Dashed Hopes in Waikiki

The report on three restaurants isn’t pretty, but the fourth is a standout.


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I’m disappointed. With dozens of new restaurants coming on line, I was hoping the glory days of eating in Waikiki, were returning. Nope.

I’ve not lost hope entirely. After all, Nobu Waikiki, is scheduled to open later this month. The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center is promising a Wolfgang Puck steakhouse like Cut (that’s its name) in Beverly Hills.

So far, however, things aren’t so good. I sampled four new restaurants—and was let down by three out of the four.

Holokai Grill
Waikiki Beach Walk // 226 Lewers St. // 924-7245 // Daily 6:30 a.m. to 12 midnight  // $5 three-hour Valet Parking at Embassy Suites, entrance on Beachwalk //  Major credit cards

The new Holokai Grill on the second floor of Waikiki, Beach Walk has a great look and feel—a young and eager service staff, lava rock walls, an outrigger canoe over the bar, a 30-foot Maori war canoe in the dining room (though I’m not sure it’s culturally appropriate to store napkins and tablecloths in it).

Holokai is a project by the same team that brought us Tiki’s Grill & Bar. The Waikiki Beach Walk development had wanted a Tiki’s, too. “But we didn’t want to cannibalize a restaurant that’s only a mile away,” Bill Tobin, the group’s managing partner, told me soon after opening. “We wanted something different, but not too different.”

Tiki’s opened with a sassy retro décor and an innovative menu from chef Fred DeAngelo, who is now winning awards at Ola in Turtle Bay. At Holokai Grill, the group played it safe—perhaps too safe.

Especially on the menu. The appetizers are unadventurous—fried calamari, coconut shrimp, popcorn chicken, wonton chip nachos, sliders. Nor does the salad menu break new ground. It includes a Caesar, a wedge of iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese dressing and an actual pineapple fruit boat.

Making the best of it, we ordered edamame, which came slathered in a salty garlic butter, and the sliders, all three varieties on the menu. The kalua pig sliders were marred by a “spicy guava sauce” more sweet than spicy. The hamburgers had a housemade mango ketchup, also sweet. By far the most palatable, to my taste at least, were the crab cakes with a wasabi ginger aioli.

After putting away half-a-dozen sliders, the four of us decided to split three entrées. The lemongrass-ginger crusted onaga was a nice piece of fish, thick and moist, served on a complicated swirl of sauces. However, the crust hardly tasted of lemongrass and ginger. Mainly it was just salty. The best thing on the plate was a risotto made with sweet Kunia corn.

The barbecued ribs were reasonably meaty and tender, though not as good as the slam-bang ones I remember from the early days of Tiki’s. The sweet potato fries disappeared fastest, since it’s hard to resist something that’s simultaneously sweet, salty and deep-fried.

The biggest disappointment was the Paniolo Steak. This 16-ounce rib-eye looked good on its bed of grilled onions, surrounded by little roasted potatoes in various colors, topped with some tomato wedges and drizzled with an aioli that was supposed to taste of pipikaula.

However, I’d ordered the steak medium rare. It arrived well done. And everything on the platter, except the potatoes, had been salted to within an inch of its life. “I’m really sad I can’t eat that,” said one of our party. “I was looking forward to eating cow tonight.”

We ordered three desserts to share. A banana tart, heavy on the whipped cream, the tart shell cold and hard. A coconut-infused crème brulèe, not exciting enough to get anyone to take more than a bite of it. Best was a warm apple strudel, which wasn’t a strudel, but an apple pie wrapped in phyllo dough, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, topped with vanilla ice cream.

The verdict: With the exception of the steak, everything was OK, but just OK. Perhaps exotic enough if you had Middle American tastes. Not terribly expensive, $180 with tip, for four. We didn’t leave hungry, we had a good time, but that was due mainly to the setting and the company.

If you are going to Holokai, you might consider a drink instead of a meal. With the exception of a bottle of Opus One for $160, there are only a dozen mainly mid-range wines on the list, so it’s not a wine drinker’s paradise.

On the other hand, Holokai has a long list of cocktails with cute names—Whacky Wiki Wiki Watermelon Martini, Polynesian Passion Potion. The drinks are better than their names. The Luscious Lychee martini was, if not luscious, at least more than drinkable, redolent of actual lychee. I had a Whiskey Adobo—essentially a fresh whiskey sour adorned with an Italian brandy-vanilla-citrus liqueur called Tuaca. It was perfectly balanced, strong and weak, sour and sweet. It was the only perfectly balanced thing the evening offered.

Yard House
Waikiki Beach Walk // 226 Lewers St. // 923-9273 // Open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Serves food Mon-Fri 11 a.m. to midnight, Sat-Sun 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., last call for alcohol 1 a.m.  // $5 three-hour Valet Parking at Embassy Suites, entrance on Beachwalk //  Major credit cards

I caught up with my friend, the Man About Town, sitting at the bar at Yard House, surrounded by highball glasses with about two ounces of beer in them. “No martini?” I asked.

“Martinis cost $10 here,” he said. “Besides, this place is all about beer, so I wanted to get with the program.”

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