with chantilly topping), aimed at taking down Liliha Bakery’s coco puffs. Undoubtedly, the experimentation is fun for Green, but he sees pancakes as an improved form for sweets. “Our pancakes are very fluffy, moister and more delicious than a cupcake or cake,” he says. Meaning, you can have your dessert and eat breakfast, too. 315 Uluniu St., Kailua, 261-8724.