2009 Hale Aina Awards
Welcome to our 25th anniversary Hale Aina Awards, Hawaii’s oldest, most prestigious dining awards. In the following pages, you’ll meet this year’s winners, as voted by the subscribers of HONOLULU Magazine.
• Best Hotel Restaurant, Silver
• Best Romantic Restaurant, Silver
• Best Service, Silver
• Best Ambiance, Finalist
For $160 a person at La Mer, you want perfection. According to its general manager Stephen Oyadomari, that’s what you get. “The ambiance is wonderful, we have constant training for our servers to provide excellent service and the food is trendy and exotic,” says Oyadomari. Exotic indeed. Yves Garnier, the chef de cuisine for 13 years, recently started cooking with iberico bellota ham, an acorn-fed pig from Spain. Spain only began exporting it this April, and La Mer is the only restaurant in Hawaii to serve it.
“Chef Garnier’s dishes have become more and more experimental,” says Oyadomari, adding that the menu changes four times a year. “[They’re] not old school French dishes with heavy creams and sauces. He’s a neoclassical chef.”
• Best New Oahu Restaurant, Gold
“Tango is a place where you can come and eat once a week, not just a special-occasion place,” says Goran Streng, the chef and owner. He attributes good food, easy access and no-hassle parking—adjacent to the Ward P.F. Chang’s in the Hokua tower— to the success of his restaurant, which won the Best New Oahu Restaurant, Gold. Tango serves an almost 100 percent local clientele, says Streng. “We get many repeat customers and ladies who lunch.”
Location helps, but the real strength of Tango is Streng, who brings to the table Finnish culinary training and has worked at the Third Floor in the old Hawaiian Regent, Halekulani and the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani. Streng plans to expand beyond his regular dishes— such as grilled pesto-glazed salmon for lunch, or an 8-ounce plank steak with herb butter, cooked on a cedar plank, for dinner—to incorporate more fresh greens and fruit, and, for dinner, all new dishes with curry. He also hopes to start monthly wine dinners.
• Best Bistro/New American cuisine, Gold
• Little Restaurant You Love, Gold
• Best Oahu Restaurant, Silver
Living up to its name, the restaurant’s owner and executive chef Alan Takasaki says he’s working on new bistro-style dishes, such as Colorado lamb meatball spaghetti, Kobe beef ravioli and beef stew with red wine. “We want to add items that are a little more accessible…and something you come here a lot for,” says Takasaki, who opened Le Bistro seven years ago. Keeping in check with the tight economy, dishes will be friendlier on the wallet, too. “We’re in the same boat as everyone else, but we’re happy with the support of our customers.” That’s something that his customers, mostly East Oahu regulars, can get excited about.
Hamura’s Saimin Stand
• Best Kauai Restaurant, Silver
It all started in 1951, when Aiko and Charlie Hamura opened a saimin stand in a former Army barrack. The fourth-generation noodle shop is still going strong with the Hamuras’ great-grandchild, Nick Barcial, the current co-owner. Barcial has been working in the noodle shop for as long as he can remember. “It’s pretty much been the same all these years,” he says.
He must be doing something right, because the shop won several esteemed awards. But to the Hamura clan, pleasing long-time customers is most rewarding. “It used to be only locals [who ate here],” says Barcial. “But now we get a lot of tourists through word of mouth.”
The most popular dish? The special saimin, says Barcial, with vegetables, luncheon meat, roast pork and, of course, fresh noodles made in his great grandmother’s house before dawn. For Oahuans, it’s the wonton mein. “Most places on Oahu don’t make that,” he adds. Barcial also pumps out 40 to 50 lilikoi chiffon pies a day for dessert.
• Best New Neighbor Island Restaurant, Gold
Philip Wang, the executive chef of the new Merriman’s on Maui, always marvels at what the farmers deliver to the kitchen door. “Mother Nature is the artist,” he says. “I’m just the craftsman.” Wang, new to the Islands, appreciates the abundance of local ingredients. “I’m from Northern California, the ground zero for produce, and I’m surprised at the amount of local ingredients [we use],” he says rattling off a long list of Hawaii favorites such as tomatoes, citrus fruits, avocadoes, corn, baby turnips and fresh fish.
Recently refining the winter menu, Wang reveals that the restaurant wants to cure its own salami and sausages and hang them in the wine room. Wang and Peter Merriman also are looking into incorporating farm tours, similar to the popular farm-to-table tour and dinner done at the Big Island restaurant. “We are ingredient-driven, top to bottom,” he says.
Formaggio Wine Bar
• Best Wine Program, Gold
Those who think wine tasting is an esoteric experience should try Formaggio Wine Bar, where it’s about learning new things, enjoying good company and drinking great wine. “We make wine very approachable,” says Wes Zane, restaurateur and owner of the downtown and Kailua Formaggio. “We try to make it fun.” More than 50 wines are available, including 2-ounce tastes. However, the wine list constantly changes. “We have blackboard specials offering wines that [many customers] wouldn’t ordinarily be able to taste.”
Forty bottles of mostly reds are stored with a cruvinete wine preservation system, which replaces oxygen with nitrogen inside the bottles. Among them is the Australian Shiraz, one of the most popular wines right now, says Zane. For those who want to learn more, master sommelier Roberto Viernes offers a monthly class. Of course, wine without food would only be half the fun; Formaggio also serves pizzas and paninis, ranging in price from $9.95 to $14.95.
• Best Place to Take Visitors, Gold
• Best Bar, Bronze
Our subscribers seem to love taking out-of-town guests to Duke’s. And why not? It’s on the beach at Waikiki and devoted to Duke Kahanamoku—the father of modern surf—who even non-locals are bound to know. So, it’s fitting that Duke’s won Best Place to Take Visitors, gold, and a bronze for Best Bar.
“For many who come here it’s a sense of place,” says Keith Kong, the executive chef for seven years. “It’s in a wonderful location and a great presentation of Duke’s legacy.” Lately his diners have favored Duke’s healthier baked fish dishes, such as the new Szechwan baked salmon. Or try the Kona filet mignon brushed with a sweet chili soy glaze and sweet potato au gratin.
Alan Wong’s Restaurant
• Restaurant of the Year
• Best Service, Gold
• Best Place to Take Visitors, Finalist
• Best Dessert, Finalist
Almost as soon as Alan Wong won Restaurant of the Year for the 10th time in his 13 years of operation, he was off to Japan to help prepare the winter menu for his restaurant in Tokyo. Wong’s overseas experiences, in which he’s usually accompanied by one of his staff, result in what he calls “light-bulb moments.”
“I’m kind of a curious person and always try new things,” he says. “Being with another culture and eating with them inspires me.” Often what begins as a concept and palate memory materializes on his menu.
Wong says it’s his customers and especially his staff who keep him going. “I really appreciate and am really proud of their success stories,” he says. He notes that his restaurant is not an easy place to work, but even people new to the business have found their own ways to shine. “Wade Ueoka,” says Wong, “who’s been here 13 years, came in from Zippy’s. And Lance Kosaka, he used to be a construction worker. He’s now the executive chef of the Pineapple Room.” He also mentions Barbara Stange, the manager of the Pineapple Room, originally from Toledo, Ohio, and Michelle Karr, the pastry chef of the King Street restaurant, “Came here not knowing how to boil water,” he jokes. Wong adds that he’s still thinking of a way to celebrate this year’s win with his staff. “But we don’t do it to win an award. We do what we do to provide food, beverage and hospitality to our customers.”