Dining: Looking for the Magic

Can any of these four new restaurants pull a rabbit out of the hat?


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I love new restaurants. Someone is always trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat, that is, put together an eatery where something—the food, the atmosphere, the service, or some combination of all three—makes the experience magical. Having tried what must be hundreds of new restaurants by now, I know full well that in most cases the magician will reach in the hat—and nothing. But I remain hopeful.
 

Aria Restaurant and Lounge
Century Center third floor, 1750 Kalakaua Ave.  // 955-9300  // Dinner Thursday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., lounge menu until 12:30 a.m.  // Validated parking, major credit cards // ariahonolulu.com

I knew dinner at Aria wasn’t going to go well when the first thing the waiter announced was that the restaurant—at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night—was out of seven menu items.

Oh dear. I was hopeful about Aria, because the restaurant had inherited much wealth. It not only had gotten the location and most of the beautiful Old School interior from the late, lamented Bistro at Century Center—fireplace, serpentine marble bar, wood and leather booths. But it also acquired chef Nick Sayada, who presided over the kitchen at Black Orchid, Duc’s Bistro, Maharaja, Cascada and Tulips before becoming a personal chef to Carolyn Berry.

His tendency to kitchen-hop aside, Sayada is an accomplished chef. His signature items tend to stay on the menu even after he leaves, dishes like his Portobello Wellington, his amazing gnocchi, his eggplant and zucchini soufflé, or his black and blue ‘ahi, the last of which migrated from the Black Orchid to the menus of all the Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses in the country.

Many of these are on Aria’s menu. We just couldn’t have any, except for the black and blue ‘ahi. It was as I remembered it, a little too hot with its coating of spices, but perfectly seared around the edge, each little slice of ‘ahi soft and brilliantly red in the center. The plate had the familiar crosshatching of hot mustard sauce and shoyu-touched vinaigrette, but the Aria version had an inexplicable side mound of bean sprouts and shredded red cabbage, which diminished the magic of the presentation considerably.

There were three of us at dinner, and we also shared a soupy pappardelle with what were billed as “wild” mushrooms, well, fresh shiitakes anyway, dotted with a few bits of asparagus and cherry tomato. The results were reasonably tasty.

The last of the appetizers sounded dull—someone else ordered it, because I am fatigued by standard greens-fruit-cheese-nut salads. However, this one turned out to be the best of the lot—a mound of arugula in a pleasant balsamic vinaigrette, nicely caramelized slices of pear, dots of mild goat cheese and walnuts.

Nobody was trying for magic on the entrée plates: a protein, a swirl of whipped potatoes, a vegetable—my mom’s idea of dinner. With the small rack of three New Zealand chops (a bit lamb-y for many tastes, though I liked it), there were characteristic Sayada touches—a round of ratatouille, a slightly acid undersauce flavored, though not distinctly, with olive tapenade.

Of the entrées, the star was the onaga, a sizeable fillet atop asparagus spears and Parmesan whipped potatoes, topped with a scatter of arugula. There were not one, but two undersauces—one a vinaigrette, the other roasted red bell peppers, both of which worked with the fish.

For a restaurant with a 16-bottle Cruvinet, the wine by the glass list proved unexciting. With the fish, the waiter suggested the Rusack sauvignon blanc, a pleasant enough white from Santa Ynez Valley. It retails for about $17 a bottle. It was $12 a glass.

If the fish was the most exciting of the entrées, the most disappointing was the $42.95 ribeye steak. Ordered medium rare, it arrived medium well, slathered in hotel butter, but still somehow dry and dense—a texture I could duplicate by not freezing a steak carefully and then thawing it too fast. My friend, a serious meat eater, finished half and declined to take the rest home.

Given the splendor of the surroundings, this was at best a yawn of a culinary experience. We soldiered on to dessert. The molten chocolate cake did not melt very well, but my friend, perhaps hungry from skipping half her steak, did it justice. I’d ordered another Sayada classic, his pear melba, which I remembered from Cascada, though this time the pear seemed less spoonable and the raspberry sauce lacked zing. If only Sayada was still doing his white chocolate cheesecake with caramelized apples.

Dinner for three, with a little wine, cocktails and tip, $265, no magic included.

 

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