The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Hilo’s Kaikodo lovely
to look at, but offers
little else

I knew I'd catch up with Mike Fennelly sooner or later. I became intrigued by the chef after descending on Santa Fe's Santacafé about 12 years ago.

Maybe it was simply the magic of New Mexico, but I fell in love with the menu Fennelly had created and vowed to catch up with him after he'd moved on to Mike's on the Avenue in New Orleans. At the same time, I checked up on another N.M. alum, Mark Miller, who'd opened Red Sage in Washington, D.C. (Some people stalk movie stars, I stalk chefs.)

Strangely enough, some kind of voodoo caused me to dine just about everywhere but Mike's and after some time he moved on to San Francisco's Mecca before dropping from the culinary radar -- the original restaurant superstars displaced by a new generation of TV chefs.

Well, Fennelly's resurfaced in, of all places, Hilo! Not quite our back yard, but close enough to hop over for lunch or dinner.

I was not prepared for the exquisite Restaurant Kaikodo, housed in the historic, and expertly refurbished Toyama building. Across an entry from the main room is Kaikodo Sushi Bar, a place for business meetings and smaller foodie gatherings.

But the main room, with its high ceilings and pillars is stunning, home to an Old English mahogany bar, century-old carved wooden doors from China, an antique Chinese bedroom serving as a small lounge for two to four. The building was home to a string of banks and its vault now serves as a wine cellar. Murano glass chandeliers in the shape of octopi add a whimsical and colorful touch to the otherwise grand and stately room.

It is a restaurant that would easily fit into the San Francisco or Manhattan scene, but it is also understated enough to fit right into Downtown Hilo, where it has found an eager following.

Restaurant Kaikodo is a architectural and antique-filled gem in Downtown Hilo.

UNFORTUNATELY, the food did not live up to hype surrounding this restaurant.

Barbecued oysters were topped with a heavy Korean-style sauce that, though locals with a taste for sweet and tangy flavors will likely love, overpowered the shellfish. I assume anyone in search of oysters would prefer to taste more of it. Similarly, lines of Absolut Citron-wasabi creme fraîche did little to enhance salmon carpaccio, though it at least did no harm. Only the clay-pot shortribs ($7), slow-cooked to tender perfection in a sauce of rice wine, shallots and dates worked.

As in gymnastics, where opening flaws can be corrected by a couple of perfect 10s later, there was still a chance for redemption with the delivery of the entrees.

This was not to be and about 50 percent of this was my fault. I simply ordered the wrong things, perhaps due to jet lag and the anxiety of knowing I had only one opportunity to get it right. The other 50 percent I place on the waiter. I make a couple of ordering mistakes a year by listening to waiters. Due to the youth and sophistication level of 98 percent of them, chances are most patrons know more than they do.

I let this guy talk me out of ordering the tea-smoked duck and into ordering a plain roast chicken. At least the sides of mushrooms and goat cheese gnocchi added some interest. The menu's strength is abundance of the Big Island's fresh produce, including tomatoes bursting with sun-ripened lusciousness.

The waiter also gave low marks to a Hamakua mushroom sampler ($17, from those I tried with the chicken, this could have been excellent) and high marks to a sake-lemongrass steamed ono ($23). So we ordered the fish which arrived looking like a rolled-up face towel and was almost as dry. There was nothing appetizing about the presentation, and while accompanying five-spice nage and pumpkin puree were delicate and pleasant, these could not save the fish.

Every second-tier and chain restaurant on Oahu can do just as well or better than this. The experience might have been better had I ordered the lilikoi babyback ribs or ahi salad, but these types of dishes are generally foolproof.

Inexperience and a general malaise may explain the problems in the kitchen if the problems of the front room -- where staffers cannot answer basic questions or perform the simple task of faxing a menu to Oahu (I never did get one after calling three times) -- are indicative.

Yes this is Hilo, and in this sleepy milieu Restaurant Kaikodo dazzles, but given this venue and a James Beard-caliber chef, I expect more.

Next time I want to go island hopping, I'll head to Spago on Maui at Wailea's Four Seasons.

Restaurant Kaikodo

60 Keawe St. (at corner of Waianuenue) in Hilo / 808-961-2558

Food Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star Star Star

Value Star Star Half-star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily

Cost: Lunch about $25 to $30 for two; dinner about $50 to $60 without drinks

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to


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