Arancino at The Kahala and The Signature
Fine dining is back in Honolulu. For the past few years, it’s been about pop-ups and picnic tables; now, is the dining pendulum swinging back toward formal dining rooms and white tablecloths?
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Everyone likes the wrong dessert at Arancino. The crowd favorite is the pineapple mousse and citrus sorbet. It is fresh and tropical, exactly how you would hope a dessert in Hawaii would taste. Placed alongside the monte bianco, a dome frosted with chestnut puree, hiding celery custard, it’s easy to understand why people opt for the safe bet. But they’re missing out. A sweet-tart yuzu honey sauce, the creamy chestnut puree and a, yes, slightly savory hit of celery come together in intriguing fashion. Those who don’t think celery belongs with sweet have forgotten the pleasure of ants on a log (celery+peanut butter+raisins) or have never tasted transcendence in a fig and celery sorbetto dessert (this, at New York’s Del Posto).
The dessert is surprising in its unexpected creativity and taste. But then, the entire package of Arancino at The Kahala is completely unexpected. Most know of Arancino through its Waikiki locations, on Beachwalk and at the Marriott. They are comforting places, known for kamaaina lunches of salad and pasta for $10, but not places you would have expected to carry a Kahala resort location with $85 and $100 tasting menus.
Arancino, however, has transformed itself as completely and gracefully as My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle, down to the dress code, white-glove service, a wine list selected by a World’s Best Sommelier and the daintiest bread service in town, all while retaining a sense of playfulness. Bagna cauda (an appetizer on the other Arancino menus) is served with the veggies planted in a pot of mushroom “soil;” an abalone and amaebi appetizer resembles an idealized underwater seascape, a frame lifted from Finding Nemo. A rosy slice of duck is set up in a diorama of New England’s fall. The other Arancino locations wave Italian flags; here, its only appearance is in the carpaccio di pesce composed of green sea asparagus and tiles of red ahi and white kampachi.
So Arancino at The Kahala serves some of the most beautifully plated courses in Honolulu. Anyone who has Googled Arancino at The Kahala already knows that. But how does it taste? In most cases, as good as it looks.
The plating (and desserts) turn out to be the most experimental things about Arancino, which means the flavors are comforting; familiar dishes are idealized versions of themselves, such as arancini, deep-fried risotto balls, here stuffed with foie gras. This is especially the case with the pastas.
Most are already on the other Arancino menus, but at The Kahala, uni is tossed into creamy submission with housemade taglioni instead of spaghetti, wide swaths of fresh pasta cradle a Bolognese sauce. At other Arancino locations, you might get squid ink pasta from a package, but here, the cooks lovingly press the pasta dough over a chitarra, a pasta-making instrument strung like a guitar. It arrives with lightly charred squid, lobster and scallops.
Most go nuts over the Okinawan sweet potato gnocchi, with tissue-thin sheets of prosciutto tucked in between the purple nuggets. Normally this variety of sweet potato is dry and dense; here, they’re transformed into fluffy dumplings, the way you’ve always wanted purple sweet potato mash to be, but could never achieve. (Though the lightness has varied on multiple visits, it has yet to devolve into leaden lumps.)
Sometimes, though, beauty can get in the way of perfection. Tiny sage leaves on the gnocchi are fetching in their soft green-gray, but probably would be better fried in the brown butter to soften sage’s distinct loudness; the amaebi and abalone seascape is lovely, but the ingredients—dill flower, romanesco, nasturtium leaves, among them—seem to have been picked for beauty, not harmony.
The five-course prix fixe forces you to choose an insalata, antipasto, primo (pasta), secondo and dolce (for four courses, drop the antipasto); the weakest links are the secondi, meat entrees of duck, lamb, short rib, beef or pork. The beef may be infused with lavender, and the pork and lamb emerge beneath little glass domes of smoke, but for all the theatrics, the ultimate result is a perfectly manicured slice of tender meat next to artful dabs of sauce and little piles of salt and pepper, a dish presented in parts instead of a complete whole.
But maybe it’s all to prepare you for the dessert fireworks: the aforementioned monte bianco, creamy, sweet and savory and tart, with shards of crunchy meringue; the crowd-pleasing pineapple mousse; adventurous tomato sorbet on a panna cotta with a sweet gelée of tomato water; a visually striking deconstructed tiramisu (though you’ll spend your time putting all the pieces back together).
Arancino at The Kahala is simultaneously one of the most comfortable and rarefied dining experiences in Honolulu, a place where the flavors are familiar but the plating is novel, where the service is en pointe, but the Italian-garden open-air setting exudes relaxation. If this is fine dining’s comeback, then welcome back.
Arancino at The Kahala, 5000 Kahala Ave., 380-4400, kahalaresort.com/honolulu_restaurants/arancino_at_the_kahala