Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, September 22, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Grilled tiger prawns with a beet salad is a new item on the Hoku's menu.

The making of a
modern menu

By Betty Shimabukuro


It was a towering, manly creation -- a filet of beef topped with a whole portobello mushroom cap, doused in red wine sauce, on a bed of red onion confit.

Problem was, touch it with a fork and it would fall over. It was intimidating to eat and difficult to produce just because so many cooks were involved.

Back to the drawing board.

Because no matter how good it tastes, or how nice it looks, or how much the chef believes in it, a dish won't succeed unless it can be produced consistently and efficiently in the kitchen. Plus, it has to come in at a "price point" that satisfies the restaurant's bottom line.


Bullet Aaron's Atop the Ala Moana: Grand re-opening, 6-10 p.m. Oct. 3; former location of Nicholas Nickolas, Ala Moana Hotel. Benefits scholarships for University of Hawaii hospitality students, $50. Call 536-9105.
Bullet Hoku's: Revamped menu features dishes by Christophe Vassaire, new executive sous chef. In the Kahala Mandarin Oriental hotel, 739-8888.

Two restaurants unveiled new menus recently, providing a glimpse of how this is done -- offering a bit of insight into the way food choices are made in the world of dining out.

For instance, Todd Carlos, executive chef for the Tri-Star Restaurant Group, had created the beautifully stacked filet for the new Aaron's restaurant, which is replacing Nicholas Nickolas atop the Ala Moana Hotel.

The dish went through four changes, with various sauces, mushrooms and vegetables, Carlos said, before it reached its final form. The final problem was not taste, but practicality.

The version with the portobello cap was served to the cooks, who loved it, Carlos said, but told him it would be difficult to produce. Of the cooks on the "hot line" -- grill, saute, oven and fryer -- all four would have to "touch" the plate.

And so the new version: Sliced mushrooms in a pinot-burgundy sauce, with the filet on a bed of bitter greens and onions. Two cooks, far fewer pans. A menu item is born.

When Aaron's opens Oct. 3, Filet ala Lexi will be on the menu, $27.95.


Across town at the Kahala Mandarin Oriental, Christophe Vassaire, executive sous chef, has just introduced a new menu at Hoku's, where the challenge was to preserve what was "definitive to Hoku's" while incorporating the expertise of a new chef.

"The menu needs to reflect the character and personality of the chef," Vassaire said.

"In the beginning I wanted to do a French-Mediterranean cuisine, but, you know, we changed a bit the concept at the end."

Hoku's is known for its kiawe grilled, Indian tandoori and Szechuan wok specialities developed under Wayne Hirabayashi, now the resort's executive chef. But Vassaire did seek to make his own mark.

So, out are the opakapaka, crab cake, mahimahi and beef ribs. Why? "It was time for change."

In are dishes such as Pan-Seared Island Moi served with shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, apples and green grape juice -- Vessaire considers that to be his signature dish. "The composition is typically Christophe."


Vassaire and Carlos are both new hires -- Vassaire from his own restaurant, Grappa in Atlanta, Carlos from the award-winning team at the Lodge at Koele. Actually both chefs have roots on Lanai. Vassaire was chef de cuisine at Manele Bay's Hulupoe Restaurant before moving to Atlanta.

Vessaire believes in refreshing a menu four times a year, by season. To have the same menu for a year -- "I think it's boring."

At Aaron's, though, namesake Aaron Placourakis, one of three partners in Tri-Star Restaurant Group (which also owns Sarrento's top of the "I" and Nick's Fishmarket on Maui) , believes in a stable menu that customers can count on.

"My philosophy with food is I'm not into seasonal changes in a menu," Placourakis said.

"To me there is a happy medium when you can bring in seasonal products but still keep the identity of the venue. ... Consistency has always been the thing that enables us to grow."

That said, Aaron's will not be a reincarnation of Nicholas Nickolas, the nightclub-restaurant that opened with Placourakis as chef in 1984.

Over a period of just a few weeks, the venue is being remodeled, to open again as an entertainment -fine-dining site.

Placourakis hopes to tone down the high-end reputation of Nicholas Nickolas and "take some of the intimidation out of it."

In other words, he hopes diners won't feel they have to show up in coat and tie.

The average ticket, he said, should be about $30 per person, compared to $37 at Nicholas (the Hoku's average is $45.50 with wine, Hirabayashi said).


More samples from the two new menus: At Hoku's, Char-Grilled Australian Tiger Prawns with beet root and ginger salad; Kiawe-Grilled Hudson Valley Duck Liver with Nalo greens, carmelized mango and lemon grass. At Aaron's, King Oscar (veal medallions with king crab potato cake and bernaise sauce); New York Steak with red-wine horseradish sauce and onion rings. A Nicholas Nickolas favorite, Maui Wowie Salad, returns with a Greek dressing.

Carlos has his own method for judging the ultimate success of his food.

"I stand by the garbage can and see what's being thrown out. That's a very important step a lot of chefs don't do."

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