All Treats—and a Few Tricks
Just reading this column may make you gain a few pounds. This month, it’s sweets and more sweets.
I have a confession. When I’m not working—and sometimes when I am—I skip dessert.
It’s not restraint. It’s greed. Confronted with an appetizer menu at the top of the meal, I want all the small plates. They crowd the table, and, unfortunately, fill me up so I can sometimes barely finish my entrée, much less dessert.
However, this month my assignment was to write up a collection of the best desserts I could find.
The trick, as far as I could tell, was to eat an appetizer or, at most, two, then go directly to dessert, a strategy recommended by members of my own family, who often ask for the dessert menu first and plan accordingly.
If you think that dinner is merely a prelude to the sweet course, this column’s for you.
600 Kalanianaole Hwy. // 396-7697 // Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday to Saturday until 10 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.roysrestaurant.com
I’ve always suspected superchef Roy Yamaguchi doesn’t eat dessert. When Roy’s Hawaii Kai opened 20 years ago, the desserts were weird fusion things. You might as well, I thought, fill up on the “canoe” of appetizers.
However, some genius in Roy’s pastry shop came up with a melting chocolate cake, a dessert that has been much imitated. Somewhere between a cake and a soufflé, it’s made with lots of eggs, no flour, just cornstarch. You have to refrigerate the dough overnight to firm it enough that it will hold its shape.
But, oh, the results. When you take a fork to the finished product, a lava flow of molten dark chocolate oozes onto the plate, where the vanilla ice cream awaits.
Unfortunately, someone at Roy’s has taken to isolating the ice cream in a tuile, one of those elegant little molded cookies. This is, I submit, a mistake. You want the warm chocolate to hit the cold ice cream, in a gustatory explosion.
No matter. Corporate pastry chef Noah French has come up with yet another classic—a pineapple upside down cake. Don’t frown. I admit that most pineapple upside down cake is lame—too heavy, made with canned pineapple.
This, however, is a small biscuitlike cake of infinite lightness, topped with fresh fingers of Big Island pineapple. If that’s not enough, there’s a sauce adapted from Bananas Foster—crucial ingredients: rum, brown sugar, butter.
Both the chocolate and the pineapple upside down cakes take 20 minutes to prepare—a perfect argument for thinking about dessert at the top of the meal.
Ala Moana Center // 1450 Ala Moana Blvd. // 947-9899 // Breakfast Monday to Friday 8 to 10:45 a.m., Saturday to Sunday begins 7:45 a.m.; Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.longhis.com
I’ve often visited Longhi’s just for dessert. Waiting until after dinner is problematic, given the size of Longhi’s portions. But this time I ordered just the antipasto salad with chopped endive—it might as well be dinner, it costs $14. I wanted to save lots of room.
Longhi’s serves a variation of a dessert created by chef Mark Ellman in the late, lamented Lahaina restaurant, Avalon, and still served in Ellman’s new Lahaina eatery, Mala Ocean Tavern.
It’s vanilla ice cream, three scoops of it in the Longhi’s version, slathered in housemade caramel sauce, sprinkled with macadamia nuts, and surrounded by a vast portion of fresh fruits in season: raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, papaya, pineapple, banana, and grapes.
Ellman called this Caramel Miranda, the fruits reminding him of Carmen Miranda’s headdress.
Longhi’s calls it Caramel Knowledge—to reflect both its sensuous nature and that eat ing it has to be a shared experience. One person cannot eat the whole thing, which is probably good, since it costs $16.50. You need at least two or three.
I’ve eaten this dessert with groups of friends who insisted on ordering a side of Longhi’s housemade whipped cream to top it off. Have mercy, people.
3565 Waialae Ave. // 735-7717 // Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. // Pay parking lot, major credit cards // www.cafelaufer.com
Café Laufer is on to the trick of eating light and then having dessert. Its whole menu—with dishes like a cup of soup, a green salad and a roll—is designed to leave you gazing longingly at the bakery display case. The case is full of things like a nearly authentic Linzer torte, its dark, rich, nut- and spice-filled crust full of raspberry preserves instead of the currant preserves favored in its home city of Linz, Austria.
But Laufer also has ice cream—and you might want to investigate the Coupe Romanoff. This $11.25 sundae is vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream, and surrounded by fresh strawberries in a mix of brown sugar and Grand Marnier.
It is, as my companion pointed out, “all the great ways to eat strawberries—ice cream, whipped cream and brown sugar—all at once.”
The Pineapple Room by Alan Wong
Macy’s, Ala Moana Center // 1450 Ala Moana Blvd. // 945-6573 // Breakfast Saturday to Sunday 8 to 11 a.m.; Lunch Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner Monday to Saturday 4 to 8:30 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.alanwongs.com
I have been remiss, perhaps, in not mentioning how stunningly attractive many of these desserts are.
I encountered no more beautiful a dessert than the Baked Hawaii at The Pineapple Room by Alan Wong.
A Baked Hawaii is just a 50th state version of that classic, 19th-century dessert, Baked Alaska. A British physicist, Benjamin Thompson, is sometimes credited with figuring out that you could wrap super cold ice cream with meringue, brown the meringue in the oven and get a dessert that was both hot and cold.
Wong’s $8 Baked Hawaii—filled with pineapple-coconut ice cream—is perhaps the most beautiful version I’ve ever seen, a genade of meringue, nicely browned at the tips, surround by little birdlike designs of guava in circles of lilikoi sauce. The plate is then further decorated with diamonds of pineapple kanten (Japanese agar).
The Baked Hawaii is fit for a princess—it’s even topped with a gilded tiara of white chocolate.
If you’d like something less elaborate, Wong’s version of a halo halo is coconut shave ice over haupia tapioca, with dots of banana, pineapple, azuki beans and, surprise, a few kernels of sweet corn. Nothing half-baked here.
Waikiki Beach Walk // 226 Lewers St. // 926-6961 // Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 12:30 a.m. // Validated parking at Embassy Suites, major credit cards // www.mondogelatohawaii.com
You can’t get one of my favorite desserts at most restaurants—even though almost any restaurant has the ingredients and it’s simplicity itself to make an affogado.
An affogado is a scoop of vanilla ice cream or gelato over which is poured a shot of espresso. How hard is that?
I used to be able to get one at the old Palomino, even after it disappeared from the menu. But I was pleased when Mondo Gelato moved into Waikı-kı- Beach Walk. Now you can get an affogado, seven days a week, more than 12 hours a day.
For $4.95, this version has good gelato and decent espresso. You can have one with any gelato flavor. But be careful not to overwhelm the espresso. As well as the hot-cold thing, you want the bitter versus sweet dynamic that plain vanilla provides.
If vanilla is too plain for you, try stracciatella, which is a vanilla gelato with bits of dark chocolate, adding one more dimension to the experience.
You consume an affogado with a spoon. The only problem here: The plastic spoons are too tiny.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Waikiki Beach Walk // 226 Lewers St. // 440-7910 // Dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m. // Validated parking at Embassy Suites, major credit cards // www.ruthschris.com
Say, however, that you are at the new Beach Walk, and you don’t want just an affogado. You want something huge, sticky, gooey, over the top.
Many people don’t know that Ruth’s Chris has a fabulous dessert menu. After polishing off, say, a 20-ounce Cowboy Ribeye, you may not want to move, much less order a banana cream tart.
Our trick was to eat little sandwiches at a cocktail party and then drop by Ruth’s Chris for the tarts—both the cream tart with its overhanging roof of carmelized bananas and the warm apple tart with its streusel crust and scoop of vanilla ice cream.
There’s only possible thing wrong with these fresh fruit, freshly baked, six-inches-in-diameter, $9.25 pies. They’re so big, you’re likely to feel defeated.
Ruth’s Chris’ signature dessert is actually bread pudding. My mother used to make it to use up stale bread, so I have a hard time getting excited about bread pudding. But at least Ruth’s Chris version is topped with a whiskey sauce. Plenty of whiskey.
12th Avenue Grill
1145 12th Ave. // 732-9469 // Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday through Saturday until 10 p.m. // Meter parking lot, major credit cards // www.12thavegrill.com
I thought I’d learned to eat light, but for some reason I can never resist the appetizer menu at 12th Avenue Grill—roasted tomato soup, smoked ahi bruschetta, beet salad with goat cheese mousse, gnocci with abalone, soft-shell crab on diced watermelon, on and on.
I’d gone there with the best intentions. It was—according to a poll I conducted inside my own house, among my wife and daughters—the restaurant with the absolute best desserts ever.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• Downtown @ the HiSam
Hawaii State Art Museum
• Hoku’s, The Kahala Hotel and Resort
5000 Kahala Ave.
Reviewed in our April 2007 issue.
Unfortunately, even skipping an entrée, I was full by the time we got to the dessert menu, $7 a dessert. The girls ordered the classic apple crisp with ice cream, the banana cream pie … and, hold your horses, the black-bottom crème brûlée.
At the bottom of the custard was a thin, but powerful layer of coffee-toffee-chocolate sticky goodness. I sampled, and sampled again. I finally commandeered the rich little bowlful and ate every bite.
I was unrepentant, though for an hour or so afterwards I thought I might lapse into a food coma.
Hawaiian Monarch Hotel // 444 Niu St. // 429-0945 // Breakfast and Brunch 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. // Validated parking, cash only // www.creampotrestaurant.com
Halfway through this project, it occurred to me that you didn’t have to wait until after dinner to eat dessert. People don’t typically have dessert after breakfast, but they often eat dessert for breakfast.
There was no better place to do that, I reckoned, than the new little eatery called Cream Pot, which promised cream in everything.
Cream Pot occupies a streetside corner in an aging condo-hotel called the Hawaiian Monarch. You can park in the hotel and walk downstairs to … fairy land.
The restaurant’s all faux stone and stucco walls, fake castle turrets, little fairytale cottage doors, lace, baroque geegaws. Both the décor and staff seem aimed at Japanese tourists, though the service is bilingual.
The menu has some sensible breakfast items. In fact, I will return someday for the maguro benedict—raw ahi on rice with avocado and miso sauce.
But I wasn’t here to eat sensibly. I was here to have fresh blueberry crêpes, as fine a dessert as I’ve eaten before 10 a.m. The crepes were nearly weightless, filled with a vanilla custard cream that was almost perfumey in its delicacy. This was topped with whipped cream, dotted with a mint leaf.
The $10 crêpe was, in fact, fabulous, though I felt compelled to supplement it with a $7 side order of bacon—very Japanese, thin half slices arranged in a star on the plate.
If you don’t like crêpes, there’s also a banana waffle with salted caramel sauce and, of course, whipped cream. Top of the mornin’ to ya.
Niu Valley Shopping Center // 5730 Kalanianaole Hwy. // 373-7990 // Dinner nightly except Tuesday, 5 to 9 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards
At Alan Takasaki’s Niu bistro, I was trying not to fill up, though the sliders almost did me in.
Takasaki makes small Kobe beef hamburgers with slices of foie gras and melted Stilton cheese in the middle. Should you need a secret sauce on your burger, there’s a port wine reduction.
These are the best hamburgers I have ever eaten. I know I am supposed to be writing about dessert, but I mention them as a public service. Takasaki created the sliders as part of an elaborate, beef-three-ways special. I had to beg to get them by themselves. I suggest you also beg Takasaki to make them a permanent feature on his menu, though he’ll probably wait until he comes up with some elegant variation of pommes de terre frites.
Anyway, I had only two sliders, and not three as the waiter suggested. Which left room for the French apple tart.
A classic French apple tart differs from an American apple pie in that it’s both thin and open-faced. It’s a layer of pâte sucrée, a layer of paperthin apple slices and sugar, which caramelizes while baking. Not too sweet, not too tart, not too heavy, not too light—and, hey, it comes with ice cream.
I thought nothing could be better, but Takasaki insisted I also try his almond berry tart—a thin wrap of almond puff pastry, filled with raspberries, blueberries, white pears and pluots (a cross between plums and apricots).
Instead of ice cream, this comes with a white crescent of lemon mascarpone, the citrus cutting the richness of the cheese.
Although this is difficult for me to credit, it’s the equal of—perhaps even slightly better than—the apple tart. I hate being confused, but then again, everyone should have two favorite desserts. Maybe a dozen.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.