New restaurant: Park at the Aqua Lotus Honolulu

Left: watermelon salad; right: pea soup

There aren't many places in town, if at all, where you can get a watermelon salad with popcorn or a bright green pea soup, garnished with mint and bacon. And there's definitely nowhere else in town that has a wine list of 25 bottles for $25. Find these at Park, the new restaurant in the Aqua Lotus, occupying the former Diamond Head Grill space. 

Currently, it draws large pau hana groups, date night couples, young and old. It's on the radar for the food paparazzi, who come to see what the much touted chef, Michael Collantes, who has worked at Joel Robuchon, Eric Ripert and Masa Takayama outposts, can deliver.

There hasn't been this much buzz on this side of Waikiki since the Sakai sensations (unrelated): first, in 2007, when Eric Sakai, then just 24, produced seasonally-driven dishes that married sophistication and rusticity to dazzling results, according to Wanda Adams' review in The Honolulu Advertiser. Sakai didn't stay long, though, citing differences with management; Diamond Head Grill petered out, then closed. And then, seven years later, new life! The long-dormant dining room played pop-up space to Hiroyuki Sakai's chefs, the ones who were supposed to open the celebrity chef's first restaurant outside of Japan. But the dinners fizzled, much like the Sakai of Hawaii project.

In Collantes, the Park seems to have found a reincarnation of all the space's previous chefs: his menu is modern Mediterranean, and he hopes to change it with the seasons. He's young, 29. He's got a bit of celebrity chef sheen, rubbed off from his former employers.

Can Collantes shake off the cobwebs from this restaurant space? Too early to tell, though his flavors and techniques show promise. 

Left: gnocchi and lamb ragu; octopus tagliatelle

The watermelon salad and pea soup on the summer menu (which is on its way out) display two sides of Collantes' cooking. The watermelon, harissa, blue cheese and popcorn composite show modern playfulness. It feels exotic and fun. The pea soup, poured tableside, is simple and straightforward, with classic garnishes of bacon and mint that serve to underscore the peas' sweetness.

Entrees tend toward traditional flavors, though they don't quite dazzle like the pea soup, which reappears as a sauce in the gnocchi and lamb ragu. But what stands out as a soup is too timid for a sauce. Tagliatelle with octopus, stewed in red wine, becomes surprisingly meaty; it's only halfway through that I remember I'm eating seafood, not beef bolognese.

Left: pork and beans; right: warm honey goat cheese tart

A deconstructed pork and beans dish offers dense squares of confit pork belly with crackling skin, but four clams, scattered like garnishes, are a bit dried out.

With desserts, Collantes gets adventurous again: one of them, described as a warm honey goat cheese tart ($8), is more like goat-cheese pound cake, heavy on the goat cheese and lightened with hibiscus sauce, fresh raspberries and crunchy meringues.

Will future menus continue to display this dichotomy of styles? We don't have long to find out—the fall menu debuts sometime October.

Appetizers $8 to $12, entrees $19 to $36
Park at the Aqua Lotus Honolulu, 2885 Kalakaua Ave., 791-5161,