Appetite: Island bites, part three

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Azure's delectable squid stuffed with blue crab in eel sauce
PHOTO BY VIRGINIA MILLER

After a dreamy week in Hawaii, I have a slew of recommendations to share with you in a multi-part series. In part one, I covered farmers market street food in Oahu. In part two, Honolulu's cocktail scene. Now we dine in Honolulu, on the hunt for the best. (Next up, Kauai.)

 

THE SPENDY

Sushi Sasabune:

Starting off with a bang, the first course was Canadian albacore sashimi in miso. All photos by Virginia Miller

Though Honolulu's Sasabune is related to the restaurant by the same name in LA, I had a superior experience here in Hawaii – probably due to the fact that I went whole hog here and ordered the 13 course omakase menu. It's around $120 per person at lunch and costs over $200 for the same menu at dinner.

Lunch is peaceful – only the hardcore patronize Sasbune during the daytime hours. The restaurant's decor is humble and pleasant with classic jazz playing.

13 courses really means over 20 varied bites as many courses include two different pieces of nigiri. You can spend less by stopping before your 13 courses have been brought out – just give the sushi chefs a few minutes' warning, they prep a course or two ahead. 

Though I was stuffed around course nine, I couldn't bring myself to tell them to stop, such was my desire to see what they would serve me next. Everything was impeccably fresh and expertly prepared -- one of the best sushi meals of my life.

 

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel's Azure:

Azure's butter-poached filet of Wagyu beef

Island spirit and urban sophistication reign at Azure, one of the newer, hotter restaurants in Waikiki. It's dinner companion is the magical Mai Tai Bar, which sits just outside its front door. 

I sat at a cabana-covered area on the sand amid ocean breezes, sipping from the well-chosen wine list. The a la carte menu is pricey ($12-29 for appetizers, $35-60 for entrees), making the 'steal' the five-course, $69 tasting menu – it only costs an additional $20 for wine pairings.

My tasting menu included a sashimi starter of Hawaiian yellowtail ahi and Japanese hamachi over an avocado and watermelon radish salad. Ginger syrup and a hint of lemongrass enhance the dish's Asian spirit. A 2009 Crios de Susana Balbo malbec rose made for a refreshing pairing.

The second course was the strongest: the ocean cappuccino, a creamy bouillabaisse with chunks of Dungeness crab, black tiger shrimp, and potato, accented by Thai basil. Another highlight was an intermezzo between third and fourth courses, a lemon basil sorbet infused with pop rocks.

Third course was the Kona lobster tail risotto. Though I adore lobster tail, the risotto was not on par with the silky texture I expect from a Italian risotto.

Fourth course was butter-poached filet of Wagyu beef. The sweetness of Madeira and brandy played off the earthiness of taro and black truffle in the sauces. The presentation of the dish was striking: crowned with a fried duck egg, it came out under glass cover, smoke swirling inside.

For dessert we had local Kula strawberries and fior di latte cheese ice cream drizzled in balsamic and cinnamon syrup. A clean, straightforward finish.

 

Hiroshi:

Luxurious miso butterfish at Hiroshi

Our experience turned out to be a mixed bag at Hiroshi: despite the sweetest hosts at the door, our waiter was lackluster and disinterested. No explanation of dishes were offered until we asked for them. The other downside? A corporate, bland decor that lacks warmth or even casual sophistication. 

I'm keeping it on my recommendation list for one reason alone: chef Hiroshi Fukui's creative food. A fish fanatic, he catches some of the menu's offerings himself.

Fukui's foie gras sushi ($10.50) was as decadent as it sounds: two nigiri pieces topped with lush foie gras and drizzled with a teriyaki-shiso glaze. Portuguese sausage potstickers ($9) came surrounded by sweet corn and tatsoi (rosette bok choy) with a kimchee foam that I wish had tasted more like kimchee.

Another stand-out was the miso yaki butterfish ($14.50). The small serving of butterfish melts and lingers like a luxurious dream, brightened with lemon ume gelee. Chef Hiroshi shows off his deft hand with a crispy skin New Zealand snapper ($24.95). The fish flakes beautifully in a tomato-hijiki (brown sea vegetable) broth. Tofu, fennel, edamame, and local Kahuku corn round out the platter. Try to ignore the service as you savor some of the more imaginative dishes and impeccable fish preparation in Honolulu.

 

THE MID-RANGE

Side Street Inn:

Prepare ye for gigantic plates of family-style Hawaiian food. Side Street Inn has two locations and both are packed with locals gorging on mountains of meat. Given the size of the plates ($11-15 for your average dish, $17-26 for steak/beef and pork entrees), eating here can be a steal. Beware of over-ordering. 

You'll leave happy after traditional dishes like fresh ahi poke tossed with Maui onions, signature pan-fried island pork chops ($22), or lilikoi-glazed baby back ribs ($17). 

The two most satisfying dishes out of the eight I tried? One was the straightforward, utterly comforting kim chee fried rice ($13), a mountain of rice laced with everything from Portuguese sausage to peas. Number two was the catch of the day, the opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper), a giant whole fish grilled in citrus and oil. Flaky and delicious, this was the more elegant of the otherwise hearty platters, and a fine example of local fish specialties. It's easy to see why this is a local classic. But whatever you do, come starving.

 

Alan Wong's Pineapple Room: 

The Pineapple Room's superb Loco Moco

As my schedule sadly did not afford time for dinner at Alan Wong's signature restaurant, I made do with what I would knew would be a distant second, lunch at his more casual Pineapple Room inside the Macy's at the Ala Moana Center.

The Pineapple Room threw me off with its mall setting and Denny's-style diner place settings. They would have been fine if they fit the decor, but it was a discordant mix of vintage Hawaiian plantation with dated 70's tableware. But casual is great as long as the food is good, and here the food is playful and generously-portioned, one dish often enough for two.

$15.75 is a lot for a rueben, but Wong's is a big one. Too bad the reuben didn't hold up to exemplary versions elsewhere, although the addition of kimchee is conceptually brilliant. The sandwich was dry and the pastrami decent but lackluster -- a side of wasabi potato salad fared much better.

The popular stir-fried soybeans ($8.50) were likewise disappointing: a pile of beans soaked in sesame oil, garlic, and chilies. They sounded better than they tasted, missing the crisp snap and heat that could have made the dish addictive.

The dish that got me, however, was Wong's updated version of classic Loco Moco ($18.50). Using quality Kuahiwi Ranch natural beef for the hamburger patty, it rested on fried rice in a veal jus, topped with two Peterson Farm fried eggs. This was a blue collar dish elevated to culinary heights.

Skip the cocktails – the passionfruit "mojito" ($12) sounded good, made with cachaca, basil, tarragon, and mint, but I could not taste any cachaca. Better to go with Wong's house-made fountain sodas. At $6 a pop, they hold a lot more flavor. I loved the intense tart of the yuzu soda.

 

THE CHEAP

Char Hung Sut: 

Making manapua at Char Hung Sut

Dingy Char Hung Sut was among the best food of my entire Hawaiian trip. Chinese women and men rolled dough for pork buns and formed dumplings as friendly staff chatted me up while I ordered just about everything on the menu. For less than $5, I walked out with a bag full of dim sum from this humble, take-out only storefront. 

The sticky sweet half moon dumpling contrasted nicely with the savory manapua (local term for pork bun): among THE best pork buns I've ever tasted. Completely unique to traditional Chinese versions, these are Hawaiian-style pork buns. The filling's dark pink color comes from marinating the pork with just a bit of saltpeter (stone salt) prior to slow roasting. Dumplings were equally exemplary. Order everything. You'll leave happy.

 

Liliha Bakery:

Liliha Bakery is a dated bakeshop serving what is now legendary in Honolulu: Liliha Bakery's Coco Puffs. I can't say I get the craze exactly. Chocolate pudding filled mini-cream puffs aren't exactly melt-in-your-mouth. The pastry is a little dry and thick pudding filling is decidedly old school. But more power to 'em.

Where they got me was with lilikoi (passion fruit) or haupia (coconut cream)-filled malasadas. These sugar-crusted, Portuguese donut-like pastries are perfection filled with either. I have been craving them ever since I left the islands.

--Subscribe to Virgina's twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

 

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