NADINE KAM / NKAM@STARBULLETIN.COM
An oceanfront barbecue a la Halekulani seemed promising, but most diners will find they can do better at home.
Taming the wild barbecue an elusive task
Key to any business is giving people what they want, and what do they want during the summer months? A lot of things, but for my purposes the correct answer would be the ocean and barbecue.
Who has ocean access? Rich people and hotels. Assuming you're not among the ranks of the former, you could head to Waikiki, where a couple of hotels are trying to corral this most untamed form of eats. I'd say the rush to the grill started with the former Kahala Mandarin's introduction of Cabanas poolside grill, which has since given way to a more traditional poolside bar, suggesting it's not so easy to make an outdoor barbecue idea work commercially.
I'm not saying it can't be done, but attempts to put a little polish on this backyard activity so far has left much to be desired. Even so, I'd love to see people keep trying.
Village Steak and Seafood
Barbecue buffet, $32 per person, offered 5:30 to 9 p.m. nightly except Wednesdays and Thursdays. Call 949-4321, ext. 32.
The restaurant at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa gives barbecue the buffet treatment for no-fuss, all-you-can-eat dining.
A grill station set up outside the restaurant lures passers-by to the restaurant, but once inside, it's a pretty sterile, viewless environment.
It doesn't feel like a cookout when meats are drawn from chafers, but the kalbi passed muster as real local barbecue fare. Baby back ribs, though, could have been a lot less saucy. And, it was amusing to see salmon described as "island fish." Would tourists know any better?
More to my liking, the selection included dozens of seafood, marinated vegetable and fresh fruit and vegetable salads. And save room for desserts of cheesecake, apple strudel, fruit tarts, chocolate decadence and bread pudding.
It was a decent showing, but the food just wasn't as memorable as that at a recent barbecue at a friend's.
House Without a Key
Kiawe Grill specialties offered Tuesdays and Thursdays, weather permitting, through summer. Call 923-2311.
The 40-plus days of rain we experienced last spring were so memorable they eclipsed the fact that we had a fairly rainy summer as well. The reason I remember is because the constant rain prevented me from heading over to the Halekulani for its biweekly summer barbecue, a weather-permitting proposition. I tried to get over there for a couple of months, but every time I called to inquire if the show would go on, it was canceled due to pending showers.
It's been so hot and dry this summer we could use a little rain, so I headed over to Halekulani for this summer's kiawe grill dinners at the House Without a Key. This would be great, I thought, for condo dwellers or those too lazy to scrub blackened grills.
All was good upon arrival, except that the House takes no reservations, so, even though I knew I wanted to be there at 6 for a sunset view, I had to wait while all the tables with the views filled up. No biggie. I have a view every day from my house. I just don't understand any no-reservation policy. The person with specific wants would be left far more upset by unmet demands than someone who casually saunters in with a "whatever happens happens" attitude.
The most ideal situation would be to allow customers to walk up to the grill master and take their pick of what's there. To prevent chaos, ordering is done the traditional a la carte way. Choose your barbecue menu entree and side orders and, if you're really hungry, appetizers and desserts off the House's regular menu.
To prevent smoke inhalation, the cook is sequestered a distance away from diners against the beach, open sky and Diamond Head backdrop, which lulls patrons into a vacation mind-set while the scent of the grill helps to lure hungry potential diners in from the water.
In spite of the grill presence, what you get is mild-mannered New York steak ($23) dusted with Hawaiian sea salt and cracked black pepper, and char siu-flavored baby back ribs ($23). There's a touch of smoke and fire but not enough to rival a basic beach or backyard cookout. What I enjoyed most were the sides: homemade cornbread and crisp half corn-on-the-cob that came with each entree, and grilled asparagus ($5).
Here's the bad news: Service was atrocious and marked the first time in my life that I left no tip. Now, I'm a really easy customer. I make no demands except for that of any diner: that my meal arrive as ordered, in a timely fashion.
Our waiter looked and acted as if he preferred to be napping rather than working. When, a few minutes after placing my order, I asked if I could change it, he could not be bothered to check, simply stating that he was sure the cook had started it. I didn't press it because it was my fault for dithering.
Their system involves one person taking the order, another person delivering it. Our original waiter never bothered to follow up, and it was only toward the end of our meal that we realized our side orders of asparagus and sweet-potato fries never arrived.
We signaled a busboy, who fetched our waiter, who said he would check on the order as well as bring us takeout boxes for any leftovers. He disappeared from our table for the rest of the night though he was still "working." The asparagus arrived, and we signaled two more people to bring us the takeout boxes. A fourth person finally followed up.
Meanwhile, no one thought about clearing unnecessary plates and silverware from our table to make room for dessert. By then another waiter had appeared to take up the slack, but one person can't fix an atmosphere of indifference and complacency.
We eventually got the fries, which arrived soggy, and sensing a similar lengthy ordeal in ordering dessert, and with rain imminent, we decided to save ourselves the aggravation and leave.
A little earlier, it had started drizzling, and other guests started shifting and cowering under too-small table umbrellas. None of the staffers checked on guests' comfort or tried to reassure them that they could be moved indoors if it started to rain harder. At any restaurant, this would be bad. At Halekulani it was unacceptable.