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Dining Around Honolulu

My wife needed a few extra miles to retain her UAL Elite status, so we decided to head to Hawai`i for a short vacation. It did not hurt, that she needed some real vacation time, since she’d been in the air for about 3 months. We booked the hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and I made the restaurant reservations. We headed off, with just our appetites, and did not even pack the golf clubs.

I’d planned the dining experiences to coincide with the trip, and relied on some previous “heavy-hitter,” plus a couple of new locations. The one restaurant, that was missing in action, was the La Mer, based on the wine service on our last trip. My wife was just not ready to give them another chance, though we’ve dined there for most of the last 15 years. Amazing what bad wine service can do for a restaurant.

We took a later than normal flight from San Francisco and retrieved the rental car, prior to checking in. Since we were going to be late, in arriving, I chose a location close to the HHV resort.

I'm going to do this set of reviews, as I have done in the past. Each restaurant will be as a reply to this post, so people do not have to read one very long post, to get to the review that might be in their plans.

The rest, follows:

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  1. Sarento’s Top of the I

    Because of our day of flying and our late arrival on O`ahu, I chose Sarento’s Top of the I, http://www.tristarrestaurants.com/sar... for our first dining experience. Back in the early ‘80s, I had dined there, though that was many iterations and chefs ago. The Ilikai, where Sarento’s occupies the upper-most floor, is just down the street from the Hilton HV Resort, and, even with the construction, well within walking distance. The restaurant is accessed via a glass elevator from the lobby of the Ilikai. It overlooks Waikiki, and though it does not rotate, it offers a 360̊ view. The hotel/condominium structure has undergone several changes over the decades, and is now a Renaissance hotel, though there may be some condo units in the mix. We’d stayed there some years ago, when it was a New Otani property, and had occupied the penthouse, just below Sarento’s, though did not dine there on that trip.

    Sarento’s is now part of the Tri-Star Restaurant group, which also features Aaron’s Atop the Ala Moana, which looks very similar from the ground. I did a review of Aaron’s about two years ago, but it is no longer available through CH.

    Sarento’s bills itself as a “casually elegant Italian restaurant.” I agree with parts of that statement. It is casual, to a degree, and there are Italian influences on the menu. Stepping out of that elevator gives one the impression of going back a bit in time. The interior, plus the general architecture, harken back to the ‘70s. I’m sure that the change in ownership, the date of construction and probably a few shifts in focus, have not helped this impression.

    On the night of our visit, there was a pianist at the baby-grand. He was an accomplished player, but I’d question two aspects of the performance, especially as they relate to the “elegant” part of the restaurant’s description: the choice of material and the loudness of the music. The surfaces are all quite hard, as there is a lot of glass, and the acoustics are not the best. Though seated around an interior wall, we had to shout to be heard, even across a 4-top. I also do not think that a rendition of Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Entertainer,” and similar pieces, are appropriate for a fine-dining venue. OTOH, maybe these were all requests, and seemed appropriate to those making the requests. I kept coming back to the line from Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” “... the piano sounds like a carnival... “ and it did. While the gentleman was quite skilled at the keyboard, the choice of material and the intensity and db-level, did not fit at all.

    The staff was very proficient and knew the menu well. The same can be said for the well-suited, albeit short, wine list. They blended familiarity, knowledge and a good sense of service. I wish that I could be so kind, regarding the menu and the kitchen.

    I started with a bottle of Louis Latour, Meursault ‘04 and the fried calamari. The squid were OK, but did not make my top-list. Interestingly, all of my top-rated calamari have been from Denver, CO, not exactly a known seafood Mecca: Chef Kevin Taylor’s “Flash-fried Calamari” from his old Z-Brasserie and Chef Kenny Sonoda’s “Tempura Calamari Steak,” from Sonoda’s. These squid parts were just a bit rubbery and the batter was more like cornmeal, which I like on certain fish, but not on my calamari. The sauce was tasty, and was served on the side. We followed this with the bruschetta, which was very good. I might have started with a Chianti, to match the acid in both the calamari sauce and the bruschetta, but the Meursault did have good acid, just maybe not enough to handle the tomatoes.
    My wife went with Osso Bucco, which was done nicely, while I chose the Opakapaka. Neither of these was great, but were OK. I added an Amarone (actually from an earlier Italian Wine Dinner, but still in stock). The Meursault went well with the Opakapaka and the Amarone well with the Osso Bucco. We did a bit of “surf n turf” with our entrées, but that’s normal.

    I only wish that the ambiance and the food had matched the service, but it fell short. Personally, I think that the entire restaurant needs a major shakeup. We really enjoyed Aaron’s at the Ala Moana, but left Sarento’s less than satisfied. Everything, but the service, seemed very tired.

    Hunt

    27 Replies
    1. re: Bill Hunt

      Hi Bill (& All),

      I'm a new Chowhound and will be going to Honolulu with my husband the first week in December. You mentioned that you enjoyed Aaron's at the Ala Moana, and a friend of mine recommended it also. We made a reservation there for Saturday night so hopefully we'll like it just as much. What menu items would you recommend? The only other reservations I've made are for Alan Wong's on Friday night and Orchids at the Halukelani for Sunday Brunch. Any other suggestions? We have two more nights, and I'm hoping to find restaurants that aren't as pricey. Looks like Nico's Pier 39 is one you'd recommend. A friend recommends Sidestreet Inn, which we'll try. You and others have provided a lot of great info, which I'll continue to peruse.

      Thanks,
      Amy

      1. re: amyjane

        Sidestreet Inn is really a bar that serves good pupus, not a restaurant. Since it's bar food it tends to be on the salty side seasoning wise, but really good with cold beer. I've enjoyed the pork chops, fried rice, furikake ahi, steaks, etc. I've heard it is not so good at lunch, better in the evening as far as menu offerings go.

        1. re: amyjane

          Nico's is great for lunch, GO EARLY though. It fills up really fast with a line out the
          door after 11:30. I love to go there but always early. It is not the kind of place for
          a leisurely lingering type of lunch. People circle like vultures for tables. He has
          great food and it is worth the wait! He is only open until 5:00 M-F and until 2:30 Sat.
          Definitely try it!

          Again I'm lunching out and this time at TOWN on Waialae. Great food, reasonable prices and a "farm to table" place high on quality.

          1. re: manomin

            I have been reading great things about Town. I need to work it into the mix next trip.

            Hunt

          2. re: amyjane

            Amy,
            If I were you I'd avoid all restaurants at the top of hotels here. Or if you really want a romantic dinner with a view, try the new Twist at Hanohano, on the 30th floor of the Sheraton Waikiki. I've had one so-so dinner there, and one good dinner. Their schtick is "island cuisine"—with the chef drawing inspiration from islands around the world, from Santorini to the Seychelles. It's prix fixe only, choose from 3, 4 or 5 courses, with or without wine pairings. If you go, get a table on the Diamond Head side of the room, the other affords a view of the crane atop the rising Trump Tower.

            Other recommendations:
            Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas, my fave Hawaiian Regional Cuisine chef
            http://www.hiroshihawaii.com/

            Vino, charming enoteca, chef Keith Endo has been getting better and better. His salad nicoise, with fresh seared ahi, is addictive.
            http://www.vinohawaii.com/

            If you like Japanese, my favorite newish place is
            Izakaya Sushi Gaku http://tinyurl.com/5ln949

            For fun, try Hank's Haute Dogs
            Owner Henry Adaniya was the owner of the famed Trio in Chicago. That's the restaurant where chefs Grant Achatz, Rick Tramonto and Dale Levitsky made their names. He moved here to open his hot dog shack, serving gourmet weiners. In fact, i'm headed there for lunch today, cause in Saturday the special is duck-and-foie-gras sausage with housemade fruit compote. Mmmm.
            http://www.hankshautedogs.com/

            And yes, there's Town. My favorite go-to restaurant. If you live somewhere like SF or NY, it's nothing special...there are bazillions of mid-priced contemporary bistros like Town in those cities. But here it's a rarity. Much of the produce used comes from organic Ma‘o Farm in Wai'anae, which teaches at-risk youth leadership skills. If you're lucky they might have some wild boar carpaccio or sausage that chefs Ed and Dave made from an animal that a hunter friend gave them. And you might see Naveen Andrews from "Lost" sitting at the back of the room.

            Equally good is Town's sister lunch-only spot, Downtown, in the Hawaii State Art Museum. Hope that their duck confit sandwich is on the menu.

            Up the street from Town is 12th Avenue Grill, which actually opened a little before Town did, blazing the modern-American bistro trail. Chef Kevin Hanney cooks comfort food elevated a notch. You can't go wrong with the specials.
            http://www.12thavegrill.com/

            Chef Mavro's new winter menu is great. Highlights are his abalone ceviche—paper-thin slices of baby abalone raised on the Big Island paired with a savory cod croquette and a vibrant red chimichurri sauce, roasted squab "pot au feu," with a delicious mushroom broth, and a Moroccan-inspired lamb loin crusted in chickpea with a yogurt-garlic sauce. www.chefmavro.com

            A local insider tip: Lunch at the Honolulu Academy of Arts' Pavilion Cafe. Light Med- and Asian-inspired dishes, such as salad nicoise and grilled mahimahi over cold soba salad. It's open-air, next to this wall-o-water feature and a row of famed ceramist Jun Kaneko's towering dangos. They've got an amazing exhibition of kapa (hand-pounded mulberry bark) by Hawaiian Living Treasure Marie McDonald up, as well as a photography exhibition that includes works by Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Sally Mann. Here's the menu: http://www.honoluluacademy.org/cmshaa...

            1. re: HIeats

              I must concur with the majority of your post. Very insightful comments on some of my favorites. Had lunch at Town this past Wednesday. The mussels with the Cinzano broth remain a true triumph. We also had a burger with bacon/gorgonzola on the best baked brioche in recent memory toasted very nicely as well. Also the large salad of the day which had lots of roasted veggies and fennel and nuts and supremes of orange with a green goddess dressing, fabulous! Last night I was at Vino and it was wonderful the Fall menu is ending and on 12/3 the winter menu takes over another winner from Keith. As always I got an order of rice crackers with sauce from Hiroshi's to go.You are right too about the Academy, love to have lunch there and reservations are essential.

              For high tables with a great view I suggest Top Of Waikiki. I know, I know it seems like a tourist destination but the dining room is full of locals as well. Sean Priester tears it up in the kitchen and his commitment for "farm to table" remains true and abiding. You'll often see him shopping the KCC farmer's market for items to be highlighted on his menu. We had a fabulous dinner there eating almost everything on the menu there was nothing to report badly about. I too like 12th Avenue and their wine program is in step with his comfort food approach. Great post on your part!

              1. re: manomin

                You are not the first to recommend Top of Waikiki. Several other "hounds" have done the same. We have no experience, but should. I wish that I had done so, instead of Sarrento's, but I felt that it was close by and I'd been there in a previous iteration.

                We also enjoyed Aaron's Atop the Ala Moana, though that was some years back. My review may still be in the dusty archives of Chowhound, or maybe not. It's now been too many years to give it as a rec. to another "hound," as much could well have changed. I also do not see it mentioned on this board, and that is a bad sign.

                Hunt

              2. re: HIeats

                Hleats,
                Thanks for your extremely detailed post. Loved it! Thanks, everyone else, for your great responses also. I was having second thoughts about Aaron's after seeing the menu and now your post (and others') have convinced me that there are WAY better eats in Honolulu. Will look into Twist and Top of Waikiki if we really want that fine dining w/a view experience, but now I don't think so. We'll definitely try Town (is there a longer name?) and Sidestreet Inn (now understand it's more like a bar -- thanks, curiousgeo), and perhaps Nico's for lunch. I also like the sound of the Honolulu Academy of Arts cafe and Hank's Haute dogs for lunch, so we'll try to squeeze those in.

                My girlfriend who travels frequently to Honolulu just recommended Chai's Island Bistro (for their appies and entertainment) and Shokudo (for their rice pots and killer mochi gratin) --- and, of course, Alan Wong's (for their ginger-crusted onaga and poki pines appetizer). Decided to cancel the Orchids brunch since my hubby has done that before and I'm not big into buffets. This will be a yummy vacation, and I hope to walk off a lot of the calories! Will report back after the trip. Thanks, All!

                Amy

                1. re: amyjane

                  I'd be very interested in hearing a report on Chai's Island Bistro. It was on our list, but got replaced by Nico's. Still, I have heard good things about Chai's and intend on putting it on the list of the next trip.

                  Mahalo,

                  Hunt

                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    Hi Bill,

                    My foodie friend who recommended Chai's Island Bistro said, "This is Thai food with a Polynesian flair; it's very tasty." I'll be sure to report on it if we make it there. Too bad our trip isn't longer; so many tough dining decisions to make! :)

                    Amy

                    1. re: amyjane

                      Please do. It was right up there, due to many considerations, and we just ended up at Niko's. I do not regret that choice, though my wife's dish was far better than mine. [She deserved this from two previous trips, when it was ALWAYS the other way around.]

                      It looked good. It sounded good. It fit the bill, for what we needed and wanted, so I want to see what we missed. The food was the draw for us, as we were about to fly home. The music would have been a minor plus.

                      Mahalo,

                      Hunt

                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        I work right next to Chai's Island Bistro. It's not worth the money, IMHO. The food isn't that impressive. It feels like overpriced Thai food and the fusion meals are sometimes off (i.e. flavors don't mesh right). Great desserts though. Imaginative and pretty. The entertainment is often well worth it and the ambiance is fabulous.

                        Better Thai food is just up the street at Siam Garden Inn, and I get to be entertained by really bad Thai karaoke that loops continuously on TV screens around the restaurant. I think for food, I'd opt for Siam Garden Inn and then head to Chais for dessert and a nightcap w/entertainment. Next time we're forced to have a work lunch there, I'll post the meal options and provide a more informative review.

                        1. re: Moonie

                          Speaking of Thai cuisine, we used to enjoy the old Keo's on Kapahulu (original location?), but enjoyed some of the satellite locations. I saw that they had opened a new restaurant, maybe on Kuhio[?]. Has anyone dined there?

                          Just curious,

                          Hunt

                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            Not where you asked about but......I really like the Mekong on Beretania next to Beretania Florist across Times Supermarket. Really, Really Good! It is small
                            and the bottom dining area is way more desirable than the upper level (think no windows, now view - not that there's a lot to see...) but the bottom has a nice
                            atmosphere with lots of orchids. The staff is always very friendly and does whatever you need to be happy and enjoy the food at whatever levels of heat
                            you may/may not require. Everything is always fresh and on the money.
                            There are other locations but this is my favorite. I eat in and carry out since it's so far from home if I'm in town as late as when they open sometimes it's easier
                            to take the food back over and enjoy at home. But either way you would enjoy it I can tell from your posts and our emails of late. A hui hou!

                            1. re: manomin

                              Personally, I greatly appreciate that.

                              We normally do our dinners with reservations and these are more often "fine-dining" spots. For breakfast and lunch, we often just roam, until something looks good. Usually, they ARE good too. Many days are breakfast, then dinner, with the in-between being filled with heading off and doing whatever - often golf.

                              While we do more linen tablechothes, than cheesecloth gingham-checked covers, we seek out the food. If it's a "dive," we have not problem, but it'll usually be lunch, or breakfast. So, I am always glad to know of the great spots, view, or not. I usually have a nice one of those from my room, and might have one that night, from wherever. Lunch - well, it's all about the food.

                              Mahalo,

                              Hunt

                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                Bill, if you're ever playing at the Mililani public course, I hear that their clubhouse has a great dining room. The chef is Filipino and cooks up a lot of comfort food. My brother often goes out there just to eat although he will usually meet our uncle for 18 holes as well.

                                1. re: hopkid

                                  Never played it, but I will make note. Sounds like a great place for lunch, either before, or after a round.

                                  Mahalo,

                                  Hunt

                              2. re: manomin

                                Give PaeThai a try sometime. On King St. just a couple of short blocks Diamond Head of Piikoi.

                                1. re: KaimukiMan

                                  I respect your opinion KM - what should we order there?

                                  1. re: manomin

                                    the curries have always been good, and try the deep fried ong choi. Most of my friends like mild, so I have only been able to order medium or spicy on rare occasions.

                              3. re: Bill Hunt

                                I tried Keo's... based on someone's recommendation. I was extremely disappointed. The daquiris were icy, rather than smooth. The portions were small. I think we had 3-4 finger sized spring rolls... I can't remember who ordered those.

                                The red curry chicken was mediocre and despite the fact that we ordered it thai spicy, it came out medium. The flavors were flat and wasn't alive. It tasted primarily of coconut milk and not of the adventurous spices that I'm used to. Although pad thai is usually boring, I thought it was particularly so at this restaurant. The prices are extremely high and for the flavors, I'd rather go to Siam Garden on Nimitz.

                                1. re: Moonie

                                  Does not paint a good picture. I guess that the charm and the spirit are gone. Thanks for the update.

                                  Hunt

                              4. re: Moonie

                                Ditto the Siam Garden recommendation - I will do a trip report if I have time, but I ate at Siam today for lunch and it was very good - as good as I get in Thai Town in L.A. and the staff and customers there in the restaurant and I compared and contrasted the cooking with my know favs in L.A. - which they all knew and loved! This is a great place (if you can deal with the karoke, as Moonie has mentioned! Actually - it's just music in the background so who really cares with food this good!?) - hard to spot (it is on airport-bound side of Nimitz next to AAA office - make a U turn if you are coming from airport - from town if you see the AAA, turn right into parking which is all one way to the right.) I really liked this place - nice decor and a very authentic menu. I hope more people discover it - that's why I'm chiming in of course!

                                1. re: Pigeage

                                  Finding almost anything off of Nimitz is difficult. Even spots that we've been to before, are often passed, then the U-turn!

                                  Have not seen, nor dined at Siam Garden.

                                  Mahalo for the H/U,

                                  Hunt

                      2. re: HIeats

                        Great Post, I am going to a wedding here in Oct, anything new or add ins for some casual local eats dinner preferably....we will have 4 nights of dinners.

                        1. re: drewb123

                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6073...

                          1. re: KaimukiMan

                            Good link. Since this was my last trip to O`ahu, it's a tad dated now. Fortunately, you, and a few others, have kept us Mainlanders up to speed on what is new, and what has closed.

                            While I have some favs., I always check out the locals, and recent visits, to see what might have changed, since my last visit. Even in paradise, things are chaning very rapidly.

                            To Drewb123, enjoy, travel safely, and please help update the lists with some reviews. I'll be heading back in October, so I'll be watching for your posts.

                            Aloha,

                            Hunt

                  2. Alan Wong’s King Street, http://www.alanwongs.com/kingstreet/k...

                    Well, anyone, who knows me, or my posts, also knows the respect that I have for Chef Wong. I have to admit, that I know some of the folk in the corporate office, and also know Chef Wong in passing. However, that has never figured into my love for his food, his restaurants, and the great fun that we’ve had. In maybe 20 trips to Hawai`i, we’ve dined at the King Street restaurant 18 times, and will always include them in our rotation, regardless of how long, or how short our stay on O`ahu. I missed one visit, due to illness, and another, because I made the reservations at the Pineapple Room, when it first opened. Luckily, I called for a refresher on the valet parking, and found out WHERE I had my reservations.

                    We’d dined at King St a dozen times, before I even became aware of the Chef’s Counter. Though there are some pluses and some minuses with it, I will always do it. If I’m in town for enough time to dine there twice, I might go for the regular seating, or if I have guests, and want conversation, beyond the diner at my side, but until then, it’s the Chef’s Counter.

                    Though I have mentioned details of the Chef’s Counter, I will restate here. One is seated at a counter, with the kitchen just over and behind the back. You can see and hear almost everything. There is not quite enough space, but one quickly forgets that aspect, once the service begins. You sit on high stools, and are at eye-level of the chefs behind the counter. You cannot help but ask questions and everyone on the other side is happy to share the details of the various dishes, that they are working on. There are elements of “Hell’s Kitchen,” and “Emeril Live” just across the counter. One can order á la carte, or the “tasting menu.” We’ve always done the tasting menu, plus the sommelier’s wine pairings to accompany it. Maybe it was because we had done this enough times, or maybe they just have a good database of their patrons, but the restaurant knew that my wife is allergic to bi-valves, oyster, clams, scallops and mussels. Arrangements had already been made, should we choose the chef’s tasting menu, just for her. Even though we do a lot of high-end dining around the globe, this was a very nice touch, and greatly appreciated. Maybe it was from those past experiences, but the crew already had made changes on my wife’s tasting menu, just for her. This night, we both did the 7-Course Tasting Menu, with wine pairings.

                    The evening started with a couple of flutes of Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” Champagne NV. Now, this is our “house bubbly,” so we were both familiar with it. This went with the first two courses, Abalone, Tako & Ahi Salad (with Yuzu miso sauce) and “Soup & Sandwich” (chilled vine ripened Hamakua Springs tomato soup with grilled mozzarella cheese, foie gras and Kaua pig sandwich). Fantastic, especially the “Soup & Sandwich.” Fortunately, my wife only has a problem with bi-valves. Stick a mollusk in a single shell, like abalone, and she’s fine. Or maybe I should say “unfortunately,” as the price of abalone is up there.

                    Next, we had the Kabayaki Unagi Foie Gras Pork Hash Terrine, which was paired with the ‘05 Rudesheimer Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett. Hey, give me two dishes with foie gras, and you have my attention.

                    The following course was the Lobster Flan, and it was paired with Yuki NO Bosha, Junmai Ginjo sake. Now, I know very little of sake, but am always ready to learn and experiment. This was excellent, without the “heat” that I find in many sakes. Back home, I’d probably have brought up a bigger white Burg (Chard) to go with the richness of the flan, but the sake was very interesting and did a nice job.

                    My wife was in heaven (as was I with the foie gras), as the next dish was Kona Abalone (with negi oil and Hamakua eryngi mushrooms), as she now had abalone twice! This was paired with a lovely ‘06 Champalou Vouvray. The Chenin Blanc went so well with this dish. I also learned that there were abalones in Hawai`I.

                    Here, the dishes departed. I had the Bubu Arare Crusted Arctic Char (with dried scallop truffle sauce) and my wife had the Arctic Char, but with a shrimp sauce – really a nice, and appreciated touch! With these two dishes, we both had the ‘06 “Alan Wong Cuvée” Santa Barbara Chardonnay, by Brian Babcock. Though Brian does a number of great wines under his own label, but also loves producing some equally good wines, for special restauranteurs. Some years back, he teamed up with Anne Rice (novelist) for her restaurant and produced a red & a white under the Cuvée Lestat label. The restaurant is now history, but I happen to have some of the last bottles of each of these wines, that were produced. Not sure how well (or poorly) they might have aged, as I have not visited them in some time. The labels are probably more valuable, than the wines, at this date.

                    Our “mains” were the Maui Cattle Company Tenderloin (with roasted garlic au jus and sautéed Nagaimo), which was served with the ‘05 Justin “Alan Wong’s CSC” Paso Robles Meritage. If this dish was on the menu all of the time, I’d recommend it as the ultimate steak in Honolulu.

                    The meal ended with two desserts, Chocolate “Crunch Bars,” and Coconut Tapioca, which were paired with the Bonny Doon Muscat Canelli ‘05. Randal Grahm does this Muscat in his “Vin d’Glaciere line of cryo-icewines.

                    During the course of the meal, there were probably 4 Amuse Bouches served, but they came so fast, that I did not have time, or space, to jot them down.

                    The portions were perfect, as neither of us left hungry, or overly filled. The total bill, with a generous gratuity came to US$ 315.00. Not cheap, but I cannot imagine a better value in all of Hawai`i. We will definitely return, as we have since Alan opened the King St. restaurant.

                    Hunt

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Excellent report, Bill (as usual)!. Next time my wife and I are in Honolulu we'll be sure to get the tasting menu if not also sit at the counter. That will depend on if we are with family or not. And $315 for two tasting menus, wine pairings, and tip sounds more than reasonable to me!

                    2. Mariposa - Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana Shopping Center, Honolulu, HI, http://tinyurl.com/5yvsnx (Sorry about having to use TinyURL, but this ended up being a three-line URL.

                      Over the last couple of years, I had seen really good mention made of Mariposa at the Neiman Marcus at Ala Moana. I vowed to give them a try, and this trip turned out to be the perfect opportunity to do so. I did not realize that there were several Mariposas at different Neiman’s. The one in Las Vegas closed, not that long ago. I assumed that this was more like Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room, which is attached to Macy’s, also in Ala Moana. Still, with good CH reviews, I had to give this one a go.

                      Like the Pineapple Room, one enters through the department store. Though I’ve done similar, on many occasions, I still feel odd doing so. Still, the department store is upscale, and Mariposa is in keeping with this. There appear to be two dining areas, one inside and another on the lanai, overlooking the Ali Wai Harbor and Ala Moana Park. From the tables, I do not think that a diner would have much of a view of either the parking structure of the Ala Moana, or of Ala Moana Blvd. The walls are high enough, that the gaze goes beyond.

                      Our reservations were a little after sunset, but I’d suspect that the outside dining would be wonderful AT sunset. As we dined outside, I’ll comment on tables and their spacing. We had a 4-top against the exterior wall of Neiman’s, and there was an additional row along the wall at the edge of the lanai area. The tables were well-spaced and the pass-through area between these two rows was more than adequate for the servers to get past, but not hit chair backs. The area was elegant, as was the place-setting. Only caveat that I would offer is if the Trades are up, one could be buffeted a bit much. This was on a rather calm night, so there was no problem, whatsoever. I would guess that they do not seat outside, when there are “coconut warnings” posted.

                      We started the evening with the Domaine de Trienes Viognier ‘04 (also available b-t-g, as are all of the wines). Only complaint, that I would offer is that they need to have a higher-end and more full-bodied Chard, than the Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuissé – maybe a Meursault, or Montrachet. Still, the Viognier was delightful – light, floral and refreshing. Hey, floral is in keeping with Hawai`i, huh?

                      My wife started with the Short Rib Agnolotti (housemade ravioli, hamakua mushroom sautée and Gorgonzola mousse) and I the Pink Peppercorn-crusted Ahi (seared rare, eggplant caponata and saba drizzle). I ordered a bottle of the Louis Jadot Gevrey Chambertin ‘04, for these dishes and for later. (Note to Mariposa: a bigger CA Central Coast PN, or a CA Zin would really be nice on your list.) Each dish was excellent and the pacing for the evening was perfect.

                      Next, I ordered the Kahuku Corn Chowder (celery, potato and chive) and my wife went with the Mariposa Salad (Ko`olau mountain greens, shaved fennel, Maui onions, Kamuela tomatoes and white balsamic vinaigrette). The PN went well with the fennel in her salad, but I would have loved a big Chard for the corn chowder (see above).

                      For our mains, I chose the Seared Diver Scallops (lilikoi butter, celery root, Yukon mash and sautéed beet greens), and my wife opted for the Kiawe Smoked Pork Chop (finished on the grill, with celery root and Yukon mash, and lilikoi mustard brown butter sauce). Since we do not do scallops (those pesky bi-valves) at home, I often order them out. Both mains were done very well, and the remaining wines went well with both. Along the way, I did pass a glass of the Viognier to a nearby diner, after she sang the praises of her Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuissé, so we did not do a bottle of each between us.

                      The evening was lovely, and, as the store was closed, we took the exterior elevator to the parking garage level to walk back to our hotel. The service was very good, with no flaws. The food was the same. Given a lovely evening with mild Trades, this was a perfect dining venue. The only negative comment is in regards to the wine list. Kick it up a notch, or two. I do like that everything is available b-t-g, or as a split for bubbles, but with the cuisine here, one needs more choices towards the upper-middle, or high-end of the wine spectrum.

                      Though it might not be on the next trip, we will return. I’ll shoot for sunset on that evening, especially as we are most often in Hawai`i in the Fall, or early Spring, before dining on the lanai would get too warm.

                      Hunt

                      1. Nico’s Pier 39 – Pier 39 off of the Nimitz Hwy, Honolulu, HI.

                        I’d seen the sign a hundred times, as we drove from HNL to Waikiki, but we’d never stopped before. On this trip, we needed a late afternoon dining venue, prior to boarding our plane to the Mainland. I had considered several other spots, but the CH recs indicated that we needed to try Nico’s. Well after the lunch-rush, we headed out Pier 39 and quickly found Nico’s. It looked like a “drive-in,” but without the curb service. There were still quite a few diners, even though lunch had been officially over for a few hours.

                        I walked up to the counter, and looked over the menu. I then asked the lady, behind the counter, to help me get the “drill” down, and she agreed to help me. Wife ordered the ahi plate and I the “fish-n-chips,” which featured mahi-mahi that day. We were seated outside and waited for but a few moments, before our meals were served. I had ordered two Chardonnays, but will refrain from mentioning what we got. Suffice it to say that these were not fine French Chards. Also, the stemware was small plastic cups. Hey, this ain’t La Mer!

                        The orders arrived, and my wife’s ahi was great! Wish that I could say the same for my mahi f-n-c. OK, mahi is not my favorite fish, but I have had many versions, that were really good, if not great. This was not such an occasion. The mahi was a few days past its prime, in my estimation. Still, wife’s ahi was out of this world. OK, far too often I get the good main course, and wife ends up suffering. She got her revenge on this one. I’d order the ahi any day, all day. One of the best iterations, that I’ve ever had.

                        Nico’s Pier 39 is a small, local spot, and a bit off the beaten path, on the waterfront. The prices are very, very fair. The bathrooms ARE separate, over by Uncle’s, and look like a park facility, though they are clean and neat.

                        We’ll definitely be back. For cheaper, casual eats, Nico’s has it going.

                        Hunt

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          Glad you made it to Nico's at Pier 38, it is a favorite for lunch and we always go early so you were smart to go later than the rush hour. Was your wife's plate the furikake ahi? I really like that too or any of his daily fish specials have always been good. I know what your wine was......it still comes in little glass bottles I'm guessing that have a limited selection. I do notice that thankfully his beer offerings have gone from just Bud LIght (yuck) and Corona and Heineken to a couple others more worthy of consideration. Glad you made the trek! a hui hou!

                          1. re: manomin

                            Yes, wife's dish was the Funikake Ahi, and it was great.

                            The wines ARE in the little bottles and we had a choice of Sutter Home, white, blush or red. I looked to see, but there wasn't even a California appelation on the bottle? I would assume that they use CA grapes, as all of their property, that I know of, is in CA. My guess is that they used some run-of-the-mill Chard, as a base, and then blended in Chenin, French Columbard, or similar from the Imperial Valley. May have even had some Thompson Seedless juice in it?!?! Hey, we'd spend 5 days with some very good wine, so we can take what is offered, when doing a diner.

                            We'll be back, but I think I'll go for the ahi, and leave the f-n-c's for London - sorry Nico's.

                            Hunt

                        2. O`ahu Breakfasts combined:

                          Since we were staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, http://www.hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/, we had some choices for breakfast. Since I’m a life-time Gold HHonors member, I get breakfast, when I stay at a Hilton. At the HV property, this manifests itself as a daily coupon, that gets one a “continental breakfast,” or a reduction on a full-breakfast at certain locations on the property. It seems that the location changes with each visit. We started off with the Tropics Bar & Beach Café. Last year, this was one of the locations, where one could get the full-breakfast, and use the coupon as a discount. Well, not this year. Still, we did their full-breakfast and it was OK, for a resort setting. Nothing special, but nothing to get excited about.

                          Next day, we did the Rainbow Lanai. This is one of the neatest venues on the property, but their breakfast menu is buffet. Here, the coupons did work, and we got our “discount.” Last year, they did not work here. Well, for the beauty of the location, the buffet is pretty bleak. Yes, there is food, and one can load the plate to overflowing, but steam tables and institutional-grade food are not something that we enjoy. We’d dined here before, for both breakfast and for dinner. Each time, we were underwhelmed. In case you have not picked up on this, we are not buffet people. Fortunately, the papaya was finally topped-up, and we made a meal on it. I do not know how they always run out of papaya, but it seems to be a common thread. Normally, we’ll stop by the grocery and pick up a couple, along with limes, some Lion Brand Toasted Coconut coffee, and just do these on the lanai back in the room. However, the HV has gone to coffee “pods,” so there went that idea.

                          Finally, for the HV property, we just used our coupons at the Tapas Bar and did a muffin and coffee. These were all OK, but did not really make an impression - think Starbucks, without the array of coffees.

                          As the trip was winding down, we walked up to Cheeseburger in Paradise (not the Jimmy Buffet chain) on Ala Moana @ Kalakaua Ave. This used to be a Sizzler, but at one time, decades ago, it had great breakfasts. Yes, I know, wash my mouth out with coconut soap, but they had great breakfasts. One could get good pancakes with real coconut syrup, a half papaya, coffee and good orange juice for about US$6. I cannot recall how I came upon them as a breakfast location, but for ten years, wife and I would usually stop in for a couple of early meals. Now, the spot is a Cheeseburger in Paradise. I do not know how this restaurant differs from the J. Buffet chain, but they claim to be totally unrelated. I wanted to like this spot, as it has a neat look. It reminds me of a beach hut, that has a kitchen. There is Hawaiian kitsch everywhere. I spent half an hour just looking at it all. Well, we’re here for breakfast, so I must get on with the review. The service was OK – sometimes great, but then turning to spotty, as in ignore the patrons. It was strange. The food was also OK, with nothing to really recommend it. Dang, I really wanted to like this place, but could not bring myself to do so. The coffee was weak and had a strange taste. The OJ tasted like it was out of a can, and not the concentrate. The coconut, macadamia nut pancakes were rubbery and the coconut syrup tasted like plastic. Maybe the cheeseburgers are better. Oh well, obviously the location did not have great karma attached to it. Based on the breakfast, I do not think I will ever be back.

                          On our last morning, we stopped in at the Wailana Coffee Shop, across Ala Moana @ Ena Road, from the HV property. I’d seen it for decades, but had never stopped in. Each morning, there was a line out the door, and that was a good sign. We found our place in that line, and waited. Things moved quickly, and finally, we were seated in a retro-coffee shop. This place was definitely in a time-warp, say 1960. Imagine stopping in at a diner in most cities in the US in 1963. This was it. The place was crowded, just as it had appeared on every morning that we passed by. The waitresses (did not see any guys waiting tables) all seemed to have been there for years, and had all decided to make a career of waiting tables in a coffee shop. They were the epitome of service at this level of restaurant. In a sea of Formica™, 60's “modern” lights and vinyl, they were the queens of the place. Each was friendly, but not too familiar with the patrons. They were all efficient, and courteous. I cannot fault any, with whom I dealt, or any that I observed. They were comfortable in their work and the restaurant.

                          We ordered some “standard” dishes, in a mix-n-match selection. The eggs were perfect. The pancakes were perfect. The selection of syrups were perfect. The “Applewood Smoked Bacon,” was, and it was cooked to order – crisp. The OJ tasted fresh and the coffee was fine.

                          Now, I grew up with diners that preceded this style – all stainless steel, before 60's “modern.” Still, I have spent many mornings of “road trips” in places like this, though none at this level. If I were to enter a time machine and find myself wanting a breakfast in the 1960's, this is where I’d want to start. It does not get better than this. I openly make that statement, even after having done Orchid’s Sunday Brunch on the trip before. Different spaces, different foods, but I’d gladly pay the Orchid’s price for the simple breakfasts here. Yeah, my blazer and my wife’s cashmere St John’s shawl might have been out of place, it’s about the food, the service and even the ambiance, which was perfect for our meal. Will I eschew all of the breakfast options at the HV, regardless of a sea of coupons, on our next visit? In a “New York second.” To be quite blunt, I’d walk, each morning, from San Souci Beach, just for this spot, no matter of how retro it is. Nothing fancy. No foams. No smokes. Just good breakfasts!

                          Hunt

                          1. Chef Mavro’s

                            We have enjoyed Chef Mavro’s, http://www.chefmavro.com/ on a few occasions, usually doing variations on his tasting menu, accompanied by the sommelier’s wine pairings. Because of the structure of the tasting menus (there are more than one and the variations are extensive), two can sample just about everything available, and then some. This plan might not be unique, but is the most extensive, that I have ever encountered. As if this were not enough, one can also do the sommelier’s “rare wines” selection, to “kick it up a notch.” Choices, choices, choices.

                            We had prepared ourselves for at least one “Grand Degustation” tasting menu, and maybe the five-course version. With a little prodding, and a reiteration of the portion size, I convinced my wife to go the full-route, along with me.

                            We started the evening with the ‘02 Michel Colin-Deleger Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Vergers (Chardonnay) in a B-T-G selection. How often do you see a 1er Cru Chassagne-Montrachet B-T-G? Though we knew that we’d see this one again (from the previous visit), I am a sucker for Montrachet b-t-g, and do love this wine. While Deleger is not one of the top producers (being a négociant with little actual property), this is a characteristic Chard and is well-made.

                            Rather than list all of the items on the menu (we basically did everything offered that night), I’m going to comment on the overall experience. We had just done Chef Mavro’s a few months before and loved every aspect of the menu and the wines. Matter of fact, we were blown away by each, the food and the wines.

                            Well, this trip was not up to that level. I’m not sure if it was two large parties, or maybe just an off night. The food was good, but not at the level as before. Nothing “sang” to either of us. The wine pairing was similar – good, but not great. There was even an episode with one of the wines, which was noticeably corked. The sommelier, who was serving us was not Todd Asline, who was doing duty as the host. A corked bottle of wine happens, between 4% and 10% of the time, depending on whose figures you believe. However, a wine, that is corked, should never be served by a sommelier. He/she should catch the fault, and pull the bottle for return to the distributor. In this case, it was even worse. This bottle was half-full, meaning that the sommelier had already served about 4 glasses of the bad wine, given the tasting pours. Never, never, never should this have happened. When I called attention to the problem, the wines were quickly replaced. Still, four other diners did not get replacements! This is just inexcusable. No one, with any knowledge of wine, would serve a corked wine. It is just not done. Also, the sommelier got two of the wines wrong. As I always ask to see the labels, especially if I do not intimately know a wine, I caught both of these mistakes.

                            OK, we have a kitchen not doing the best, that it can do – I’ve experienced it, when everything was working perfectly. We have a sommelier, who was not paying attention to his duties. We also had servers, who seemed to be flustered and in a big hurry. When one does an eleven-course meal, they are not in a hurry. I do not care how busy the rest of the house is, if you are doing the “full-boat” menu, it WILL take time. You will not turn the table more quickly, if you try to snatch a diner’s plate, before they are finished. Nothing was working, and I know that it can, and that it should. As good as AW’s was (and has always been for us), Chef Mavro’s was really off. I do not know what was amiss, but, if I did not know the magic that they are capable of, I’d likely not return. As it is, I do know the magic of this restaurant, and will return. That said, if I encounter another experience like this one, it will be my last visit. What ever the problem was, I hope that the establishment gets over it, and that this is not a trend. If so, it is a downward spiral, and Chef Mavro’s is far too great to let this happen.

                            With great sadness,
                            Hunt

                            1. Bali by the Sea

                              Bali by the Sea, Hilton Hawaiian Village, 2005 Kaila Road, Honolulu, http://www.hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/.... My first experience with Bali was many decades ago. It was a very bad one, and there were a dozen trips (all staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village or their Ali`i Towers), that I would not think of dining there. About ten years ago, my wife urged me to give them one more chance. Because of her charm, I did just that, and fell in love with Bali by the Sea. On every visit, since that second time, they have come through marvelously and beautifully. I realized that I had probably missed some great meals, but then that first visit was horrible, with a capital H. I was so glad that my wife had had a more open mind, than did I. We’ve dined there on every visit, since that second experience, and I have written of great meals and exemplary service, in a lovely venue. It is with great sadness, that I type this review. I feel like I have just lost a good friend – a friend, with whom I got off to a shaky start.

                              Bali by the Sea is still a lovely restaurant. Being seated at the “railing” is a wonderful experience. It is romantic, semi-intimate, and has featured some great food and wine over the years. We have been doing an anniversary celebration there for at least eight years, and have dined there on every trip to O`ahu, even if we do several in one year.

                              We arrived at our reserved time and were promptly seated at the railing, overlooking the beach and the Pacific. It was a perfect evening, with light Trades and I was amazed that at 7:30PM, the restaurant was nearly empty. We got water and little else for about 15 minutes. Atypical. Finally, a server stopped by and asked if we wanted a cocktail. I asked for the wine list, which is normally presented with the menus, which also had not come.

                              I started the evening with the Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet ‘03, while I looked over the wine list and we waited for the menus. Finally, the menus came, but not the Montrachet. After a bit more of a wait, I flagged down the server, and inquired about our wine. “Sorry, we’re out of it,” was all he said, as he sped off to where ever he felt was much more important. Within a half-hour, the sommelier stopped by to apologize for the lack of the Montrachet. He offered the Latour Chevalier-Montrachet, or the Corton-Charlemagne at 2x - 2.5x the price of the Puligny-Montrachet. I chose the Latour Meursault, instead, and it was available. The Meursault finally arrived, and I declined on the tiny “white-wine glasses,” and asked for Burgundy Balloons, instead. Now, I would have preferred a couple of Riedel Vinum “Montrachet” glasses, but the Burg (normally used for reds) balloons were the best that I could do. He hesitated for a moment, and I actually thought that he was about to tell me that I had to take what was on the table. Hesitantly, he left, to return with some pretty poor Burg glasses. Still, they were better than the “restaurant-grade” white-wine glasses, that he really wanted us to use.

                              Armed with the menus, we ordered: the Lump Crab Cake (sweet Kahuku corn salad Nalo micro greens and fire-roasted red pepper coulis) and the Sugar Cane Crusted Scallops (ponzu beurre blanc and warm arame salad). These were delivered fairly quickly, and were good, though a bit dry (each dish) and luke-warm, like they had been sitting on a counter for too long.

                              Our next courses were: Kahuku Sweet Corn & Maui Onion Soup (finished with a touch of coconut milk), and Caesar Salad “Island Style” (Kula baby hearts of Romaine, black pepper tuile, shave reggiano parmesan and Bali Caesar dressing). These arrived just as our starters were finished. Maybe things were looking up?

                              Our mains were: Moi, Fish of the Ali`i (served on a bed of cramy potato purée, wilted spinach, tender honey smoked lardon and a kukui nut beurre blanc) and the Scallion Crusted Ahi Tempura (island baby vegetables, radish sprouts, Moloka`i purple sweet potato and ponzu beurre blanc). I asked for the wine list, and ordered the Joseph Faiveley Nuits St-Georges PN. “Not available,” I was told. OK, the Betrand Ambroise Clos Vougeot PN? “No, not available.” A suggestion was made for the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Échézeaux. Well, let me do the math. I had ordered two wines in the US$150-190 range, and the suggestion was for a bottle of US$ 1,000/btl. I declined, and another recommendation was made for a btl of Ch. Haut-Brion at US$ 1200. Sorry, I’m not into doing Bdx with my seafood and especially not at 8-9x the price of the wines, that I had just ordered. I was then offered an Acacia Carneros PN (priced at US$82, and one that I buy at US$20+ weekly), and I declined. I asked about any Burgs in the US$150-250 range, and was told that all were gone. It was break the bank, or nothing. Everything else was gone. I finally settled on the Archery Summit PN, and gave up on trying to find a really good, food-friendly wine in the Burg area, as all were “gone.”

                              This is a restaurant, that has won the “Wine Spectator’s” Award of Excellence for five, or so, years, most recently in ‘07. How? They are out of everything between Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Blend and DRC Burgs! The sommelier mentioned that his “shipment” of wine had not come in. Yeah, right! Now, it’s not that uncommon for me to spend US$1,000 on wine for a fine-dining experience, though hardly ever on one bottle. I also have a bit of a problem spending 4x my price on my “house” PN, when I’m doing fine-dining, and I greatly resent these being my only options. Matter of fact, I’m having a glass, while I type this.

                              Let’s get back to the mains for a moment, shall we? My ahi was flavorless, regardless of the prep. and my wife’s moi needed to be a few days fresher, and not so dried out. Really, pretty poor mains, and at US$ 36-38/dish, inexcusable.

                              The service that night seemed to be around a party of ~10, near-by, and a couple, who were obviously VIPs. Maybe they were buying the DRCs. As the room emptied completely, we did get more attention, though it was really too late to save the evening.

                              When things go badly, at a restaurant, that I know, I start to look for reasons. I also asked around of many of the staff at the resort, trying to find out what was going on – up and down the line. I observed a ton of construction of “time share” units on the property, and a visual decline of many of the restaurants, but do not know if these are tied in. My gut feeling is that the restaurants will be all closed, and the spaces leased out to independent restauranteurs. No one, with whom I spoke, would confirm this suspicion, and most denied it. Still, something is “up,” and I feel very bad for the restaurants on the property. Since my visit, one of the higher-end spots, “The Golden Dragon,” has closed. I observed that the majority of the patrons at the HV were Oriental, during my stay, but they must not be flocking to the higher-end spots. I did notice that Todai, just across Ala Moana Blvd. was filled each night.

                              Recently, Yoshi, a major contributor to this board, indicated that the Executive Chef at Bali by the Sea had recently left. I wonder if his departure was prior to my visit, and if it had any play in the demise, as we saw it.

                              We’ll be back, and only hope that the fare gets back up to the level that we have come to expect, and that the wine deliveries arrive, on time, just before our next visit. We were both very sad by this dining experience.

                              Hunt

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                Outstanding report and well worth the wait! I'm passing along the link to certain interested parties who will hopefully benefit from your insightful commentary.

                                1. re: Yoshio

                                  Thanks for logging in. I always appreciate your comments and insight, even if we do disagree on occasion. Your input is always greatly appreciated. As I noted, things were just not the same at Bali, and I took notice of your comments, especially as my "sources" did not furnish me with anything to explain what I observed.

                                  Hunt

                              2. Universal thanks for your very carefully and expertly crafted observations.

                                1. Thanks for your very detailed report. I love reading about the places you've visited on your last trip, especially your descriptions of the food served, good and sometimes not so good. As a local resident, I tend to stay away from the higher end places looking for more moderate, everyday restaurants, but I still enjoyed reading about your dining experiences. Who knows, birthdays and anniversaries are always a great excuse to celebrate at a nice restaurant.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: curiousgeo

                                    We end up missing a lot of great "local" spots, because our dining nights are so very few. There are a couple of must-do's and then we try to fit in a couple of new spots, or spots new to us. Still have not made it Sidestreet [?] yet, but have it bookmarked for consideration in October. Maybe one day, we'll spend a couple of weeks on O`ahu and hit 'em ALL.

                                    Thanks for the kind words,
                                    Hunt