Dining: Reinventions

Three chefs prove that change is the only constant.

The dining public is always looking for something new, and restaurants have to feed that insatiable appetite. Long before the rest of us fell into the fashion of “reinventing” everything, from our companies to our personal lives, chefs embraced that notion.

This month we bring you three chefs, who, despite every indication of being successful, decided that they had to try something completely different.

Poke Stop
Waipahu Town Center
94-050 Farrington Highway, Waipahu
Open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

Elmer Guzman didn’t need to reinvent himself. At 35, he was at the top of his game, able to snag the top spot in almost any restaurant kitchen in town.

Guzman’s the guy who, upon graduating from Kapi’olani Community College, talked a classmate into introducing him to Alan Wong. Wong at that point wasn’t quite Alan Wong yet. He was just coming into his own at the CanoeHouse, the Big Island restaurant at the Mauna Lani Bay Resort.

Guzman worked with Wong during his highly creative phase at the CanoeHouse kitchen. Then, after a couple of years, he had the nerve to tell Wong he’d grown all he could, and needed to move on.

Chef Elmer Guzman at Poke Stop shows off his seafood specialties. photo: Olivier Koning

“Alan called my bluff,” recalls Guzman. The next month Guzman found himself doing an apprenticeship at a high-end West Virginia resort, The Greenbrier. That’s where Wong himself had won a rare gold medal in the culinary training program. Guzman hated The Greenbrier, and called Wong almost daily, pestering him as Wong was trying to open his King Street eatery. Wong told him to stick it out. Guzman did, winning himself a gold medal, as well.

From The Greenbrier, Guzman went to work for a chef called Emeril Lagasse. Lagasse wasn’t Bam! Bam! Emeril yet. But he’d been named one of the 10 best new chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. That’s where Guzman’s wife, Samantha, found him and suggested sending a resume.

At Emeril’s in New Orleans, Lagasse was still in the kitchen “six days a week, screaming and hollering,” as Guzman recalls. Guzman soaked up the remarkable cuisine of New Orleans. Having Emeril scream at him turned out to be a good experience.

“It’s one thing to work for a famous chef,” says Guzman. “But a lot of famous chefs don’t spend much time in the kitchen. I was lucky to work with Alan and Emeril, when they were right there next to you, every day. You could watch them. They for sure watched you.”

Guzman was ready to move on again, and hooked up with Emeril’s good friend, Sam Choy. And by age 30, he had achieved one of his goals–he was executive chef of Sam Choy’s flagship Diamond Head Restaurant.

Although challenged by Choy to come up with creative dishes, including signature pokes for the restaurant, Guzman was in many ways his own man there. He ran a crew, put his own stamp on the menu, and brought in a lot of New Orleans touches. In his free time, he turned a guide he had written for his staff into a cookbook, The Shoreline Chef.

With those items checked off on his To Do list, there remained one goal: his own place. Hardly anyone expected his own place to be a 600-square-foot poke shop.

For Guzman, his little Poke Stop, next to Sizzler in the Waipahu Town Center, makes perfect sense. It’s five minutes from home, so that, for the first time in his workaholic career, Guzman can spend time with his family. That’s all the more true because wife Samantha now works with him.

“I didn’t want to do a big restaurant and fail. What I really wanted was a seafood market,” he says. “One day, Samantha said, ‘You should open a place people stop for poke.'” Guzman mulled it over. “I’m thinking, Poke Stop. Poke Stop. It was perfect.”

It had to be perfect, because, as Guzman puts it, “Executive chef of Sam Choy’s Diamond Head doesn’t mean anything in this neighborhood.” Poke Stop would have to work for Waipahu.

Guzman designed the store as takeout, only. “We just wanted to be where you’d stop and pick up something for dinner or pupu.”

Curious as I was about what Guzman was up to, it took me a couple of months to get there. Finally someone invited me to a party, with the injunction to bring a püpü. I drove an hour from Hawai’i Kai to get a tray of Guzman’s poke.

Guzman doesn’t have the vast array of pokes that, say, a Tamashiro’s Market has. But he’s got your local supermarket’s poke counter beat hands down, both in the creativity and quality of his offerings.

The hamachi poke–unlikely to be found many other places–has that wonderful buttery bounce for which hamachi is famous. The shrimp poke is done up in a ginger-green onion mixture reminiscent of the ginger chicken served cold in Chinese restaurants.

Guzman’s raw salmon poke has a deft touch of furikake; his tako poke, a kick of kim chee. The creamy ‘ahi poke reminds you of the filling in a good spicy ‘ahi roll. Even the plain old shoyu ‘ahi poke isn’t drowned in shoyu and slammed with bad onion slices as it is many other places.

My friends got spoiled, because in addition to a whole $29 poke platter, I couldn’t resist the $16 platter of Guzman’s black and blue ‘ahi sashimi, the outside dusted with the Cajun spices Guzman learned in New Orleans.

There were Texas white shrimp, not the usual tiger shrimp, fried up in some kind of garlicky crust. These were so good that I even sucked the meat out of the heads “something you normally wouldn’t do with a shrimp unless you knew it well.

I was ready for takeout, but inexorably Guzman’s Poke Stop is being pushed toward becoming a restaurant. To keep his hand in, Guzman began with an array of takeout plate lunches, salads and soups. This was partly thrift. “I hate it when restaurants let seafood get old and then fry it,” he says. “I decided to do something creative with it before it got old.”

His customers liked the takeout lunches and dinners, but they also wanted to eat there. “They even wanted to make reservations,” he says ruefully. Finally, against his will, he let the landlord talk him into putting a few plastic tables outside the restaurant. The matching blue umbrellas are on order. Poke Stop is starting to look like a little café.

It’s a New Orleans café. It serves Tully’s coffee and beignets.

Also on the menu is a soft-shell crab Po’ Boy–that’s New Orleans for Poor Boy, a kind of sandwich. This was a remarkably delicious and tender soft-shell crab, breaded and fried golden, with a touch of remoulade that made me yearn for poor, devastated New Orleans.

The crab sandwich came with a small cup of seafood chowder. I was eating outside, it was hot, and the table umbrellas hadn’t arrived yet. A cream soup seemed too much. Still, I felt obligated to take one spoonful. It was filled with clams and big chunks of fresh fish, kernels of fresh Kahuku corn, in a soup smooth as velvet, with a touch of coconut milk. The next thing I knew I’d finished it.

Guzman can flat-out cook. You get the feeling that Poke Stop is on its way to becoming the L&L of the seafood world.

J at The Willows
901 Hausten St.
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Valet parking, major credit cards

Jay Matsukawa is good at buffets, but his heart isn’t in them.

He’s especially good at the buffet at The Willows, that reborn slice of kama’aina nostalgia on Hausten Street. The Willows has open-air tables; it’s a casual place where your auntie can wear her best mu’umu’u and it’s where the tables are full of three-and even four-generation parties.

Ninety-nine percent of those customers eat at Matsukawa’s buffet. The buffet itself is nostalgic–known for Hawaiian favorites like lau lau, long rice, kalua pig, lomi salmon. And there’s always my favorite, that golden chicken curry with sides of coconut, raisins, mango chutney, that says like no other dish: Territory of Hawai’i.

The buffet includes a carving station and an array of entrées, including, from time to time, crab legs. Plus, of course, a table chock full of desserts.

In a phrase, plenty food.

“In Hawai’i, quantity is still king,” says Matsukawa. “People here want to feel they get their money’s worth.”

Matsukawa admires, for instance, what Hiroshi Fukui is doing with small plates at Hiroshi’s. “The tapas thing is great. But it’s a tough concept to do in Hawai’i at this point. Even my own family just doesn’t understand it. You give them a small plate and, no matter how good it tastes, they feel slighted.” He hopes that at some point the local palate will change. “Nobody really needs five plates full of food. What they need is good food.”

Jay Matsukawa, the chef at J at The Willows, shines when it comes to entrées. photo: Olivier Koning

After two years at The Willows, Matsukawa left for the Plaza Club, which also has a buffet, an upscale salad bar and an à la carte menu. To lure Matsukawa back, The Willows promised him a chance to do what he really likes to do: an upscale à la carte menu.

So now, in addition to its popular buffet, The Willows has, tucked in an upstairs room, a restaurant called J.

J at The Willows is not hard to find. The staff at the reception will gladly guide you there, if you ask. It’s knowing to ask that’s the trick. I am guessing that the couple of hundred people dispersed around the rooms and pavilions downstairs had no idea it was there. It’s around the back, up the stairs, a quiet room, nicely but not overdone in wood tones and holding about 10 tables.

The menu is à la carte, with $8 to $12 appetizers, like hamachi carpaccio and oxtail ravioli. The hamachi carpaccio is essentially sashimi, dressed simply with lime and lemon juice, a touch of Hawaiian chili pepper, a few raw garlic slices. The dressing is almost a ponzu sauce, minus the shoyu–a good choice with hamachi, because all you want is something to balance the richness of the fish itself, not overpower it.

Matsukawa cooks what he likes to eat. Another thing he really likes is his oxtail ravioli. I blinked when I got mine. On the plate was one ravioli. Of course, it was a big ravioli–spinach, ricotta and braised oxtail between two round gyoza wrappers. The filling was milder than expected; the real flavor is in the oxtail broth, flavored with a touch of black truffle pâté.

Evidently, I was not the only one who had the “one ravioli” reaction. Matsukawa has since recast this dish as an entrée, with a touch of cheese sauce to smooth and enrich the dish. But that doesn’t change to me what’s best about the dish: Matsukawa can really make an oxtail broth. I spooned it all up.

Matsukawa’s small plates were pleasant enough, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in small plates. It was with the entrées he really shined.

The duck entrée came two ways–the breast in a Grand Marnier butter, the leg and thigh braised in wine and duck stock. Either would have been enough to eat. But the duck breast was a beautiful sight, the fat having been rendered off, leaving the skin crispy and delicious. That consumed, I went to work on the rest. The braised dark meat came in a bowl that contained something between a soup and a cassoulet. Like a cassoulet, that traditional French peasant dish, there were white beans, garlic and tomatoes. But cassoulets tend to be dense, filled with a range of meats. This one was more like a rich duck soup. Once again, I spooned it all up.

Equally ample was the rack of veal. The grilled chops had been touched with something good, though it wasn’t until I talked to Matsukawa later that I learned it was porcini mushroom powder. The plate was sauced with demiglace, a natural with veal.

This was a classic plate–mashed potatoes, baby vegetables. But the veal was too much to eat in one setting, especially for my wife, who wanted to be sure to have room for dessert.

Good choice. Matsukawa has done something creative with dessert, something so obvious once you see it that you’re surprised it isn’t more common.

There are three ways to go with dessert–chocolate, vanilla or fruit. So Matsukawa just lets you choose your favorite flavor. Then he gives you three desserts on that theme–one hot, one room temperature, one cold. The biggest seller is the chocolate trio: warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, an assortment of truffles and chocolate hazelnut ice cream.

Remarkably, neither of us ordered it. In all due deference to chocolate lovers, vanilla is the world’s best dessert flavoring. Matsukawa does it proud. His plate includes a warm vanilla-and-pear bread pudding, baked in a little tart pan. There’s a classic crème brûlée (what’s crème brûlée without vanilla?) and a scoop of dramatically scented vanilla sorbet created for Matsukawa by Maurice Grasso at La Gelateria.

I can never resist the fruit. Matsukawa produced a fresh berry crêpe with whipped cream, a cantaloupe sorbet and a slice of lemon pound cake. The cake didn’t look like much compared to everything else, but it was a little, lemony slice topped with a kick-ass lime curd that just opened up the palate.

If for no other reason, have dinner at J just for dessert.

The only weakness was the limited wine list, especially the limited by-the- glass offerings. I had an Esser chardonnay to start, a 14 Hands Washington State cabernet with the duck. Both were drinkable, but neither did much to showcase Matsukawa’s cooking.

I suggested, like Mavro, he find a wine that complemented each dish and had it available by the glass. “Get a wine you like,” I suggested. Matsukawa, it turns out, is a beer guy. So his may become the first haute cuisine menu in town with a beer recommended for each course.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip and French-press decaf, was $160.

J is just the kind of restaurant I like to see, a chef stretching his wings, doing what he thinks is right. The Willows is to be commended for letting him reinvent a little corner of a vast enterprise.

Diamond Head Grill
W Hotel Honolulu, 2885 Kalakaua Ave.
Breakfast daily 7 to 10:30 a.m.; dinner nightly 6 to 10 p.m.
Valet parking, major credit cards

Diamond Head Grill is constantly reinventing itself. Those whose memories stretch back a generation will remember the space as Bobby McGee’s Conglomeration, a steak-and-salad bar restaurant distinguished by a disco dance floor and a serving staff that dressed in costumes.

More people will recall that the current restaurant was originally David Paul’s Diamond Head Grill, a lavish monument to Maui chef David Paul Johnson’s ambition. However, when the hotel changed hands in 1999, Johnson’s name came off the restaurant. The kitchen became something of a revolving door, and the restaurant devolved into a not particularly exciting but quite expensive hotel dining room.

The excitement at Diamond Head Grill began to center at the serpentine bar. Renamed the Wonder Lounge, it became a club scene late Friday and Saturday nights, hip, hip-hoppy and dressy.

Then, and this seems an odd combination with a weekend club scene, the W Hotel decided it needed a five-diamond restaurant.

Five-diamond restaurants aren’t all that easy to come by. There are only 46 in the whole country and one, La Mer at the Halekulani, in Hawai’i.

The W’s first move was to hire a chef who’d done it once before, Guillaume Burlion. Burlion arrived with an impressive resume, having trained in Michelin star restaurants in France, done the Hollywood and Malibu circuit. He won his five diamonds in an unlikely place, Nashville, at a restaurant called Wild Boar. Wild Boar has slipped to four diamonds since Burlion’s departure.

From Nashville, Burlion moved on to a restaurant called Flood Tide in Mystic, Conn. There, he tired of the snow and looked for a job in Hawai’i, where he’d taken frequent vacations.

When I heard the news, I got curious. After a month or so to let Burlion get acclimated, I gathered up a friend, who seemed crushed we weren’t going to the W on a club night. “They have some beautiful women at those things,” he insisted.

Once he got over his disappointment, he seemed mollified. Especially after we ordered a decent bottle of Burgundy (Clos des Mouches) and set to work on the appetizer menu.

Diamond Head Grill offers elegant presentations, such as this sauteéd whole fresh lobster with tomato Provençal. photo: courtesy of Diamond Head Grill

There was a $16 appetizer I had to try. It was a truffle-foie gras-lobster egg, as if Burlion had looked around for the three most expensive ingredients in the kitchen and decided to do something with them. (When I talked to him later, that was exactly his reasoning.)

This arrived in an eggshell, its top neatly sheared off. The egg was propped on a thick slice of cucumber, which had been hollowed out to become an egg cup. Given what was in the egg, I would have gone with a porcelain cup.

The contents at first glance were, well, scrambled eggs. That was not entirely a surprise; French chefs often store their truffles with their eggs for precisely this effect.

What hit me first was the luxurious texture of eggs. The flavors at first did not leap out and slap me in the palate. That seemed French, as well. I was amazed that I could both taste and feel the lobster–remarkable because foie gras is so powerful an ingredient that you might expect it to overpower everything else.

My friend was unimpressed. “Is this all?” he said. Yes, and I was glad he left it to me, because, balanced with a Burgundy, it was remarkable. Talk about the nerve to serve a small plate. There wasn’t much of this, but how much of it could anyone eat?

My friend, on the other hand, was going crazy over the gnocchi. Gnocchi’s a difficult dish to produce: You have to make it fresh and you have to make it by hand. Diamond Head Grill’s gnocchi was perfect in texture. I felt I was biting into something substantial, only to have it melt away into the cream sauce. What really gave the dish oomph were the shimeji mushrooms from Hamakua, which had both great flavor and texture.

The last of the appetizers was steak tartare, not just any steak tartare, but a combination of Black Angus beef and bison. I was rather hoping the two would come separately so I could taste the bison against the beef, but they arrived mixed together. When I talked to him later, Burlion explained that he liked the flavor of the bison, but the marbling of the beef, so they worked better in tandem. It was a classic tartare, shallots, caper, mustard, a touch of Tabasco, but no Worcestershire, a good choice, since that tends to bully the other flavors into the background.

Having eaten three appetizers, the two of us split a single entrée.

We settled on the duck, since the bottle of Burgundy seemed to be calling out for it. For this dish, Burlion had carved potatoes into little boxes, like you’d keep jewelry in, and cooked them in a saffron broth. Then he filled them with mashed purple Moloka’i sweet potatoes.

Atop these potato boxes was a roasted tomato, cooked with a whole bouquet of herbs, with a sweet touch of tarragon. Then came sliced breast of duck, marinated in orange juice with lavender honey. The lavender honey worried me; I hate duck when it’s too sweet. But Burlion used just enough to help caramelize the skin.

“Best duck I’ve ever tasted,” said my friend. “Best duck on the planet!”

I don’t know if I’d go all the way to best duck on the planet; I’ve got a lot more ducks to eat before I go there. But this was a harmonious series of flavors top to bottom. And, unlike most stacked dishes, it didn’t fall apart as you tried to eat it.

Having only one entrée, we went all the way to port and dessert, just ordering the sampler. What we got was fun–a vast platter of those sweet, rich, layered concoctions that have names like Way Too Much Chocolate. They did, however, seem out of character with the rest of the food.

Later, I called Burlion. English is his second language and he wasn’t comfortable talking on the phone, so I dropped by to see him.

When I described the dessert sampler we’d gotten, he said, “No, oh, no.” He disappeared back into the kitchen, returning with a tiny meringue swan swimming in a pond of crème anglaise. In the swan’s center was a deeply chocolate mousse, but not an overpowering quantity of it. “This is what I’m doing now, my desserts. Sometimes, American desserts are to throw an anchor to a swimming man. Too heavy.”

So what is his plan for Diamond Head Grill? “To make it high standard. I don’t know how to say it in English. Haute qualité.” The French will do.

He’s got new china on order, replacing David Paul’s Southwestern motifs, and he’s reinstituting the kind of service where all the entrées arrive covered in silver domes, which are whisked off all at once. It may be a bit much for Honolulu, but, he insists, that way you catch the real aromas of your dinner.

“Haute qualité, but still casual, hip,” he says, as the waiters set up the gear for the club scene later that night. A renovation is in the works, so the restaurant’s likely to look different in a few months. Burlion’s menu is changing even more rapidly than that. Clearly, Diamond Head Grill isn’t done reinventing itself. I’m looking forward to seeing the process unfold.