2007 Hale Aina Awards

You ate, you voted—now aren’t you curious which restaurants won the 23rd Annual Hale ‘Aina Awards?

I am a restaurant gossip-hound, and as such, I want to know about every new nook and cranny in our Island food scene. Which gem offers spicy and affordable Malaysian? Who is shaking things up with innovative pupu? Anybody want to go try that swank, fusion bar? That’s why it’s always a pleasure to write about the winners of HONOLULU Magazine’s Hale ‘Aina Awards. We’ve been doing this reader-selected award since 1984, and here’s how: Each year, subscribers fill out a ballot that is included in our August Restaurant Guide. An independent research firm counts the ballots, and then HONOLULU helps the winners celebrate at an awards ceremony.

This year, the heat was really on, because we changed the way the awards were given. In the past, we had multiple winners, and frankly, it was getting a little confusing. So we went Olympic—it’s just gold, silver and bronze in each category. Hearty congratulations to all the winners, and to see the complete list, see here.

While we’d love to profile each chef and restaurant, due to space constraints we chose to highlight just a few. But for more on award-winning restaurants Little Village Noodle House (Best Chinese Restaurant, Gold), Mekong (Best Thai Restaurant, Silver), Olive Tree CafŽ (Little Restaurant You Love, Bronze) and Town (Best Bistro/New American Cuisine, Gold), see our Hale ‘Aina Cookbook.

Alan Wong’s Restaurant
Restaurant of the Year, Gold
Best Service, Gold
Best Wine Program, Bronze
Best Place to Take Visitors When They’re Paying, Gold

This was the eighth year his namesake Alan Wong’s Restaurant took home the gold Hale ‘Aina Award for Restaurant of the Year, but he’s quick to share the honors with his team. “I hope you’ll give credit to the staff, who work here every day. It’s not an easy time to be running a restaurant. Things are changing in the business, and they have risen to the challenge. I thank them for their commitment and for making it happen on a daily basis.”

Wong opened his restaurant in 1995, and likens running it to being in a relationship. “The honeymoon is great, but it ends. Then you go into your maintenance phase. You have to reinvent the relationship, reinvent yourself, and be open-minded, try different things.” For example, he’s getting away from sauces with longer cooking times, and instead trying quicker, lighter accompaniments—such as vegetable purŽes or salsas—for meat or fish. “A lot of young chefs tend to overdo their sauces and make them overly sweet,” he notes. “They don’t let the main star of the plate be the main star on the plate. Instead of fusion, they can create confusion.”

Alan Wong’s Restaurant also scored Best Place to Take Visitors When They’re Paying, gold, and Best Wine Program, bronze. Of the latter, Wong says, “I had asked the staff to add a more global flavor to the wine menu. Not just Europe and the U.S. I wanted it to become more versatile, take a few chances.” Of his Best Service win, he believes, “That’s the reason for all the madness. Hospitality is how you make someone feel, how you affect people, versus being mechanical. It’s caring and anticipating what the guest wants.”

Chef Mavro
Best O‘ahu Restaurant, Gold

Chef Mavro, right, with Kevin Chong, chef de cuisine, at the morning fish market. Their collaboration helped win Best O‘ahu Restaurant, Gold. photo: Sergio Goes

At chef mavro, you start with bread with a perfect crust, then an amuse bouche that makes you laugh out loud with delight. Throughout the meal, unexpected flavors and textures—a salty-sweet candied olive, a lime-froth-topped fish—tango around in your mouth. You get the sense the chef isn’t trying to satiate your hunger as much as your senses. But it’s hard to tell who is more passionate—chef/proprietor George “Chef Mavro” Mavrothalassitis, or his fans. (“He may have to get a restraining order,” gushed one besotted diner.) Professional foodies are equally enamored; he’s a winner of the James Beard Award, and his restaurant, on South King Street, is listed in this year’s Fodor’s as one of the top 10 in the world.

In the past six months, Chef Mavro has moved away from serving ˆ la carte meals. You can still order ˆ la carte, but the focus is on the three-, four-, six- and 11-course menus. Sounds like a lot, true, but portions are small. “I don’t put a lot of starch, such as potato or polenta, on the plate. I don’t try to fill you up—this is not what we are doing,” explains Mavro. “I only want to give you the part of the food that I want you to eat, the very best.” With the onaga, for example, it’s only the center cut.

For his winter menu, Mavro says he’s “moving toward simplicity. Getting the maximum from something simple.” Asparagus, for example, might be so-so, until it is enhanced properly. “Then you have 10 times the flavor! It becomes King of the Plate. The more I go on, the more I realize that it’s not the recipe, it’s the savoir-faire. It’s finding the perfect way to do something.”

Dining with Chef Mavro: “Have the wine! Without the wine, you cut half the experience. We work very hard to pair our food to the wine.”

Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Best New O‘ahu Restaurant, Gold

Romano’s Macaroni Grill has obviously hit on a crowd-pleasing formula, as the Ala Moana Center location is but one of 225 siblings in the chain. This branch, which opened in November 2005, has 330 seats and still manages to stay busy. How does it draw such crowds? General manager Darren Yasui has several theories.

Boursin fillet, one of the yummy meals you can sample at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. photo: courtesy of Romano’s Macaroni Grill

First, he says, “People work hard for their money here and want to feel like it’s been well spent. They feel the value is here for them.” And, the restaurant embraces families—take the kid-friendly crayon/paper-tablecloth combo, or the strolling singers and chocolate birthday cake, for example. They’ll even bring your kid some pizza dough to mold—into a zebra? a monkey? —then will kindly bake it for him or her to take home. Parents might actually steal a moment to sip their chianti.

The most popular items ordered, says Yasui, are the mushroom ravioli and the rosemary-infused Italian peasant bread appetizers. “I swear, people come back just for those.” Top entrŽe is the Penne Rustica, with shrimp, grilled chicken and smoked prosciutto.

After all, pizza-dough shapes would only get you so far. “The kitchen has to be the heart of the restaurant,” says Yasui. “The food has to speak for itself.”

Want to avoid standing in line at Romano’s? They accept reservations for parties of six or more, but if your group is smaller, try coming to dinner between 5 and 6 p.m., or after 8 p.m.

E&O Trading Company
Best New Maui Restaurant, Gold

The cuisine and dŽcor at E&O Trading Company helped it score Best New Restaurant, Maui. photo: Nina Lee

The second Hawai‘i location of E&O Trading Company opened in Lahaina in July and almost immediately, the restaurant became a popular excuse to dress up and go out. The 32-person bar and large lounge make it a social draw, while the Southeast Asian-inspired dishes, served as either family-style larger entrŽes, or as smaller, tapas-style plates, tend to encourage lively rounds of sharing. Live music on Thursdays and a fun cocktail menu of “elixirs” round out the scene.

“We marketed ourselves to locals first. We have a different sense of place than some of the other West Maui restaurants,” notes general manager Robert Comstock. Like the other E&O branches—California’s Larkspur, San Jose and San Francisco, and in Honolulu—the dŽcor follows a storyline of sorts. The Maui outpost is envisioned as a Balinese plantation. Think clove and cinna-mon trading, with decorations coming from Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bali—there are even tables with mosquito nets, if you’re feeling adventurous.

According to Comstock, the most popular dishes are the Indonesian corn fritters, the mango-glazed ribs and the deconstructed pad Thai. The menu has something for everyone, notes Comstock. “It’s like a hit list of Southeast Asian dishes.”

kama‘-aina tuesdays: Swing by the restaurant on Tuesdays, when E&O Trading Company offers a kama‘-aina rate. Everything on the menu is 10 percent off.

Restaurant critics have called E&O Trading Company the “Trader Vic’s” of this era, due to its stylized interior and tasty cuisine. photo: Nina Lee

Best New Big Island Restaurant, Gold

Chocolate-covered ribs? Yes, if you’re the chef of Fujimamas and entering the Kona Chocolate Festival. This kind of creativity, coupled with a hip ambiance, helped propel the restaurant to a Hale ‘Aina Award.

“We have been told that people feel very cosmopolitan in our restaurant, like they are in a city, with not just the Island feel,” says manager Kim Quelch. “It’s different from what else is offered in Kona.”

Fujimamas blends Eastern and Western ingredients and techniques for its food, such as this fried rice. photo: courtesy of Fujimamas

The restaurant, which opened in September 2005, is an offshoot of Tokyo-based Fujimamas and, thus has a healthy exchange of ideas and staff. Executive chef Scott Kihara is from Tokyo, for example, while co-owner Mark Vann hails from Texas.

Fujimamas is supported by its own organic produce farm, Fujifarm, in Waimea. “We have herbs, arugula, basil, lemon basil, chocolate mint (used for chocolate-mint martinis), bok choy, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers. If it’s in season, we have it,” explains Quelch.

There’s a sushi bar and Japanese food, but you’ll also find home-style meals such as steak with mashed potatoes or pork chops. Quelch particularly recommends the Thai Caesar Salad, which has a dressing made with yellow curry paste, lemongrass and kefir lime leaves. For seating, she recommends a tatami room for a group, or anyone looking for more privacy.

“If you’re into sushi, I’d say sit at the sushi bar and talk to the sushi chefs. There’s a fantastic saltwater fish tank behind the bar, and the chefs are so interesting. They have been all over the world.”

take two: The people behind Fujimamas have just opened another restaurant, Huli Sue’s, in Waimea. It’s a barbecue, chicken and rib place, designed for takeout or to be enjoyed over a picnic table.

Mediterranean Gourmet
Best New Kaua‘i Restaurant, Gold

“It’s an adventure getting here,” says Yarrow Beydoun, one of the owners of Mediterranean Gourmet on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. “You cross seven one-lane bridges.”

Beydoun knows the area well—she grew up a quarter of a mile from her new restaurant. Her mother is the general manager of the Hanalei Colony Resort in Ha‘ena, and the two businesses now share a parking lot. The restaurant’s flavorful Mediterra-nean food, relaxed setting and oceanfront tables all helped make it a Hale ‘Aina Award-winner.

Mediterranean Gourmet serves lunch and dinner, and also offers afternoon cocktails and pupu. photo: David Boynton

Mediterranean Gourmet, which opened in May 2006, is the offspring of Beydoun and her husband, Imad. Imad serves as executive chef. His dishes include Australian free-range lamb, marinated in rosemary and olive oil, then drizzled with a balsamic orange reduction; fire-roasted artichokes; crab cakes; and plenty of vegetarian options, such as dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), falafel and tabouli.

“We’ve always dreamed of owning a restaurant; this is our first one,” says Beydoun. “It’s hard to get to perfection, but we’re hoping to aim for that and at least become exceptional.”

SURF’S UP: Come in the early evening, when you can still see the ocean (only 40 feet away) and the 10- to 30-foot winter swells.

12th Ave. Grill
Best Bistro/New American Cuisine, Silver

12th Ave. Grill turned up the heat in the Best Bistro/New American Cuisine category. photo: Sergio Goes

A classic neighborhood brasserie, 12th Ave. Grill has practically been annexed into the homes of Kaimuki. Loyal regulars come for the smooth service, cozy ambiance and, above all, the food. You could liken the cuisine to a cashmere sweater—warm, comforting, but tailored and well-considered. Pan-seared king salmon with a molasses glaze. Pork chops with potato pancake and apple chutney. And the No. 1 seller, baked macaroni and cheese.

“It’s contemporary American cooking,” says chef/owner Kevin Hanney. “We’re a little more California style. Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine is so prevalent here, and rightly so, but we’re a little more straightforward, simple and rustic.”

Hanney has steered 12th Ave. Grill to a higher level of wine program. “We now have almost 50 wines on the list. Jason [Heller, the restaurant’s sommelier] has found some really great deals on things I wouldn’t have found, and we can pass those reasonable prices on to the diner.” You can find just about every varietal at the $20- to $30-bottle level.

This past May, Hanney hired Samantha Choy as pastry chef, and Kevin Dee as chef. Of Dee, Hanney notes, “Our styles were pretty similar—we both like to keep it simple, we like hearty foods.” Dee has since been promoted to executive chef, which will open up Hanney’s time to search out new sources of intriguing, fresh ingredients. Hanney seems ready to have a bit more time to breathe. “Now I can finally come in here for dinner!”

BEER LOVERS: In addition to its wine program, 12th Ave. Grill has about nine kinds of beer available, including West Coast microbrews and a couple of Kona selections.

The Hale ‘Aina Awards Gala

Honolulu’s foodie population joined heavyweights from restaurants across the state this past November for HONOLULU Magazine’s 2007 Hale ‘Aina Awards to honor the best in culinary creations and feast on fare from six restaurants, including D.K. Kodama’s Sansei and The Bistro in Century Center. This was the first time in the award’s 23-year history that the honors were announced prior to our January issue, leading to much anticipation. Eighty-three Hale ‘Aina awards were given out in 28 categories, such as Best Wine Program, Best Service and Best Place to Take Visitors When They’re Paying. Chef Alan Wong took home a gold award in all three categories, as well as the coveted Restaurant of the Year award, his third consecutive win in this category.

Wong’s King Street restaurant has earned a following since opening 12 years ago.

Chef Yves Garnier was another big winner of the night, taking home five awards for La Mer, including a gold Hale ‘Aina for Best French Restaurant. “There are two types of food,” he said, “Good food and bad food. To make good food, you need passion.”

Subscribers share in the passion; they are the ones who voted. Check out this summer’s issues of HONOLULU Magazine for the next opportunity to cast your vote. And watch www.honolulumagazine.com for a chance to buy tickets to next year’s Hale ‘Aina Awards, in November 2007. —Lori Anne Tomonari

photo: Rae Huo