Looking for the Magic in Four New Honolulu Restaurants
Can any of these four new restaurants pull a rabbit out of the hat?
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If Twist is a step up from the Hanohano Room, then Azure is a giant leap forward from the Royal Hawaiian’s old Surf Room.
It’s enclosed, for one thing, high-ceilinged and beautiful for another, simple black and white, mainly white, billowy draperies, flickering candles and Middle Eastern-style lanterns—which makes sense since the Pink Palace was originally designed to look like a Moorish castle.
The only negative: Even if you sit along the oceanside glass wall, you cannot, as in the old restaurant, see the ocean, because between you and the beach are luxury cabanas that hotel guests can rent for $500 a day.
I was hopeful about the food, since the Royal hired Jon Matsubara, who cooked at a host of Manhattan eateries before taking over the kitchen at Stage. He lasted less than a year at Stage, but while he was there, his food was astonishing, sometimes literally, and I knew that the young chef must still have a few magic tricks up his sleeve.
There are 10—count them—small plates on the menu at Azure, so with a glass of Champagne in hand, that seemed the place to start. First out was Matsubara’s sashimi, a preparation held over from Stage, alternate layers of yellowfin tuna and kāhala shaped over a mound of avocado, which adds softness to the texture and richness to the fish flavors. This striped critter swims in a bowl of a ginger vinaigrette, accompanied by a few slices of watermelon radish.
Yes, there is such a thing as a watermelon radish, which looks like a (small) watermelon slice, green rind and all, and tastes like a daikon. It’s good-looking for a root vegetable, though I’m not sure God intended it to accompany sashimi.
The coriander prawns reminded me of the kampachi appetizer at Twist. Prawns in coriander and lime chili sauce can stand up to overkill better than kampachi, but there was still Too! Much! Going! On! A pile of purple basil leaves, cilantro, chiffonaded basil, sage, plus watermelon balls (real watermelon this time). The whole thing sprinkled with popcorn tossed in a hot pepper-spice mix. Sound, color and fury, but no magic.
The carpaccio was the opposite, a near classic recipe. The menu said the Kobe beef was “torched”—and, of course, you knew Matsubara literally had a torch in the kitchen to sear the edges. The nearly raw slices were topped with arugula, thin slices of green apple and generous shavings of Manchego, Spain’s answer to Parmesan. The only real departure? Instead of a mustard aioli this was dressed with a wasabi aioli, but it’s Kobe beef and Matsubara apparently wanted it to feel at home.
But magic? asked my friend. Ah, here came the magic. The bowl of baby back ribs came to the table under a glass bell. When the server lifted the bell, it released a swirl of kiawe smoke. Matsubara has a little smoke gun in the kitchen that shoots kiawe smoke under the bell at the last minute—after dinner, I made him show it to me. “We all need our toys,” he said.
If you are going to make ribs appear in a puff of smoke, they’d better be good ribs. These were so tender the meat—marinated, grilled, chilled, roasted—seemed to leap off the bone into your mouth, where it lit up all your taste buds simultaneously.
The ribs were served atop a kind of succotash of black beans, edamame and corn. I have no idea what the magic was here, but it got me to eat succotash, something I promised myself at age 8 I would never do again.
The last of the Azure small plates was at once the most elaborate and the simplest. It’s called Pier 38, which is the address of the Honolulu Fish Auction. It comes with its own menu, a mock Fish Auction invoice, in which the day’s offerings are checked off by hand and the prices written in.
It’s also simplest because among the kitchen’s other toys is a high-temperature ceramic oven—so that our onaga arrived golden crispy on the skin side, soft and moist in the middle, unadorned except for a puddle of olive oil, one clove of roasted garlic and sprig of thyme. Of course, that couldn’t be all, so the server whipped out a little perfume-like sprayer from her pocket and gave it a spritz of Meyer lemon mist.
Good as it was, for $28 all you got was a small piece of fish. Azure sells sides like a steak house. In a burst of enthusiasm, we ordered three. One, amazing spinach braised in sake and sprinkled with garlic chips. Two, roasted Waialua asparagus, plain, simple, with a side dish of smoked citrus aioli. (Don’t ask me how you smoke either a citrus fruit or an aioli). Finally, best of all, a buttery mélange of Kahuku corn and Hāmākua mushrooms that was more serious eating than a side dish deserves to be.
You may note that we never got around to ordering an entrée. Thinking that you might be disappointed in us, the two of us made up for it by ordering three desserts.
We said we needed a short rest before dessert, so the waitress brought a little intermezzo—an hibiscus lime sorbet that exploded in your mouth. That’s not a metaphor. Matsubara had sprinkled the top with sake gelee and strawberry Pop Rocks, the retro candy that does in fact explode as it dissolves in your mouth. “Somebody had to drive all over town to find some,” said the waitress, giggling.
The desserts themselves were long on flavor, short on tricks.
Silky chocolate wrapped round peanut butter cream, sort of an upscale Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, drizzled with kiawe honey. The accompanying vanilla ice cream was surrounded by raspberry purée, the real stuff, not the raspberry syrup out of a squirt bottle.
Great, you think. Ah, wait until you see the banana split, a giant gooey mound of overindulgence: caramelized apple bananas, mac-nut ice cream, the whole thing surrounded not by whipped cream, but by whipped coconut cream, all drenched in a caramel sauce made with Myers’s rum, with, of course, several cherries on top, real cherries, not maraschino.
Remarkably, we had to conclude our favorite dessert was the quietest—mangoes from Hāna, with mascarpone cheese, wrapped in phyllo and cooked like spring rolls. Not too sweet, not too heavy, all flavor.
Dinner was $260 with tip. But Azure’s the sort of place that makes you wish you weren’t so full after dinner, so you could ask for a menu and start over again. That’s magic.
Royal Hawaiian Hotel, 2259 Kalakaua Ave. (808) 923-7311, Dinner nightly 6 to 10 p.m. (last seating 9:45 p.m.), free valet parking, major credit cards, royal-hawaiian.com
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.