Lewers and Kalakaua
Unfortunately, this hot corner has not cornered the market on great cuisine.
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Finally, we hit the most amazing pasta of the three—spaghetti with tuna and bottarga.
“We have to have this,” insisted my friend. “I’ve never seen bottarga on a menu in America. In fact, in Italy, you usually have to ask for it.”
Bottarga is the roe of gray mullet cured with sea salt, a Sicilian specialty. We got not exactly bottarga, but the Japanese equivalent, called karasumi. Karasumi is almost a condiment, a hugely flavorful golden brown sprinkle, all salty, preserved, fishy goodness.
The tuna was simply small cubes of fresh ‘ahi, sautéed in olive oil, garlic and peperoncini. The pasta was—as we had become used to—perfect.
After three pastas, we were unlikely to go on to entrées. Instead, we just had the organic salad, with a dressing made from Sicilian blood oranges.
To eat a dinner like this, you need time. We had invested more than three hours, talking, drinking a lot of wine, being amazed from time to time with what came out of the kitchen.
One advantage of this leisurely pace: We had room for the cannoli, with a touch of coconut in the filling, atop pistachio ice cream, and another dessert so Japanese it took our breath away—a stylish plate filled with sliced pineapple, strawberries and kiwi fruit.
Dinner cost $243 with tip; no bargain, but a reasonable value for a dining adventure we’d never had anywhere else in Honolulu.
Royal Hawaiian Center // 2301 Kalakaua Ave. // 922-3323 // Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner nightly 5 to 11 p.m., as late as 2 a.m. Friday to Saturday, depending on business // Validated parking, Major Credit Cards
You sometimes have to wonder what the thinking is in Waikiki. The refurbished Royal Hawaiian Center now has a P.F. Chang’s, a Señor Frog’s (more on that later), and, in the works, a Wolfgang Steak House (not, as I misled you a few months back, a Wolfgang Puck steakhouse, but an offshoot of an expensive, second-tier New York City steakhouse, managed by the same firm that put up Taormina). And now, a sushi bar from Miami. Really.
The house Doraku Roll is tempura fried and topped with spicy mayo and masago.
Photo: Monte Costa
The restaurant began as part of the Benihana chain, but Kevin Aoki bought it out, and has now brought it to us, as a large restaurant, 4,700 spare yet stylish square feet, in the Royal Hawaiian Center.
I was grabbing dinner with a friend who teaches college. Since he talks to twentysomethings all day, he knew that Doraku was, as he put it, “this week’s ‘it’ place,” for dancing the night away to a deejay.
“Not every night,” said the bartender, Jodie, as we plunked ourselves onto stools early in the evening. “We want people to know we are a restaurant, too.”
Honolulu has a half-dozen izakaya that are better and cheaper. Find the one in your neighborhood and patronize that.
Doraku is often described as “like Nobu.” Yes, if you don’t count the food. The sake menu is solid, served in the same kind of cut bamboo segment (which comes chilled at Nobu, not here).
Jodie was generous with the sake samples, but we eventually settled on that old standby Dewazakura Oka, a ginjo (premium) sake that has, to me anyway, the perfect mouthfeel.
The sake was the best part of the evening. The food was OK, and the most OK parts were the pricey sushi rolls, beautifully presented. The house Doraku Roll contained nothing shocking, nothing great, either—lobster, fake crab, cream cheese. The whole roll was tempura fried, and each slice topped with spicy mayo and masago.
We also felt compelled to order the Cuban beef roll—ah, Miami. There was very little beef for $8.75, but the roll was seasoned with chimichurri sauce (a creamy concoction of green herbs, garlic, chilies), and topped with crispy garlic chips. At least you won’t find this anywhere else.
That’s where the good stuff ended. The lobster tempura was filled with basil, so that was all you tasted. The kakiage vegetable tempura was no better than you’d get anywhere, for less. The biggest disappointment of all was the robatayaki. By definition, robatayaki is fire grilled. Perhaps the beef-tongue slices were, but they were chewy—and paled in comparison to the same dish at Imanas Tei.