DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bartender Tod Villamil serves Noah Doc a Holokai Sizzle Platter (steak with sautéed onions and mushrooms) at Holokai Grill in Waikiki.
Holokai Grill offers tasteful way to play the voyager
It's great that Waikiki is getting a face lift that will help Oahu, if not surpass, then at least give other new destinations some competition for future tourist dollars, which we're going to need to pay for deteriorating infrastructure and the cumulative mistakes of our bungling politicians.
It's too late to move all the properties off the beach to create real open space, but considering space limitations, Waikiki Beach Walk sets a great example for future developers. In spite of the traffic snarls and general trouble of getting there, once I'm there I really do feel like I'm on vacation.
Maybe the balmy weather has something to do with the feeling of comfort that suddenly cocoons a person, along with the surreal feeling of being home yet not home. Face it, even to those who live here, Waikiki is slightly foreign, with a pace, language and rituals all its own.
There's not much traffic going through this part of Lewers Street yet, delivering a sense of privacy in this most public of places, and the wide sidewalks create a pleasant promenade.
Pull up to the Embassy Suites valet and you're liberated from your cares, as well as your car, even if it will cost you $5 plus tip to get it back. But I'm guessing that if you're eating at any of the restaurants in this complex, you have the cash to spare.
This time, my destination was Holokai Grill, the younger sibling of Tiki's Grill and Bar on the other end of Waikiki. What's on the menu is fun, in a second-floor room that tries to re-create the open-beam ambience of Tiki's though with much less kitsch, due to its more serious inspiration, Polynesian voyaging. The room's centerpiece is a 33-foot hand-carved New Zealand war canoe, but most people will probably miss it, choosing to let their eyes wander toward the bar, kitchen or out the windows.
It's eyes that dart all over the place that get managers' attention here, causing them to stop and ask if all is well. They run a tight ship, and it's great to see their energy, attentiveness and efficiency so different from the general malaise one usually encounters at local restaurants.
AS FOR THE food, I don't think anyone's going to wander into Holokai Grill for connoisseurship. It's a place to relax with friends, and the menu reflects that sort of noncommittal dining situation, where you can pass the pupu and salads around for a quick bite or stay as long as it pleases you, for a classic entree and fresh catch.
By day you'll find many of the same pupus on the dinner menu, plus sandwiches and the makings of "Perfect Salads" starting at $7 with your choice of iceberg lettuce, mesclun, romaine or spinach, plus four toppings ranging from bacon bits to apples to candied pecans. Add another dollar for one cheese selection or premium topping of avocado or guacamole, and $3 per super-premium topping such as grilled chicken, shrimp, salmon or shaved pastrami.
In the evening, if you want to continue your tourist charade, by all means start with the coconut shrimp bottle rockets ($9). There's more shrimp than batter on these skewers, served with lilikoi chili and spicy guava dipping sauces.
If you're puzzled over which Holokai sliders to order, go for the kalua pig with spicy guava sauce, at two for $4. The juicy meat helps the bun, which tends to dry out more quickly than most breads due to its miniature size, more than 3 inches wide. Skip the ground steak slider, which at a mere half-dollar size is just as dry as the bun.
I guess spicy guava sauce is a hit here, because you can also get it on jumbo popcorn chicken ($9). I opted for the white-meat nuggets prepared Buffalo style, with no holding back on the chili sauce, and extra splashes of Tabasco over the baked-on sauce.
Lemongrass and ginger-crusted onaga ($25) was a hit at my table not because of the barely discernible lemongrass and ginger flavor (restaurants in Waikiki can't risk overwhelming virgin palates), but because of the light, bready crust. The fish was accompanied by a delicate risotto with crisp kernels of Kunia corn, plus steamed baby bok choy.
I tested their pasta ability with the grilled vegetable penne with shrimp ($20). The pasta passed muster, but the shrimp -- tiny, tough and curled as if they had been stored too long in a freezer bag -- didn't. The roasted plum tomato sauce was thin but actually tasted better after being reheated the next day.
If you're having trouble picking an entree, or low on cash, meat eaters might divvy up a Holokai barbecue platter ($20), which could feed two or four light eaters. On it are orange and guava-glazed ribs that turned out to be a little less dry than the aforementioned shrimp, a huliyaki chicken breast that I dismissed with one taste of the single-note sauce, and pulehu steak that in our case never materialized. I didn't realize there was anything missing until just rereading the menu. The best thing was the sweet potato fries underneath the heap.
Dessert presented another opportunity to play tourist, with a pineapple upside-down cheesecake offering light and fluffy perfection and a pleasant alternative to chocolate or ice cream. Enjoy the moment, because before you know it, you'll be back to reality.