Meet the Family Behind Hale ‘Aina Award-Winning Arancino at The Kāhala
Ichiro Inamura’s Hale ‘Aina Gold for Arancino at The Kāhala reflects a family commitment.
Golden uni glows in signature spaghetti ai ricci di mare.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
The 2018 gold award for Italian dining starts with a bucket of orange paint that gave the restaurant its name: Arancino, which means little orange. At the time, two decades ago, Ichiro Inamura had moved his family to Hawai‘i for strictly entrepreneurial motives—it was the land of opportunity, even if he didn’t know what form it would take.
“I was 6 or 8, so I didn’t know until recently that Dad didn’t really have much of a plan,” says his daughter, Aya Inamura, now 36 and a company vice president. By 1996 Ichiro Inamura had opened a bar that specialized in draft beer and held the leases on three small places on Beachwalk in Waikīkī. “One was an Italian restaurant owned by a Mr. Oka, who also had an Italian restaurant in Ebisu, near Tokyo,” says Aya Inamura. After giving the Waikīkī place a year to succeed he decided to quit. “Dad felt he was giving up too early. There was no Italian place in Hawai‘i that served al dente pasta. It was all mushy.”
Ichiro Inamura took over. As family and employees threw themselves into renovating the space, someone found that bucket of bright orange paint. “We loved it—painted the walls with it—and it became our company color and our name,” says Aya Inamura.
ICHIRO INAMURA (RIGHT) WELCOMED DAUGHTER AYA BACK FROM CALIFORNIA TO EXTEND ARANCINO’S RUN INTO THE FUTURE.
PHOTOS: AARON K. YOSHINO
The color choice may have been serendipitous, but the aim was always true—authentic Italian with an execution they found missing in Hawai‘i. “Japanese really love Italian; they were really into it back then—and Dad wanted to lead Hawai‘i into better and finer Italian cuisine.”
Arancino on Beachwalk quickly became successful with Japanese tourists. In 2004 Ichiro Inamura opened a bookend restaurant, Arancino di Mare, in the Marriott at the other end of Waikīkī. More family oriented, it began drawing locals as well as visitors from the Mainland and New Zealand. Recently, the quality of Arancino pasta received a ringing endorsement when di Mare’s rigatoni dell’amatriciana was named one of Buzzfeed’s “30 Dishes From Around the Country Every Pasta Lover Must Try.” (An order at the Beachwalk outpost confirmed that this is, indeed, a “proof of life” rendition: dense, flavorful, capable of provoking raised elbows in defense against the forks of tablemates.)
In 2014 Inamura, now joined by daughter Aya and general operations vice president Reyn Tomosada, opened a spectacular high-end, high-cuisine restaurant at The Kāhala Hotel & Resort, aimed at locals and international tourists. After a year, a tweak of the concept—softening the glitz, making it more approachable and less pricey while keeping its inventiveness and attention to robust Italian flavors—secured golden success.
—Aya Inamura, vice president of Arancino
Hitting for the cycle isn’t easy in restaurant land, where serial launches often leave quiet closures in their wake. What makes Arancino’s success more impressive is that only five years ago Ichiro Inamura was thinking of selling the whole operation and Aya Inamura was living on the Mainland, working as a graphic designer. What happened?
“When I went away to college,” says Aya Inamura, “my goal was to get away from Hawai‘i and as far away from my parents as possible, because that’s what young people do.” She attended the University of Oregon and found work in Southern California. Meanwhile, “as Dad was going from his 40s to his 50s, he was feeling, ‘I can’t do this forever.’” This, even though he had successfully opened the second location, Arancino di Mare, while she was away. “He was thinking of selling. I was not sure if it was a good idea. I personally saw a lot of potential in what we had going. It’s where our passion shows through,” she says.
Having worked at the Beachwalk location as a 15-year-old server while still at La Pietra Hawai‘i School for Girls, Aya Inamura had her doubts whether the family business was for her. But living in Long Beach and fighting rush-hour traffic into Los Angeles every day had her thinking about moving home.
EXECUTIVE CHEF DAISUKE HAMAMOTO BRINGING A CREATIVE AND EXECUTIVE TOUCH TO EVERY DISH
“It wasn’t an easy decision, per se,” she says. “I just didn’t want to sell after all he’d done to make it a success.” She put her graphics career on the backburner (although she and her mother worked closely on the Kāhala decor).
“Mr. Inamura”—she calls him that in the office—“allowed me to come back and learn from the bottom up. I started as a dishwasher. Because without dishwashers there wouldn’t be a restaurant. In the long run, that was the best thing he made me do. I do expect challenges because of who I am,” she says, with a level gaze. “I don’t want to fall into the owner’s daughter kind of role.”
Working with executive chef Daisuke Hamamoto and Tomosada—“we’re Mr. Inamura’s right-hand men,” she says—the team worked to give each Arancino its own identity as they prepared to launch the Kāhala restaurant. Each location has its own charm—Beachwalk is a cozy, light-filled trattoria, di Mare an open terrazzo, its tables shaded by red umbrellas. When it opened, the Arancino at The Kāhala would resemble a Venetian piano nobile—grand first floor—with an inside-outside space that, at night, glows like a velvet painting.
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But what kind of menu would suit the grand setting? “Before signing a new lease, we do a lot of business simulations,” Aya Inamura says. “How many of these dishes do we have to sell to hit the numbers with lease and labor? How many of those dishes? The process can take months, but it also has to be done in a timely manner.”
For Kāhala, the dramatic location, the clientele and the calculations guided the team to a high-end concept. During the run-up, the zeitgeist had taken on a hedge-fund feeling; at Vintage Cave, a grotto of culinary caprice located beneath the Ala Moana parking lot, $1,000 tabs were not uncommon. For two.
Arancino at The Kāhala wouldn’t go that far into the stratosphere, but, Aya Inamura says, “We wanted it to be a course menu place,” its two fixed menus featuring a procession of highly varied, superbly executed dishes. And initial reviews for the Kāhala were positive, comparing it favorably to Vintage Cave.
“But the course menus weren’t working out very well. It could be a little pricey,” Aya Inamura says. “What local people and hotel guests wanted was to order à la carte. And what we wanted was for them to come back more than once a year. We didn’t want a birthday or anniversary event restaurant.” The solution was to add more à la carte items and create opulence without ostentation.
On a recent visit, it was possible to order elegant, even theatrical dishes at surprisingly reasonable price points, such as the rich risotto of carnaroli rice prepared tableside in a 40-pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano ($18). (The dish had been on the menu since Mr. Oka’s first year on Beachwalk, but blew up recently when Aya Inamura put it on Instagram.) A reddish-orange zuppa di aragosta ($15) boasts chunks of claw in a sumptuous lobster bisque. The pappardelle alla bolognese ($22) is made with wagyu beef; spaghetti alla carbonara ($26) is served “deconstructed,” with a poached Waimana TKG egg.
All the Arancino pasta is house-made and among the best I’ve tasted in Hawai‘i (and on a recent visit to New York City, for that matter). In general, local ingredients are used where they come up to Italian standards or are inimitable; that means the tomatoes and mozzarella are imported, as are the savory salumi (prosciutto di Parma, bresaola, mortadella and more) in the affettato misto ($24).
carpaccio di orecchiete di mare (left) and insalata caprese
Citing the influence of Instagram, Aya Inamura says, “We all know there are dishes that look gorgeous but don’t taste good. We want to make sure it looks good but also tastes good.” The acquapazza is a perfect example: An ethereal sautéed branzino with clams comes in an anchovy-caper broth, netted in crunchy black squid-ink croccante ($35).
A special appetizer came in a pastel-blue Sturia caviar tin, which held a black disc of caviar, topped with 24K gold flakes, nestled on a springy base of ama ebi: stunning to behold, yet a mere forkful upstaged the glamorous presentation. Pebbles of the same caviar paved a brick of tartare di tonno e avocado ($32), whose delicate flavors were a conversation-stopper. In arista di maiale, the 8-ounce sous-vide center-cut pork loin from local 2 Lady Farmers had been flash-grilled, along with leek and lotus root ($37).
A good way to maximize the experience as a couple is for at least one diner to order either the degustazione ($100) or speciale ($150) chef’s menu. You get variety and pageantry, and even value, especially by adding the wine pairings—the four glasses with the $100 menu were a deal at $40 and subtly complemented each dish.
Keeping the three Arancino identities just separate enough is a key to their success. Dishes on one menu don’t necessarily appear on the others. One that does: the famous uni pasta, spaghetti ai ricci di mare, an all-golden tangle of noodles and urchin ($35). Another is Ichiro Inamura’s “owner’s favorite” pizza (succulent shrimp, sautéed Maui onions, garlic chips, Parmesan), as is the Instagram sensation, risotto di funghi. You can generally find at least one knockout clam dish—cuocere di vongole (clams in broth) or linguine alle vongole. Though you’ll have to go to Beachwalk or di Mare for the rigatoni dell’amatriciana, they do make a killer Kāhala version with bucatini at lunch.
The Inamuras and their team are always looking ahead. Tiny versions of new dishes were being taste-tested when we stopped by Arancino at The Kāhala the other day—father and daughter made quite a picture, sitting opposite each other, forks delicately dipping, mouths gently chewing. Expressionless, eyes locked, they could have been chess players.
“Change is a constant,” says Aya Inamura. “We won’t be the same restaurant in 10 or 15 years.”
One thing that hasn’t changed? Ichiro Inamura still goes back to Japan to visit Mr. Oka’s restaurant in Ebisu—now run by Oka’s son, Ryuhei, who’s the same age as Aya Inamura—to pay his respects and taste the dishes that started it all.
Arancino at The Kāhala, 500 Kāhala Ave., arancino.com
READ MORE STORIES BY DON WALLACE