We try three—oops, make that two-and-a-half—new hotspots at the Trump International.
The Trump International Hotel, the first luxury property to open in Waikiki for decades, was made possible because Outrigger eliminated so many rooms during its Beach Walk project, it was allowed to apportion them to the Trump lot.
The 38-story tower is a big rectangular grid, sort of a spreadsheet on steroids. I managed a preopening tour, a sampling of the 462 studios and suites. All the units had luxury touches—vast marble bathrooms, at least minimal cooking facilities. The studios were small. Definitely a hotel room, not apartment.
The suites, however, were breathtaking. We saw a three-bedroom duplex in a corner of the 35th and 36th floors. It had all the amenities of a luxury home—kitchen, laundry, entertaining space—and it boasted two-story, wall-to-ceiling windows with a view from Waikiki all the way across the south shore of Oahu to the Waianae Mountains.
I regretted not being buddies with the owner. Like most people, I will henceforth be confined to the public areas of the hotel. Fortunately, these include three restaurants—oops, as it turns out, two-and-a-half at the moment.
Of these, the one getting the most media attention is the privately owned restaurant, BLT Steak, on the hotel’s Saratoga and Kalia corner.
223 Saratoga Road // 683-7440 // Dinner nightly, Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday through Saturday until 11 p.m. // Major credit cards, four-hour validated valet parking //
The king of Hong Kong burgers sits at a table in the new BLT Steak, annotating the menu and shaking his head to clear the jet lag. “I never know what time zone I’m in,” he says in his French-inflected English. “Home is New York, I think. I don’t know where is home any more.”
Laurent Tourondel is an unlikely Hong Kong burger king. For that matter, he’s the unlikely owner of a new steakhouse in the Trump Waikiki. He grew up and trained in France, cooked around the world as French chefs tend to do, and rose to prominence as the chef of a high-end New York restaurant named Cello, famed for its exquisite fish dishes.
Unfortunately, the money guy behind Cello got caught up in the 2002 WorldCom bankruptcy. No more Cello. Tourondel spent some time traveling, eating new things and deciding he was bored with being a high-end French chef. He reinvented himself as an American restaurateur.
As he explained: “I’m in America. Why would I try to cook French? Why would I not cook American and try to please people with what they want to eat in their country? It’s part of me being in United States, because of my liking the United States a lot.”
Famous for his fish, he started instead an American steakhouse. He now has 11 BLT Steaks, counting the new one in Waikiki . (“That many?” he said. “I don’t know.”) The BLT stands not for the sandwich, but for Bistro Laurent Tourondel.
There aren’t only 11 BLT Steaks. There’s also BLT Fish (a sort of upscale East Coast fish shack) and BLT Burger, which was a success in New York, a massive hit in Las Vegas and now, to Tourondel’s great pleasure, the No. 1 burger restaurant in Hong Kong. (“People stand in line, 600 covers a day! The people in Hong Kong study abroad, eat American food.”)
The philosophy behind all his restaurants is to give Americans what Americans like, but his way. “Have you tried it?” he asked, gesturing at the thoroughly expensive, yet casual expanse of the new BLT Steak, all warm orangeish tones and display kitchen.
Yes; as a matter of fact, I had dropped by several nights before. Outside of a few tourist couples and my friend and me, the place was filled with tables of all men. “Oh, I didn’t want to do a macho steakhouse,” he said. “Something lighter.”
He copied a well-known chain—“No name I’m going to say.” The syntax of the menu will seem familiar: everything à la carte, starters, meats, sides, desserts. “There was good meat everywhere,” he said, “but bad appetizair, bad desserts. Why not good appetizair, good desserts?”
At BLT it takes awhile just to get to appetizers. The first thing that arrived was a duck liver pâté, touched with cognac, sweetened with Port. It was served in the bottom of a canning jar, an awkward container because you have to scoop it out from the depths. That’s one of the ironies of a restaurant with $52 entrées and $29 appetizers pretending it’s casual; you have to lay on these little homey touches.
Homey touches like popovers, which also arrived unbidden. Tourondel was once a pastry chef. But popovers? “Why not?” he said. Evidently, people love them, served with unsalted butter and a large, rustic-looking shaker of kosher salt. The shaker, he confides to me, was originally intended for powdered sugar on Belgian waffles. Another casual touch.
There’s absolutely nothing casual about the appetizers, however. My friend couldn’t decide between the ceviche and the lobster salad. I volunteered to order the one she didn’t. She got the finely diced onaga and avocado in lime and cilantro. (“They were cutting it too fine,” said Tourondel. “I fixed that when I got here.”)
That’s why I ended up with a massive bowl of greens topped with avocado, half a hard-boiled egg, pancetta and chunks of lobster, redolent with fresh herbs, especially tarragon. It was good, but it was enough for dinner.
“You as full as I am?” asked my friend. Full enough to be stunned at the size of my 22-ounce rib-eye steak, which arrived dark and sizzling on a platter, complete with a head of roasted garlic and a marrow bone.
All steakhouses have good meat. BLT sources top-grade Wagyu beef from the Midwest. The rib-eye arrived at the table thoroughly charred, all around.
“I like the char,” said Tourondel. “Some people complain, but do you like it?” As a matter of fact, yes. The steak was heavily marbled, gnaw-the-bones delicious, even if I did have to finish half of it the next day.
It also came with both a large round of herb butter and the world’s richest Roquefort sauce—a clear case of gilding the lily. I took the sauce home, too, and ate it with celery sticks.
My friend fared more reasonably in the portion department, having on my recommendation ordered a fish that she’d never heard of, Dover sole. Tourondel seemed shocked she didn’t know sole. “It’s the best fish, so delicate. I sell 40 to 50 plates of it a night in New York.” But it’s an Atlantic, not a Hawaii fish, I point out.
“It’s fresh, I like to get fish from lots of places,” he said. He’s crossed out the words local snapper on the menu and written in opakapaka, throwing in an extra hyphen. “We do have some local fish, some Mediterranean fish, some Pacific fish.”
Actually, the sole was virtually perfect, in a white wine-caper butter with a touch of shoyu. “I didn’t want to be cooking fish with pineapple, papaya and coconut,” he says. “But soy sauce—you call it shoyu here?”
In addition to the entrées, we’d ordered three sides. A skillet full of roasted Hamakua tomatoes. A bowl of very creamy (in other words, very French) mashed potatoes touched with some very unFrench jalapeño pepper. Finally, one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve eaten in a steakhouse—fresh wax beans with cipollini onions and Hobbs bacon (Hobbs is an artisanal bacon maker in Northern California).
The reason I ended up taking home half my steak, outside of its gargantuan size, was we intended to make it to dessert. Nalo Farms, in partnership with a beekeeper, has started selling honey, so I ordered the Nalo Farms honey tart topped with Mandarin orange slices—all of which added up to something pleasant, if not outstanding. (My reaction was milder than Tourondel’s. When he tasted it a few days later, he decided it was bad and changed the recipe. For all I know, it’s better now.)
The dessert that seemed to epitomize the cross-cultural ripplings of BLT Steak was a stylish little peanut butter mousse topped with a rich dark chocolate, with banana ice cream on the side. “I wondered about the banana ice cream,” said my friend, “but it’s a perfect pairing.” American flavors, French style.
Which sums up the restaurant, except that the portion size—despite BLT’s attempt to lighten up the steakhouse—remains American. Dinner was excellent, and it had better be for $300, with tip and two glasses of wine apiece. BLT is not an average steakhouse, but it’s still a steakhouse, prices and all.
223 Saratoga Road // 683-7401
“From the liquid kitchen,” reads the header on the cocktail menu at Trump’s new sixth-floor lobby bar. You have to applaud culinary ambition wherever you find it. I brought a cocktailian friend to the comfortable, living-roomlike setting of the bar, and said, “Bring it on.”
The “chef” of the cocktail menu, so to speak, is Trump’s F&B manager, Christina Maffei. She’s got an inventive palate. Her “Red Ohia,” with red salt round the rim, is a clever margarita adaptation—muddled pineapple and pineapple juice and jalapeño-infused tequila, fiery enough to be named for the flower of Pele.
But that’s nothing compared to her “Lokelani,” which is lamentably not rose colored, but still a stunningly improbable combination of muddled cucumber, dai gingo sake, vodka and a housemade syrup of two parts citrus juice to one part simple syrup. The drink comes in its own little glass decanter. We were grateful to have so much of it, the cool cucumber doing more wonders that you could expect from a martini-ish concoction.
“Nowhere in Hawaii,” boasts the menu, “will you find a better mai tai.” Not true; you can get a better one at both Lewers Lounge and the Royal Hawaiian’s Mai Tai Bar. Trump’s signature mai tai was topped by a pineapple-mango foam, which gave it a nice nose, but otherwise was not much of an addition to the drink.
We forgave the mai tai when we tasted yet another unlikely concoction, the “Mokihana.” This was a perfect, winding-down sort of drink—ice tea, lime sour, fresh mint and shochu.
Shochu is the Japanese distilled liquor that’s stronger than sake, weaker than whiskey, not particularly tasty, so people often drink it with that awful, sweet, canned green tea.
This was the same idea, except it was good. We demanded the recipe from the barman, then realized that he had days in advance infused his shochu with lemons and real vanilla beans—which explains why it was far more palatable than the normal stuff.
We’d come for one drink and stayed for two, so we thought it wise to order pūpū, not a particularly budget-conscious consideration. The poke was great, deep red, firm, fresh ahi. The three sate sticks held thin slices of beef, slathered with the subtlest peanut sauce I’ve ever tasted. Both were $15. In addition, we ordered a $12 bowl of hurricane popcorn, just to say we had. The popcorn wasn’t bad, light on the furikake, though my friend grumbled, “For $12, they could have put more kaki mochi.”
The bill for four cocktails and three pupu was $120, including tip, meaning Waiolu is likely to remain a rare pleasure. Still, you have to enjoy that the architects put the lobby on the sixth floor, which means from the sofas on the comfortable lanai you look out at treetop level over Fort DeRussy to the ocean beyond. It’s almost like not being in Waikiki. The bar’s staff, led by Stephanie Oong, was highly professional, polished and friendly. Nice place for a drink.
223 Saratoga Road // 683-7401
Having cocktailed at Waiolu, I decided later to try the hotel’s own restaurant, called In-Yo—only to end up back at Waiolu.
In-Yo’s there, on the Diamond Head side of the building. Trouble is, all the tables are outside, covered only by a lattice roof. Apparently, someone believed it never rained in Waikiki. The restaurant did open for New Year’s Eve, only to get drenched about 9 p.m. by a sudden shower. It’s closed until better weather or a new retractable roof is added, whichever comes first.
However, the kitchen’s alive. You can have In-Yo’s menu in Waiolu.
It’s the food that matters, right?
I was worried about the food, though. In-Yo is a hotel service restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, one that tries to be all things to all people. It offers Japanese and American food for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, Japanese and Italian. I took a couple of other people just so we might cover the distance from Tokyo to Rome in a single dinner.
Upon closer inspection, the Japanese menu seemed far more interesting than the Italian. The Italian appetizer menu made us yawn—bruschetta, calamari, minestrone.
From the Japanese menu, we ordered a bowl full of tasty little Manila clams, in a sake broth aromatic with ginger and lemongrass. This is lighter than the usual white wine, butter, garlic preparation, but just as delicious. We reduced the bowl to shells and sopped up the leftover broth with the (remarkable, warm, freshly baked) bread.
We also got a warm “dynamite” roll. Despite being stuffed with seafood and mushrooms in spicy mayo, topped with spoonfuls of tobiko and heaps of sprouts, this was decidedly undynamite. It cost $22, and you can do better for half the cost almost anywhere.
The star of the appetizers was the trio of donburi. Donburi, capable of almost infinite variety, is simply a bowl of rice with something on top. This set of three little rice bowls was remarkable mainly for the “on top” part.
One bowl held three perfect slices of raw, deep-red ahi, nestled on a shiso leaf. The second held some tender ika, squid, which had been simmered with vegetables in a deft mirin-shoyu-dashi concoction. The last sported two thick slices of prime hamachi.
I tried to get all these toppings before anyone else, but I was defeated when my guests realized how tasty they were. As I speared the last slice of ahi, a young lady bustled apologetically to our table.
According to the menu, the trio of donburi was supposed to be tuna, ika and ebi, not hamachi. First, we hadn’t noticed, and, two, we would have gladly traded hamachi for shrimp any day. Still, to deliver on the menu’s promise, she handed us a fourth rice bowl, this time with pieces of cold, firm shrimp, cooked in some Japanese culinary miracle that whispered along the edges of flavor.
Wow. If we hadn’t ordered entrées, I would have finished all the rice and gone on to dessert. But I held back. One of us had ordered misoyaki butterfish, the other two, in the spirit of exploration, had ordered pasta.
Don’t make the same mistake. If you find yourself at In-Yo, confine yourself to Japanese food. The spaghetti carbonara, a white mound on a white plate, was acceptable, the standard pancetta, onion, Parmesan, with a touch of cream in the sauce. But at $22 a plate? In-Yo just doesn’t compete with the Japanese-Italian restaurants in its neighborhood, Arancino and Taormina.
I came to that conclusion even before I tasted my gnocchi in its rather too-sweet tomato cream sauce. Gnocchi are supposed to be petite pillows of potato and pasta flour, little light things that offer just enough resistance to the bite to tease you, then melt away into nothing.
These were round and ridged, fat as gnocchi go, and unpalatable in texture. “Perhaps,” said one of my companions, happily consuming her butterfish, golden and glistening, “perhaps the kitchen thought it was making mochi.”
I ate a few bites and stopped, wishing I still had the rice from the donburi.
Undeterred, we pressed on to dessert. The kaffir lime sorbet was reasonably refreshing, though hardly more subtle than a regular lime sorbet. The cheesecake was Japanese cheesecake, lighter than American, three decorative small slices, more cakey than cheesy. The bread pudding was the opposite, a tall, baked cylinder, perhaps overbaked, dense, almost unchewable. I’ve had tenderer muffins.
The price of dinner for three? Two hundred and fifty dollars with tip, a pair of cocktails, some ice tea. Both you and I have had better meals for less, the donburi and clams notwithstanding. I can see that if you were staying in the hotel and tired, just going downstairs for dinner would have its attractions. But otherwise?
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.