Lewers and Kalakaua
Unfortunately, this hot corner has not cornered the market on great cuisine.
Unlike many people in this town, I never gave up on Waikiki. I always thought it was the most interesting square mile of Honolulu. I was much encouraged by the redevelopment of the heart of the district, the corner of Lewers Street and Kalakaua Avenue, where the Beach Walk development met the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center’s self-transformation. By and large, I’ve been disappointed by the culinary offerings that resulted— too same-same, too lame, too chain. But I never give up.
Waikiki Beach Walk // 266 Lewers St. // 926-5050 // Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. // Validated Parking, Major Credit Cards
Thicker than spaghetti, bucatini pasta holds up well to a rich sauce made with fresh sardines. The dish is from Taormina Sicilian Cuisine.
Photo: Monte Costa
I was in no particular hurry to get to Taormina, which opened on Lewers Street last fall. The buzz was negative. This was supposed to be a Sicilian restaurant, and one acquaintance of mine—only two or three generations removed from Sicily—pronounced it terrible. The reviews were respectful, but dull. They made Taormina sound like a place where you might go for rigatoni arrabiata or spaghetti Bolognese. Oh, wow, driving into Waikiki for red sauce.
There’s no substitute for firsthand experience. I corralled a friend who spends a lot of time in Italy and booked a table.
This restaurant is nearly brilliant.
It’s not what most people expect. It’s not Assaggio, serving up solid American-Italian cuisine from Vietnamese chefs. It’s a Japanese-Italian restaurant, but hardly Angelo Pietro, with its natto and bacon spaghetti for $8.50. Taormina is a dead-on, serious, white-tablecloth, expensive Italian restaurant—with some compelling cross-cultural ideas.
Let’s start here: It’s beautiful. Designed by local architect Peter Vincent, it looks like a Tokyo restaurant, small rooms on three levels, whites and beiges, unexpected textures from sandstone to suede, high-tech wine chillers built into the walls. Second, the menu’s unexpected. Taormina, the town for which the restaurant is named, is on the Sicilian seacoast. Japanese cuisine is all about seafood.
If you really want to taste what makes Taormina different, skip the red sauces, skip the dishes designed to satisfy the American palate, like lamb chops or chicken.
Instead, take a walk on the wet and wild side. For example, with the mixed antipasti tray, you can choose four items. The baby octopus and artichokes are a study in textures, just chewy enough, sauced with pesto. The marinated ama ebi, the only kind of shrimp you ever find served raw, are more a Japanese dish more than a Sicilian, beautifully presented with the whole head and the eyes staring at you.
There was carpione—little sardinelike fish from Japan. “I can’t remember what they’re called in Japan,” said my friend, “but you usually get them coated in panko and fried.” Carpione, in fact, refers not to the type of fish, but to the preparation, in which the small fish are cooked, marinated in an onion-vinegar-herb mix, and served cold. Delicious.
Finally, we had little heads of cauliflower sautéed with lots of garlic and capers.
With the appetizers, we were drinking a chardonnay—not the cliché that first comes to mind, but an Italian chardonnay, a Castello della Sala from Antinori, light, bright, without the overwhelming “chardonnay-ness” of its California cousins.
First, we ordered the uni (sea urchin) pasta, even though it comes only as a $34 double order. We asked for a single order, but, no way, the kitchen being intractable about its proper proportions. “We won’t finish it,” said my friend, “but we must have it. Only a Japanese restaurant …”
Wrong. In Italy, this dish is called spaghetti ricci di mare, a riccio being a hedgehog and a riccio al mare being a “hedgehog of the sea,” in other words, a sea urchin. Or, to be more precise, sea urchin roe, which unexpectedly melts down into the creamiest of pasta sauces. The resulting dish has a deep marine undercurrent. If you didn’t know what it was, you would somehow know it was fish. Uni can give you a nasty iodine blast—this dish had it, but only faintly, in the background, adding interest. Did we also detect a slight burn at the back of the palate? Peperoncini?
The waiter didn’t know, said he’d ask the chef. But Japanese chefs never like to tell anyone anything. “He just stared at me when I asked,” said Dion, our waiter. But, for the record, the traditional Italian recipe does include a touch of peperoncini, as the Italians call chilies.
So rich was this dish, we finished only half the metal skilletfull, because we had two courses more coming.
The next was another compromise between Japan and Sicily, bucatini with fresh sardines, or, as the Italians would call it, pasta con le sarde. In this case, they are Japanese iwashi (also known as the “bold sardine”), but the recipe is classic—garlic, pine nuts, much of the oiliness of the sauce coming from the fish and not the olive oil. We devoured this, the wine fighting off the richness of the dish.
Bucatini, by the way, is a thick, spaghettilike pasta with a hole—a buco—down the center, like a straw. It’s annoying, because it’s too thick to twirl round your fork. But Italy has a five-centuries-old tradition of matching pastas to sauces. With this rich a sauce, perhaps thick pasta is necessary.
Finally, we hit the most amazing pasta of the three—spaghetti with tuna and bottarga.
“We have to have this,” insisted my friend. “I’ve never seen bottarga on a menu in America. In fact, in Italy, you usually have to ask for it.”
Bottarga is the roe of gray mullet cured with sea salt, a Sicilian specialty. We got not exactly bottarga, but the Japanese equivalent, called karasumi. Karasumi is almost a condiment, a hugely flavorful golden brown sprinkle, all salty, preserved, fishy goodness.
The tuna was simply small cubes of fresh ‘ahi, sautéed in olive oil, garlic and peperoncini. The pasta was—as we had become used to—perfect.
After three pastas, we were unlikely to go on to entrées. Instead, we just had the organic salad, with a dressing made from Sicilian blood oranges.
To eat a dinner like this, you need time. We had invested more than three hours, talking, drinking a lot of wine, being amazed from time to time with what came out of the kitchen.
One advantage of this leisurely pace: We had room for the cannoli, with a touch of coconut in the filling, atop pistachio ice cream, and another dessert so Japanese it took our breath away—a stylish plate filled with sliced pineapple, strawberries and kiwi fruit.
Dinner cost $243 with tip; no bargain, but a reasonable value for a dining adventure we’d never had anywhere else in Honolulu.
Royal Hawaiian Center // 2301 Kalakaua Ave. // 922-3323 // Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner nightly 5 to 11 p.m., as late as 2 a.m. Friday to Saturday, depending on business // Validated parking, Major Credit Cards
You sometimes have to wonder what the thinking is in Waikiki. The refurbished Royal Hawaiian Center now has a P.F. Chang’s, a Señor Frog’s (more on that later), and, in the works, a Wolfgang Steak House (not, as I misled you a few months back, a Wolfgang Puck steakhouse, but an offshoot of an expensive, second-tier New York City steakhouse, managed by the same firm that put up Taormina). And now, a sushi bar from Miami. Really.
The house Doraku Roll is tempura fried and topped with spicy mayo and masago.
Photo: Monte Costa
Doraku Sushi is the creation of Kevin Aoki, son of Benihana founder Rocky Aoki.
The restaurant began as part of the Benihana chain, but Kevin Aoki bought it out, and has now brought it to us, as a large restaurant, 4,700 spare yet stylish square feet, in the Royal Hawaiian Center.
I was grabbing dinner with a friend who teaches college. Since he talks to twentysomethings all day, he knew that Doraku was, as he put it, “this week’s ‘it’ place,” for dancing the night away to a deejay.
“Not every night,” said the bartender, Jodie, as we plunked ourselves onto stools early in the evening. “We want people to know we are a restaurant, too.”
Honolulu has a half-dozen izakaya that are better and cheaper. Find the one in your neighborhood and patronize that.
Doraku is often described as “like Nobu.” Yes, if you don’t count the food. The sake menu is solid, served in the same kind of cut bamboo segment (which comes chilled at Nobu, not here).
Jodie was generous with the sake samples, but we eventually settled on that old standby Dewazakura Oka, a ginjo (premium) sake that has, to me anyway, the perfect mouthfeel.
The sake was the best part of the evening. The food was OK, and the most OK parts were the pricey sushi rolls, beautifully presented. The house Doraku Roll contained nothing shocking, nothing great, either—lobster, fake crab, cream cheese. The whole roll was tempura fried, and each slice topped with spicy mayo and masago.
We also felt compelled to order the Cuban beef roll—ah, Miami. There was very little beef for $8.75, but the roll was seasoned with chimichurri sauce (a creamy concoction of green herbs, garlic, chilies), and topped with crispy garlic chips. At least you won’t find this anywhere else.
That’s where the good stuff ended. The lobster tempura was filled with basil, so that was all you tasted. The kakiage vegetable tempura was no better than you’d get anywhere, for less. The biggest disappointment of all was the robatayaki. By definition, robatayaki is fire grilled. Perhaps the beef-tongue slices were, but they were chewy—and paled in comparison to the same dish at Imanas Tei.
Even worse were the mushrooms and asparagus robatayaki—less than first-rate ingredients, inexplicably cooked in tinfoil wrappers with ponzu, a method that totally defeated the notion of robatayaki.
For less money—and an even trendier atmosphere—you could go to Tsukuneya, at the corner of Dole and University. Which brings me to my point. Doraku is an izakaya, a place for sake, sushi, snacks. Honolulu has a half-dozen that are better and cheaper. Find the one in your neighborhood and patronize that.
Sheraton Waikiki// 2255 Kalakaua Ave. // 922-4422 // Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 4 to 12 p.m., Friday through Saturday until 2 a.m., food service until 10:45 p.m.
Three of us set out for Waikiki.
“You really want to go to Señor Frog’s?” asked one friend. “How bad could it be?” I asked. And it’s right on the corner of Lewers and Kalakaua.
Our third friend wanted to go because she’d heard Señor Frog’s had a bar where the seats were swings, hung from the ceiling, and the thought of her sipping a chocolate martini while swinging from the rafters was compelling.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Go to our Dining page to read more reviews!
Ala Moana Center,
Reviewed in our
PHOTO: Monte costa
• Merriman’s Restaurant
Reviewed in our february 2008 issue.
Photo: Olivier koning
How stupid could I be? As we arrived, Señor Frog’s special elevator to the third floor of the Royal Hawaiian Center shut down, inexplicably. OK, up the escalators.
On the third floor, Señor Frog’s had instituted a “fake wait.” Even though the restaurant had plenty of open tables, the hostess told people they needed to wait 20 minutes. That produced a little crowd outside, creating a fake buzz.
The wait was really about five minutes, but unfortunately for Señor Frog’s, in the interim we’d wandered inside. It was dark and smelled like the morning after at a frat party—quite a trick for a restaurant that’s only been open a couple of months.
A waitress gave us some shiny plastic beads, with a medallion that read: “If our food and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards.”
To top it all off, the bar with the swings was closed. “Why?” I asked an employee.
“It just is,” he said.
The recorded music was loud and obnoxious—and a band was coming onto the stage. The guitarist hit a chord so loud and unmusical that we declined the table the hostess had just given us.
“Gee, we didn’t even stay long enough to get a balloon hat,” said the friend who tried to talk us out of going in the first place.
What to do next? we asked him. “RumFire,” he said.
Right he was. RumFire is what happened to the Sheraton Waikiki’s old Esprit Lounge. It’s been blown open, and one realizes the old, dark, closed-in Esprit was a waste of beach frontage.
RumFire’s an expensive-looking, glassed-in lounge, with two lanai and, on each side, a beach area filled with big upholstered ottomans and firepots. Yes, cozy, gas-fed, little basins of fire. Plus a menu with some 101 rums, hence RumFire.
RumFire’s cocktail menu, like the one at Pearl, was designed by Francesco Lafranconi. A great cocktail is a balance between sweet and sour, strong, weak and bitter. LaFranconi is a celebrated mixologist, but his cocktails are all horribly sweet. At RumFire, even a standard drink like a caipirinha is likely to have so much sugar as to be spit-out-able.
One of our party—the young lady who wished to sit on Señor Frog’s swings—was perhaps LaFranconi’s target audience. She ordered a strawberry daiquiri. To Franconi’s credit, this was not the usual milkshakey nonsense. It was made with 151 proof rum and real organic strawberries. But it was too sweet even for my friend—and that’s sweet.
If you are going to drink here, you should sip rum as if it were Scotch. We started us out gently, with Tommy Bahama rum. Soon, however, we abandoned trendiness. We were drinking things like Coyopa, made from spring water and the pick of the sugar cane harvest in Barbados, aged 10 years in an oak cask. Or Pampero Anniversario from Venezuela, which tastes somewhere between butterscotch and fuel oil, and will put hair on your chest, regardless of your gender.
We were also hungry. I have never been crazy about the food at the Sheraton, so the food at RumFire surprised me. It’s tasty, in small, expensive portions, but if you are going to eat right on Waikiki Beach, you have to expect that.
The minced garlic chicken came with lettuce wraps and kim chee salsa. The scallop salad wasn’t a salad—just some excellent grilled scallops atop some chopped hearts of palm.
One realizes the old, dark, closed-in Esprit was a waste of beach frontage.
The only thing wrong with the garlic fried rice was there was only a tiny bowl of it for $13. Similarly, the filet mignon was delicious, but minuscule. We scooped up its few slices with edamame purée, sea salt and pepper.
Absolutely the best dish on the menu was the inside-out musubi: balls of sushi rice, half topped with smoked ‘ahi, the other half with beef, cooked rare, and sprinkled with bubu arare, the small rice crackers often used in ochazuke.
We were having so much fun, we ordered two desserts. One we knew was unlikely to be good, but ordered it anyway. Why? Because it was called The Great Ball of Fire and arrived flaming. It was a porcupine-studded ball of stale meringue filled with too-frozen-to-eat sorbet.
Much better was the “Get Ready to Rumball”—three chocolate-covered, rum-drenched lollipops. They seemed a perfect conclusion. Dinner cost $203, but we’d spent an enjoyable evening drinking rum on the beach—and that, I believe, is a pleasure people spend thousands to experience.
John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.