Arancino at The Kahala and The Signature Are Bringing Fine Dining Back to 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?
Okinawan sweet potato gnocchi and prosciutto at Arancino at the Kahala.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Good food has never been more accessible in Honolulu, thanks in part to the new wave of casual eateries, of chefs forsaking high-end dining rooms to serve sandwiches at farmers’ markets and tasting menus at communal tables. But while those chefs are scaling down, they’re not the only ones reinventing themselves. With two new restaurants—Arancino at The Kahala and The Signature—restaurateurs previously specializing in red-and-white-checked tablecloth joints and food-court plate lunches (respectively) are moving into an arena that some, particularly the millennial generation, have been dismissing as dated and as tired as Lindsay Lohan.
While I have suspicions that the reboot of fine dining is the conspiracy of white-tablecloth launderers, the real reason is probably less sinister. It is, perhaps, the answer to the question: Where are all the residents of the new luxury condos going to eat?
Or maybe it’s a response to the fact that people, young and old, are realizing casual does not always equal cheap. At some places, the bill dropped on your picnic table tallies up to $60 or more a person. Maybe there’s a market, after all, catering to diners who want their butts in comfortable seats and inexperienced servers to butt out.
But all that costs money. Does the money spent on the upgraded setting and service come at the cost of food quality? Is it worth it?
A MELANGE OF ABALONE AND AMAEBI.
Arancino’s squid-ink pasta is a seafood fest, with lightly charred squid, lobster and scallops.
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., (808) 380-4400, kahalaresort.com/honolulu_restaurants/arancino_at_the_kahala
The Signature keeps it classic with its ribeye tomahawk steak and side of mashed potatoes.
For steakhouse regulars, a steakhouse is as much about the ambiance as it is the meat on the plate, maybe even more so. After all, steakhouses, like no other restaurants, signify luxury and excess. That was the case in the days of 1950s American prosperity, and it’s still the case now: Why pay $50 for a steak you can get at Costco for a fraction of the price? (Yes, Costco does sell prime-grade beef.) What really sets a steakhouse apart? What makes it worth the $100 a person tab?
In The Signature’s case, it’s the view. From the 36th floor of Ala Moana Hotel, it offers a panorama from Diamond Head to Pearl Harbor. During the waning daylight hours the place is bright and festive with happy-hour revelers, half facing the windows, the other half the bar. Live music—“Phantom of the Opera” when we walk in—is played on the white grand piano. As the sun sets, happy hour ends, and the room quiets and darkens, it draws an older crowd that looks happy to be enjoying unfussy food where the draw is the view, not the kitchen’s creativity. In essence, it begins to feel more like a steakhouse—though maybe as envisioned by Prince, with the chandeliers fashioned from crystal butterflies, silver tufted banquettes backed up against purple and silver squiggly wall art.
The menu reads like a tribute to old-fashioned steakhouses: shrimp cocktail, steak tartare, chopped salad, steak, chops and seafood, but, like the atmosphere, lacks the soul of those 1950s institutions. The servers may be formally suited, but there’s no tableside salad-making and flambes.
Perhaps the biggest throwback is the unabashed nakedness of the plates: big hunks of meat and chopped parsley everywhere.
The steaks are perfectly executed: a great sear and cooked to temp, though the servers, insecure with their kitchen, ask you to cut your steak down the middle as they watch to verify that your medium rare is, in fact, a medium rare.
The Signature calls itself a steak and seafood restaurant, but you’re not here to eat fish, so don’t. The seafood tower is more memorable for the spectacle—served in a brushed metal bowl two feet tall—than for anything else. The fish—monchong one night—is not cooked as well as the steaks.
Entrees come with truffled mashed potatoes, but other sides such as lobster mac ’n’ cheese are ordered separately. They’re perfectly fine. You might do well to remember that the restaurant group behind The Signature previously focused on fast-casual food-court places such as Yummy’s Korean B-B-Q, Lahaina Chicken Co., and Steak and Fish Co. This, its first fine-dining concept, serves the same sort of straightforward fare, but with better ingredients, better technique and better decor. It turns out, though, that old-school class is hard to achieve; while all the elements are there, The Signature lacks the intangibles that complete the experience, that elevate it to fine dining. But, damn, the view.
The Signature at Ala Moana Hotel, 36th floor, 410 Atkinson Dr., (808) 949-3636, signatureprimesteak.com