Roy’s brings familiar tastes to Waikiki
I have a certain comfort level with Roy's Restaurants. We have, as might be said, a "history" dating to 1988, when he opened the first of his ubiquitous self-named restaurants in Hawaii Kai. It was a time that might as well have been the Dark Ages to people now in their mid-20s, perhaps just beginning to discover the wonders of dining out.
I wouldn't say it was exactly the Dark Ages then. Yes, kids, there was a time your parents didn't know what arugula was, and a time when Huy Fong's Sriracha chili sauce didn't exist. And Hawaii had a way to go before becoming recognized on a national level for culinary achievement, but movements don't occur in a vacuum. While I was starting my career as a restaurant critic for this paper, I'd already had five years of experience interviewing chefs on four islands, eating at their restaurants, watching them in their kitchens and writing about their work for other publications. I saw the beginnings of a revolution.
Over on the Big Island, Peter Merriman was making culinary magic at the Mauna Lani and opened his own Waimea restaurant, Merriman's, also in 1988. On Maui, Beverly Gannon was getting ready to open Haliimaile General Store. And here on Oahu, Sam Choy had the idea of giving Hawaiian food the white-tablecloth treatment. In 1991, Roy Yamaguchi, Merriman, Gannon, Choy and eight other like-minded chefs banded together to form HRC Hawaii Regional Cuisine to promote homegrown produce and small farmers in helping to create uniquely Hawaii cuisine.
Well, that was nearly 20 years ago, and such cuisine is so entrenched as to be pretty ordinary by contemporary standards. Just as is the case with cell phones and iPods, those growing up today never knew a time when the world was quite different, primitive even. Bands like the Rolling Stones could keep a-rollin' for 20- or 30-plus years. Does any band last more than three years these days? So, in these short-attention-span times, you can sort of understand where foodies are coming from when you ask what they think about Roy's. They sort of shrug and say, "Roy's is Roy's."
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
The new Roy's Restaurant at Waikiki Beach Walk is everything one would expect from the empire of Roy Yamaguchi, who opened the first of his Hawaii restaurants in Hawaii Kai in 1988, as part of the culinary revolution known today as Hawaii regional cuisine.
IT WOULD BE easy to take Roy's for granted. There are now 34 of them scattered around the world, and part of overseeing that empire means that kitchen duty falls to trained hands breaking little new ground. Except for special chef-hosted dinners, what you get at a Roy's Restaurant by now seems safe, familiar and rote, but hey, that's what 98 percent of diners want and they're the ones who pack the place day and night.
In tasting the food at the newest Roy's at Waikiki Beach Walk, I think there's been an even give-and-take between the chef and his clientele over the years. Palates have become more sophisticated thanks to Roy's, but he's also responded by giving people what they crave: strong flavors, more fat, more sugar, more salt. Leave delicacy to other hands. Roy's reaches out to Everyman.
For lunch, choose from such local-style grinds as a meatloaf loco moco ($19.50) featuring bacon-and-egg fried rice and shiitake sauce, or a Portuguese sausage and wild mushroom omelet ($10.50) served with kim chee fried rice.
As at his other restaurants, menus and prices are subject to change daily, though you'll always find some combination of sushi, appetizers, prix fixe menus and Roy's Classic dishes -- like grilled Szechuan spiced baby back pork ribs ($11.50) and Roy's original blackened island ahi ($14.50 appetizer/ $30.50 entree) -- mixed in with market selections at night.
It all comes across as very local, very chop suey with everything going into the pot without the finesse of the old days, when all eyes were on a few people. There's nothing wrong, flavorwise, with steamed monchong ($28.50) layered with a pale green "Jade Pesto" of shiso and cilantro in a bowl of sizzling soy sauce, but I wished they hadn't chopped the bok choy so fine that it withered and drowned in salty soy sauce, making it impossible to enjoy.
I had the same feeling when I sampled the braised veal cheek served in a bowl over lobster orzo. I wondered why they chose to serve this in a bowl, where the fat and oil from the meat mingled with the cream in the orzo to bury the lobster's subtleties. Earlier, I had sampled a Maine lobster California roll ($9.50), lamenting that the lobster salad got lost in the creation, so I was doubly disappointed to think that the chunks of lobster in the orzo might have been better used to provide more impact in the sushi. It wasn't really needed in the veal dish and just got lost in the bowl anyway.
Oh well, the ingredients, all familiar, all delicious, no doubt please less finicky eaters no matter how they're combined, and that's why Roy's empire keeps growing.
Perhaps equal to food, Roy's has come to be known for its service. Waikiki Beach Walk is no different. The restaurant is staffed by dozens of earnest young men who zip through the restaurant, full of ambition and determination. While polite, they can seem unintentionally brusque at times just because of the warp speed at which they work, talking and listening even as they're pulling away from your table. They had a couple of tables behind me cleared and re-tableclothed before the flurry of activity even registered.
A recent spate of restaurant closures is demonstrating how tough it is to capture the public's imagination in an enduring way. Even with Nobu snaring volumes of business down the street, and lots of competition from Waikiki Beach Walk newcomers, Roy's can hold its own. Not bad for the granddaddy of restaurants.