Lewers and Kalakaua

Unfortunately, this hot corner has not cornered the market on great cuisine.


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Unlike many people in this town, I never gave up on Waikiki. I always thought it was the most interesting square mile of Honolulu. I was much encouraged by the redevelopment of the heart of the district, the corner of Lewers Street and Kalakaua Avenue, where the Beach Walk development met the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center’s self-transformation. By and large, I’ve been disappointed by the culinary offerings that resulted— too same-same, too lame, too chain. But I never give up.

Taormina Sicilian Cuisine
Waikiki Beach Walk // 266 Lewers St. // 926-5050 // Sunday through Thursday 11  a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. // Validated Parking,  Major Credit Cards

Thicker than spaghetti, bucatini pasta holds up well to a rich sauce made with fresh sardines. The dish is from Taormina Sicilian Cuisine.

Photo: Monte Costa

I was in no particular hurry to get to Taormina, which opened on Lewers Street last fall. The buzz was negative. This was supposed to be a Sicilian restaurant, and one acquaintance of mine—only two or three generations removed from Sicily—pronounced it terrible. The reviews were respectful, but dull. They made Taormina sound like a place where you might go for rigatoni arrabiata or spaghetti Bolognese. Oh, wow, driving into Waikiki for red sauce.

There’s no substitute for firsthand experience. I corralled a friend who spends a lot of time in Italy and booked a table.

This restaurant is nearly brilliant.

It’s not what most people expect. It’s not Assaggio, serving up solid American-Italian cuisine from Vietnamese chefs. It’s a Japanese-Italian restaurant, but hardly Angelo Pietro, with its natto and bacon spaghetti for $8.50. Taormina is a dead-on, serious, white-tablecloth, expensive Italian restaurant—with some compelling cross-cultural ideas.

Let’s start here: It’s beautiful. Designed by local architect Peter Vincent, it looks like a Tokyo restaurant, small rooms on three levels, whites and beiges, unexpected textures from sandstone to suede, high-tech wine chillers built into the walls. Second, the menu’s unexpected. Taormina, the town for which the restaurant is named, is on the Sicilian seacoast. Japanese cuisine is all about seafood.

If you really want to taste what makes Taormina different, skip the red sauces, skip the dishes designed to satisfy the American palate, like lamb chops or chicken.

Instead, take a walk on the wet and wild side. For example, with the mixed antipasti tray, you can choose four items. The baby octopus and artichokes are a study in textures, just chewy enough, sauced with pesto. The marinated ama ebi, the only kind of shrimp you ever find served raw, are more a Japanese dish more than a Sicilian, beautifully presented with the whole head and the eyes staring at you.

There was carpione—little sardinelike fish from Japan. “I can’t remember what they’re called in Japan,” said my friend, “but you usually get them coated in panko and fried.” Carpione, in fact, refers not to the type of fish, but to the preparation, in which the small fish are cooked, marinated in an onion-vinegar-herb mix, and served cold. Delicious.

Finally, we had little heads of cauliflower sautéed with lots of garlic and capers.

With the appetizers, we were drinking a chardonnay—not the cliché that first comes to mind, but an Italian chardonnay, a Castello della Sala from Antinori, light, bright, without the overwhelming “chardonnay-ness” of its California cousins.

First, we ordered the uni (sea urchin) pasta, even though it comes only as a $34 double order. We asked for a single order, but, no way, the kitchen being intractable about its proper proportions. “We won’t finish it,” said my friend, “but we must have it. Only a Japanese restaurant ...”

Wrong. In Italy, this dish is called spaghetti ricci di mare, a riccio being a hedgehog and a riccio al mare being a “hedgehog of the sea,” in other words, a sea urchin. Or, to be more precise, sea urchin roe, which unexpectedly melts down into the creamiest of pasta sauces. The resulting dish has a deep marine undercurrent. If you didn’t know what it was, you would somehow know it was fish. Uni can give you a nasty iodine blast—this dish had it, but only faintly, in the background, adding interest. Did we also detect a slight burn at the back of the palate? Peperoncini?

The waiter didn’t know, said he’d ask the chef. But Japanese chefs never like to tell anyone anything. “He just stared at me when I asked,” said Dion, our waiter. But, for the record, the traditional Italian recipe does include a touch of peperoncini, as the Italians call chilies.

So rich was this dish, we finished only half the metal skilletfull, because we had two courses more coming.

The next was another compromise between Japan and Sicily, bucatini with fresh sardines, or, as the Italians would call it, pasta con le sarde. In this case, they are Japanese iwashi (also known as the “bold sardine”), but the recipe is classic—garlic, pine nuts, much of the oiliness of the sauce coming from the fish and not the olive oil. We devoured this, the wine fighting off the richness of the dish.

Bucatini, by the way, is a thick, spaghettilike pasta with a hole—a buco—down the center, like a straw. It’s annoying, because it’s too thick to twirl round your fork. But Italy has a five-centuries-old tradition of matching pastas to sauces. With this rich a sauce, perhaps thick pasta is necessary.

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