Jason Genegabus

Friday, January 21, 2005

Bartender Randy Kong pours some wine at John Dominis.

Dominis martinis
hit the spot

Location: 43 Ahui St.
Hours: 4 to 11:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Phone: 523-0955


IT WAS A race against the sun -- a friend and I wanted to have drinks in the lounge at John Dominis, and we figured the best way to enjoy them would be as daylight faded away over the southern shore of Oahu.

Battling traffic along Ala Moana Boulevard, we talked about the last time each of us had actually set foot in the restaurant (it had been at least three or four years, by my count) and the period when management agreed to host the weekly "Spy Bar" back in 2001.

Along with events at the W Honolulu, the Friday party at John Dominis was a predecessor to the trendy "ultra lounge" concept that various nightspots embraced throughout 2004.

But it wasn't until I had given my keys to the valet and rushed into the restaurant's lobby that I realized our mistake. You can't see the sunset from the lounge in John Dominis. There aren't any windows!

JUST OFF to the right of the front entrance, the lounge in John Dominis is an excellent way to enjoy the elegance of the restaurant without having to shell out hundreds of dollars for a complete meal.

No reservations are necessary, and you don't have to check in to have a few drinks. Just wave at the hostess like you know where you're going, and grab a seat at one of the eight tables in the room.

You could also opt for a seat at the bar, but I'd suggest the couches and tables instead. That way you can enjoy the ambience of the lounge without being stuck under the track lighting that's used to illuminate the room.

Cocktail waitress Hinano Sholars picks up a plate of sushi while sushi chef Ken Itakura prepares more.

On the night we visited, the majority of people there were relaxing on the couches while waiting for their tables to become available. Whitney Anderson (a member of the family that owns John Dominis) was also there, entertaining some friends in a corner.

With an abundance of wood and lava rock, potted plants spread throughout the room and the soft gurgle of running water audible from the restaurant's indoor waterway, I felt like I was having cocktails in the living room of an estate in Kahala. Fortunately, my aloha shirt and jeans didn't feel too out of place -- while some gentlemen sported coats, other guests were dressed down like me.

EASING BACK into our couches, my friend and I enjoyed our cocktails as more guests arrived for dinner. Forget about grabbing a beer and some chicken wings here; it's all about fresh fish, sushi and almost a dozen different types of martinis.

At $6.50 each, the martinis are on par with some of the other so-called "upscale" watering holes in Honolulu. The bartender here makes them nice and strong, and the glasses aren't those tiny ones that you finish in just two or three sips.

My first pick was The Mandarin, a mix of Absolut Mandarin, peach schnapps and a splash of orange juice. Not bad, but not especially noteworthy either. The Creamsicle my friend tried was a disappointment, tasting nothing like the ice cream treat. Its saving grace was the amount of alcohol inside it -- plenty of Stolichnaya vodka, with just a hint of orange and pineapple juices.

Things started to look up with our next round of a Razztini and Pineapple Cosmopolitan. I'm a fan of the Smirnoff Twist line of vodkas, and the raspberry-flavored one used in my Razztini helped make that drink a winner. The Van Gogh pineapple vodka in the latter cocktail was a pleasant surprise as well.

Our final selections, a Strawberry Lemon Drop and Chocotini, were the winners of the night. Made with Grey Goose Citron vodka, the Strawberry Lemon Drop was worth every penny. Served in a martini glass with a sugar-coated rim, the alcohol was barely perceptible behind the sweetness of each sip.

Chocolate lovers will want to try the Chocotini, made with Van Gogh Dutch Chocolate vodka. While most bartenders will add some chocolate syrup to the drink to help with the sweetness, there was absolutely no need for it with this drink. Surprisingly, it had an almost creamy feel in my mouth as I drank it. If you don't mind paying $6.50 for a drink, you won't be disappointed with some of the offerings here.

AS A Honolulu dining institution for the past quarter century, John Dominis is already established as one of the best places for a romantic dinner.

Just keep in mind that you can also come here for drinks without having to break the bank. We spent about $75 (including tip) for pupus and martinis, which is comparable to other options in the nearby area.

How much for a Bud Light?

Bottles of Bud Light are available for $3.75 each, but you're better off trying one of the martinis ($6.50) that are also on the menu.

Get things to do?

Other than a single television that hangs in the lounge, there isn't much to do at John Dominis but eat, drink and talk story.

What about the grinds?

Besides the Chinese Chicken Salad ($6.95) and Rib Eye Steak ($31.95), everything on the menu in the lounge is seafood. You can't go wrong with the King Crab Cocktail ($12.95) or the Crab Stuffed Button Mushrooms ($8.95), and I couldn't help but wolf down a half-dozen Kumamato Oysters ($10.50) served with horseradish, lemon wedges and cocktail sauce. Other menu items include Rock Lobster Spring Rolls ($16.50) and Cocomac Lobster Tails ($13.95); a variety of sushi is also available.

And the help?

Even though it wasn't too crowded and there were two servers working in the lounge, we still had to wait until well after our glasses were empty before we were offered another drink. It's not a big deal, but you would think the employees would be a bit more proactive in an upscale setting like the one at John Dominis.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.
Barfly appears every Friday in Star-Bulletin Weekend. E-mail Jason Genegabus at jason@starbulletin.com with suggestions of neighborhood bars to visit.

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