3 We Tried: Who Has the Best Seafood Tower on O‘ahu?
Setting out to sea with only a glass of white wine as a compass, we try a variety of local seafood towers, those pinnacles of piscatorial extravagance. Since they’re often associated with certain amorous outcomes, we rate those, too. The result is three places where taste and romance are well served.
Photo: David Croxford
Every year we seek out the best food, shopping, services and more for our Best of Honolulu feature. Here are the top contenders for Best Seafood Tower—find out who won in July! Available on newsstands or purchase the issue at shop.honolulumagazine.com in July. Subscribe to the print and digital editions now.
Click the links below to jump ahead to the three we tried:
When a couple, nicely dressed, enter a good restaurant at noon or at sundown and say they’d like to order a seafood tower—plateau de fruits de mer in France, where it originated and became famous in brasseries like Lipp and La Coupole—everyone around them should know they have one thing on their mind. And it ain’t lobster, baby.
That’s why a seafood platter should be served with a flourish and seem full to the brim and spilling over. The idea and practice of overwhelming one’s dinner companion with a lavish display began after the first railway line from Paris reached Brest, Brittany, around 1862. Since night trains from Brest back to Paris had to return carrying something besides tinned sardines (invented in Brittany in 1820), the bounty of the rugged Atlantic coast arrived en masse at Gare Montparnasse, where the first seafood-forward cafés sprang up.
Suddenly urban Parisians had access to masses of truly fresh ocean seafood. The brasseries and larger cafés took to offering lavish sidewalk displays and the heaping plateau de fruit de mer was born.
The typical French seafood tower is brought to the table in a two- or three-tiered stand. The presentation resembles a bouquet thanks to the topmost layer of spiked claws and feelers of the statement crustacean, usually a lobster or a brown European crab the size of a dinner plate, called a tourteau. Underneath and around, intricately composed like a cornucopia, come artfully posed langoustines (a highly sought after species that looks like a gaunt lobster), gambas (medium Northeast Atlantic shrimp), smaller crevettes (gray and rose Northeast Atlantic sand shrimp), a couple of types of clams, dozens of little sea snails and cockles and periwinkles and, of course, oysters all languishing on their beds of ice.
I’ve had a seafood tower delivered to a rickety two-seat table the waiter set up on a cobblestoned quay next to a fishing boat, with disintegrating sardines, anchovies and fish bones mashed between the cobbles below our feet. A seagull attacked our fries. But the tower was extraordinary, like eating through the ocean, layer by delicious layer.
Given that Honolulu is 7,500 miles from Brittany, the question of our quest for a seafood tower turned on how much was lost, and gained, in translation. First, only top-end restaurants offer a true plateau here. The prices raise expectations for presentation, quality, variety of seafood and, ideally, a view.
We told each restaurant we were only there for the plateau de fruit de mer, ordered the lowest-priced seafood tower, typically referred as “for two.” (Date night!) Composition means a lot. There is no tourteau in the Pacific, a crab which can take 40 minutes to work through, nibble by nibble. King crab makes a good substitute if there’s enough of it and it’s fresh. Lobster is fiendishly expensive in France, not so here; its presence is a treat, specifically if it’s local and first-rate. It’s too bad ‘opihi are overfished and endangered here, because they are a natural replacement for tasty bigorneaux and other marine snails that you eat with a pin.
We make no rating here, pick no winner (until our July Best of Honolulu hits the newsstands).
Located on the mauka side of the International Market Place Grand Lānai, this third-floor Michael Mina restaurant faces a landscaped courtyard, a breezeway and a nice slice of sky. We arrived with a reservation at 6:45 p.m. and had our pick of tables. The staff was cheerful and uniformly cheery and efficient. “Great!” was the response when we said we might only stay for a plateau and a glass of wine. We ordered $8.50 glasses of Muscadet, one of two wines from the region that are considered de rigueur for shellfish (any wine that is crisp, dry and with a mineral finish will do, although you should do as you like, of course).
Calm, peaceful and filled with ambient light from an off-stage sunset, we were happy to wait for our $79 small tower, which promised Kona lobster, cracked King crab, oysters and shrimp along with sashimi and sushi. We also ordered a side of spinach and kale, a variation on the steakhouse classic.
In the shifting shadows of early evening, the arrival of the shining tower didn’t go unnoticed by other diners. The waiter knew how to make sure it was seen without any showy moves. My partner and I grinned at each other as the waiter, a local guy who was on his game, recited the ingredients. Not-so-innocent questions about provenance were answered with alacrity.
First, and a big point in Stripsteak’s favor, was the unveiling of items not specifically detailed on the menu. The point of a tower is an array of local tastes, strewn about with an air of not keeping score. We were happily surprised by the top shelf’s spicy two-piece ‘ahi roll, hamachi sashimi and king salmon and bigeye sushi. One the bottom rack were stellar British Columbia oysters, Kona lobster, cracked crab and a bowl of lobster claw poke. The latter was an impish chefly flourish typical of Michael Mina’s operations. (Mina visits Hawai‘i and likes to go fishing for ‘ahi that he then plates at his restaurants.) The one unhappy surprise was a quartet of pedestrian nonlocal shrimp.
As we commenced to pick our way through the high-rise spread, the waiter brought a free flight of excellent crispy fries with three dipping sauces. You really can’t do seafood without fries and with our order of garlicky sautéed spinach and kale, we were in finger-lickin’ heaven.
It suddenly looked like a lot of food. We set to work. Time passed. It was dreamlike in the torch-lit evening light. “I really like this place,” said my dining partner. “It doesn’t feel like Waikīkī.”
2330 Kalākaua Ave., Suite 330, (808) 800-3094, michaelmina.net
Mina’s Fish House at the Four Seasons Ko Olina also offers a seafood tower, where the gorgeous view is of a lagoon and the ocean
92-1001 Olani St, Kapolei, (808) 679-0079, fourseasons.com
The lovely Herringbone is located a little farther mauka from Stripsteak in an open-roof soaring space that extends from a stadium kitchen. A smaller, darker and cooler indoor dining space with a plesiosaurlike skeleton hanging over the bar leads to a field of outdoor tables whose view is of a hanging wall of Babylon of sorts—a dozen or so planter boxes of yellow pine overflow with greenery as they hover on wires from an open grid of I-beams. The effect is theatrical and exhilarating, when not overcrowded.
It’s fun eating at Herringbone. It feels like a scene, a rave in an unfinished skyscraper, decorated by a team from Restoration Hardware and a couple of Hale‘iwa surfer horticulturalists.
They take seafood seriously here. A bountiful seafood-on-ice display was given pride of place on a couple of visits. The staff is briefed daily on the oysters, which are sourced from near and far; when I’ve had them, I’ve thought they were as fresh, briny and full of taste as any I’ve had.
The carte for the seafood tower—called the Skiff—wasn’t much different from the one for Stripsteak up the lānai: For your $85 you got a quarter-pound Alaska king crab, a half lobster, four oysters and two “jumbo” shrimp.
To warm the tongue between chilled fish, we ordered a favorite side, the Brussels sprouts charred with macadamia nuts and Thai chili sauce.
There’s no question Herringbone delivers fresh, frequently amazing shellfish—that’s its boast, part of what made voters choose it HONOLULU’s Best New Restaurant in the 35th Hale ‘Aina Awards. The crab claws were thicker, the flesh succulent. The lobster was equally solid, a generously sized tail not overcooked or held on ice so long it had dehydrated.
But, we missed the flourishes. The tower comes out with a smile and some style but it feels more like a seafood appetizer on two trays, one of which happens to be hovering above the other. There are no surprise extras, except for cute teeny bottles of Tabasco sauce; other than Kona lobster, nothing says specifically local in choices. And, they serve jumbo shrimp.
Choose a lightly attended hour, though, and maybe go early for the best selection of oysters, too, and Herringbone will likely come through for you.
2330 Kalākaua Ave., Suite 316, (808) 797-2435, herringboneeats.com
53 By the Sea
Just past several industrial-desolate blocks, 53 by the Sea is hidden out on the tip of the point of Kewalo Basin boat harbor. Even if its parking lot does share a drive with the public access lot of Kaka‘ako Beach Park, this is good—if you’re looking for fresh fish, it’s got that slightly raffish, Pier 38, Fisherman’s Wharf vibe.
To many, apparently, 53 by the Sea has a stronger vibe as a Japanese tourist wedding must-IG. It’s also the chosen spot of one of the city’s power brokers. Upon entering through the double doors, we were presented with a grand staircase, like something out of an Italian doge’s palace. Fashionable people stalked back and forth in stiletto heels. But, 10 steps into the dining room and my companion was ready to grab her short board and paddle across the channel to some firing Kewalo’s lefts.
53 by the Sea has the best ocean view in Honolulu, period. You sit at a vantage point that’s slightly out to sea as the coast curves inward down Waikīkī headed toward Diamond Head. White breakers line the outer reefs, clouds break on the mountains. At sunset you get quite a light show as a reddish-gold afterglow merges with Honolulu city lights twinkling on.
After a slight delay in getting our hostess’ attention—there’s a bridal photo shoot going on, you know!—we were delivered to the table my companion selected. We explained we wouldn’t be staying for dinner. Smiles all around. We ordered glasses of a Henri Sancerre ($13) and a 2016 Selbach Oster Riesling ($10), the $72 seafood tower and some umami fries ($8). Then we sat back and enjoyed the view and the room, which was quiet despite a full complement of families (most it seemed for end of school year or college graduation celebrations).
A basket of good sourdough rolls appeared along with our glasses of wine. We kept up a desultory conversation as we watched Diamond Head light up and then a commotion caused us to turn. A waiter approached carrying a two-tier tower rippling with dark ogo and smoking like a seamount erupting off Kīlauea. The entire room was watching.
“Kona abalone, Kona lobster, Kaua‘i shrimp, Kualoa oysters; sashimi of ‘ahi, Kona kampachi and tako,” deep breath, “with finger lime mignonette, liliko‘i cocktail sauce and kizami wasabi soy.”
We started, as we did with every tower, by tasting the oysters. Kualoa’s plump-bellied charges even taste local, with a hint of ‘āina and kelp. The grilled abalone was sliced for sharing and barely seasoned, which is how you want it. The lobster was Kona, but, the waiter explained, conscientiously, from a Maine lobster larvae grown, like the abalone, in the Kona deep-water facility.
It had a dense solid bite and if a little chilly, warmed perfectly when alternated with the Parmesan-truffle oil umami fries. The heads-on Kaua‘i shrimp cheered us after so many imports; the loud suck on the head brought back memories of utter shellfish devastation at the picnic tables of our North Shore youth. The ‘ahi, sashimi and tako all took their mignonette baths like good children before bed, never dreaming of what lay in store for them.
Again, time passed in a shellfish fugue state. We lingered gazing out at those Honolulu city lights, watching the waves form and break, form and break.
53 Ahui St., (808) 536-5353, 53bythesea.com