Hoku’s 2.0

When you mess with a legend, the whole town gets worried.

This isn’t just a restaurant review. Hoku’s is more than just a restaurant. Just like the Kahala Hilton-turned Kahala Mandarin Oriental-turned The Kahala Hotel & Resort is more than just a hotel.

The Kahala Hotel & Resort,
5000 Kahala Ave.

Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner nightly 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Validated valet parking, major credit cards.

The hotel and its dining room are institutions. They’re history, almost legends. You mess with legends at your peril.

When it was announced last January that the newly reshuffled ownership of the hotel was jettisoning the Mandarin Oriental and renaming the resort, I started getting calls.

“They better not mess up Hoku’s,” said one of my callers, genuinely upset. “I don’t know what I’d do then.”

We’ve been through this before. In 1993, the Bishop Estate, as it was then called, raised the lease rent on the 6.5 acres under the hotel 14,000 percent, from $96,000 a year to $13.5 million. Arbitration knocked the figure down to $5.6 million, but that was enough to precipitate an ownership change.

People were upset. Conrad Hilton himself had opened the hotel in 1964. Back then, critics claimed it was too far from Waikiki. But, of course, as Waikiki began to metastasize in the ’60s, the location became part of its charm. The Kahala Hilton became Hawai‘i’s connection to the shiny world of celebrity. You might find Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson or Liza Minnelli sipping mai tais by the pool. Presidents and royalty occupied the Presidential Suite. Prince Charles and Princess Diana took 100 rooms on a single visit. Even the Dalai Lama checked in.

Its restaurant, the Maile Room, became a clubhouse for Honolulu’s old money, and although it was in the basement, where the hotel’s function rooms are now, there were howls of outrage when it closed. Its replacement, Hoku’s, was much better looking, more modern, with an ocean view and a display kitchen. People still didn’t take to it at first.

In Old School hotel tradition, its first chef was a German, Oliver Altherr. The food was lame. Not to mention boring and expensive.

Oh, people went anyway, and tried to convince themselves it was good. Altherr, a seriously competent guy who could butcher a whole pig, kept trying to sneak German dishes like pig’s feet and red cabbage on the menu.

Executive Chef Wayne Hirabayashi has mastered Island flavors and cooking techniques. photo: Karin Kovalsky

Things stepped up a notch when the hotel hired Wayne Hirabayashi away from Orchids. Hoku’s then at least had a chef with some mastery of Island flavors.

The food got better. As a decade or so passed, people stopped calling the hotel the Kahala Hilton. Hoku’s replaced the Maile Room in the town’s affections. It was the only hotel restaurant where, on any given night, there might be more local residents than hotel guests. Then, this year, it all changed again.

Hoku’s shut down from May 1 until the end of June for renovations. Version 2.0 does not look terribly different. The ocean view, the basic layout, the kitchen all stayed. The bamboo floor is gone, replaced by more durable Brazilian satinwood. The banquettes have been reupholstered.

The first Hoku’s had been clearly modeled after 3660, Roy’s, Alan Wong’s. There were newspaper articles at the time about how fine dining was dead. Everyone thought customers wanted restaurants to be casual. But Hoku’s, with its stainless steel utensils and bare tables, was perhaps a bit too casual.

This time, they got it right—white tablecloths, Reidel crystal, Fortessa bone china and Christofle silver, including elegant silver-tipped chopsticks. The restaurant’s been dressed up.

But what about the food? It’s the same crew, headed by executive chef Hirabayashi, seconded by Conrad Aquino and Colin Hanzama. The menu, however, is 90 percent new.

Only four things remain from the old Hoku’s—the ‘ahi dip, the wok-fried prawns, the seafood tower and the whole crispy fish. The rest is all surprises.

Starting with the slow-braised Kahuku pork belly. Pork belly is the part of the pig that, when smoked or cured, turns into bacon. (In case you missed the news, pork belly has hit the culinary big time.) Hoku’s version is particularly fun—braised for hours, chilled, sliced and then cooked up in sake, oyster sauce, hoisin, brandy and five-spice. It’s served with kimpira gobo (a Japanese dish made from burdock root), Moloka‘i sweet potatoes, and, for a blast of flavor, a red onion jam.

This is a gorgeous plate. But of the three of us at dinner, two were women. They took one look and said, “It’s mostly fat.” Yes, indeed, it’s by far the fattest part of the pig. If you’re fat-phobic, steer clear. If not, you just acquired another guilty pleasure.

The sushi and sashimi plate was also quite decorative—unagi, ‘ahi, shrimp nigiri sushi, a slice each of California and spicy tuna rolls. But it was the sashimi that rightly got your attention—brilliant red ‘ahi and toro so full of Omega-3 oils that it was virtually white. The toro made a reappearance as poke, set on a hollowed-out semicircle of cucumber.

However, the brightest light of the appetizer menu is its simplest dish. A bowl of tomato soup. No cream, just Kula tomatoes slow-cooked in stock, herbs and garlic. Then strained, the pulp puréed. It then gets warmed in vegetable stock, with a few ingredients the kitchen refuses to reveal.

It’s fancied up with a little basil-olive oil foam on top and a Kalamata olive crostini on the side. But really, it’s a lot of work to produce something utterly straightforward. All you get from each spoonful is tomato, tomato, tomato. No added weight, just pure flavor.

The brightest light of the appetizer menu is a virtually weightless tomato soup with basil foam. photo: Karin Kovalsky

Among the entrées, the easiest to overlook is the pancetta-crusted onaga. Do not do so. The pancetta protects the fish from overcooking and adds terrific flavor. But the real flavor pow! in this dish comes from the risotto underneath.

It’s cooked with lobster stock—just pure lobster flavor. Then it’s given a kick with lemons, which have been cooked down in salt and a little sugar. Risottos can get boring after a few bites. Not this one. In all deference to the fresh fish, it’s the best thing on the plate.

It’s also hard to pass up Tin Fu’s Szechwan wok-fried lobster. Tin Fu is one of Hoku’s line cooks; the rest of the crew calls him “our Chinese chef.” The lobster is quick blanched in hot oil, cut up still in the shell and wokked with taro cubes, eggplant and a heady sauce of garlic, black beans, fermented soy bean paste, sesame oil, oyster sauce and chilies.

As good as the seafood dishes are, however, the entrée that’s likely to become Hoku’s new signature dish is the rack of lamb. Ho hum, you say? This is an eight-chop rack of Wisconsin lamb, big chops, trimmed, but not so close you lose the flavor.

The rack is covered in a salt crust—salt, flour, egg whites plus mint, sage, Italian parsley, thyme and garlic. The crust keeps the meat moist while roasting, while the herbs suffuse it with flavor.

It comes to the table on a cart. The waiter lifts off the crust, and the smell of the meat and the herbs almost makes you dizzy. Then it’s carved tableside and served for two, though actually it was plenty for the three of us, given that we’d previously devoured three appetizers and two entrées.

I teased Hirabayashi later that his tomato soup was an answer to Alan Wong’s chilled tomato soup and foie gras sandwich, and the lamb, his answer to Chef Mavro’s salt-crusted onaga.

“We didn’t think of that,” he said. “We were just busy trying to execute the dishes.” He paused a minute. “I guess it doesn’t hurt to be mentioned in the same sentence as those guys.”

It serves two, costs $94. It’s Hoku’s new signature entr´ee, a salt-crusted rack of Wisconsin lamb. photo: Karin Kovalsky

The service at Hoku’s, which had gotten a little casual, has been ratcheted up a notch. The restrooms are outside as they always have been, but now when you walk there, a staffer jumps up and holds open the restaurant door for you.

What I loved about the old Hoku’s, even the old Maile Room, was the forthrightness of the service—it was friendly, not deferential. There’s still some of that spirit. I went to order a pinot noir from the Hitching Post, the restaurant and winery that’s featured in the movie Sideways.

Our server, Lisa Higashiguchi, didn’t tell me I was wrong. What she said was, “I think the one you tasted at the Vino anniversary party is not quite the same as this one.” She brought me a sample. Just the nose alone told me I’d better listen to her.

Instead of the Hitching Post, she brought us a 2003 pinot by Costa De Oro, from up-and-coming winemaker Gary Burk. It was far from the most expensive pinot on the list, $56, but it had the elegance of a Burgundy with the strong fruit of the Santa Maria Valley.

A pinot works well with all the food, but, for the fish courses, I might recommend a glass of the Palmina pinot grigio. Pinot grigios can be some pretty thin stuff, but this one, from Santa Barbara, has a wonderful roundness to it.

You’d think with all we’d eaten, we might skip dessert. But the ladies, once they got over their distaste for pork belly, were serious eaters. So it was desserts all around, three good ones. The first, a bittersweet-chocolate ice cream soda with Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and a plate of cookies.

The second, a chocolate sponge cake with chocolate ganache, topped with candied orange peel, and served with a cinnamon foam and a straw-berry granité.

The last dessert was the star—a classic French tarte tatin. This utterly simple dessert—a layer of pastry, a layer of fresh fruit, a sprinkling of sugar—is usually made with apples, but Hoku’s uses sliced mango. What little I got of it was delicious.

A tarte tatin is often served with ice cream. Hirabayashi, so as not to make it too sweet, served it with a Granny Smith apple granite. No sale. The ladies immediately ordered a side of vanilla ice cream.

Dinner for three, and it was a very large dinner, was $380 with wine and tip. Then again, Hoku’s was never meant to be a bargain eatery. It’s now exactly what it was supposed to be from the outset—one of the town’s top tables.

Anyone out there who was worried that The Kahala Hotel & Resort might mess up his or her favorite restaurant, relax. Hoku’s is in good hands.