Azure chef's creativity is tantalizing


POSTED: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In nonbeachy venues, hotels tend to be scattered throughout the landscape, taking into account turistas' diverse interests and comfort levels.

Here, Waikiki exists as a place apart from the general populace, a Fantasyland by geography as well as by economy. It's only in such a rarified place that Azure, now open at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, could exist today, somewhat immune to the monetary malaise that has infected the globe. The well-to-do, even when down, are not out, and this is the sort of chic, nonfussy space they're probably eager to discover on a leisurely escape.






        Royal Hawaiian Hotel » 923-7311

Food ;*;*1/2
        Service ;*;*;*;*
        Ambience ;*;*;*;*
        Value ;*;*;*


Hours: 16 to 10 p.m. daily. Cost: About $100 for two without alcohol


Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.


Ah yes, I could get used to sinking into Azure's plush banquettes, too, beneath high ceilings, columns, and furnishings in crisp white, accented with black and yellow throw pillows and Mediterranean-inspired lanterns. But, it's not easy to justify dinner outings of $60 to $70 per person these days.

You can, however, walk away relatively unscathed — at something like $30 per person without drinks — by loading up on small, rather than big plates. I found the small plates to be more interesting, anyway.

It's just one of the work-arounds I've applied to crowds that I need to beat to tables when I have a deadline and everyone's clamoring to get into the new hot place at the same time (try off hours or volunteering for bar rather than table seats), and high prices (opting for lunch, happy hours or filling up on appetizers rather than entrees).

Most foodies will be drawn to the restaurant primarily to check up on chef de cuisine Jon Matsubara, who brought a touch of theater to Stage restaurant's cuisine. In comparison, the food at Azure is more sedate, as befitting the Royal's clientele who are likely to prefer a more straightforward menu without a whole lot of sass and flash.

Of course Matsubara just can't help but toy with taste buds, and he's at his most experimental in small but wonderful doses. An amuse bouche of a bite-size piece of Kona cold lobster with an elderberry shooter topped with coconut foam will have you hungry for more. Later, in between appetizers and entree, he presented an intermezzo of hibiscus sorbet topped with sake gelee and the snap, crackle, pop and fizz of Pop Rocks, the small-kid-time candy. How many chefs here would have the audacity to try it?

AZURE, though, is about the ocean and its delectable fruits de mer, beginning with small plates of sashimi ($19) of yellowfin ahi and Kona amberjack, an Ocean Salad ($25) including prawns, Big Island abalone, scallop and Kona lobster with avocado and a light tarragon vinaigrette, and not-to-be-missed sake-steamed Manila clams ($17) with enoki mushrooms, bits of prosciutto and a brightening touch of citrus with Meyer lemon gremolata stirred into the liquid.

Even when shared by two, the small plates tend to be filling. I would have been perfectly sated with three of these alone along with a few side selections. My picks are the sake-braised Big Island spinach with garlic chips ($7) and combination of sweet Kahuku corn with Hamakua mushrooms ($8).

Along with the clams, I'd probably opt second for the torched wagyu carpaccio ($18) simply because I love the combination of beef, manchego and arugula. But for a first-timer, I'd suggest giving the Kona baby back ribs a try ($17) on the basis of presentation alone. The dish arrives covered, the better to surprise guests with the lovely aroma of kiawe smoke once the lid is removed. That smell always transports me to Kauai, when a childhood camping trip to Kokee's cabins left the scent of its fireplace firmly implanted in my memory. When the aroma fades, you're left with its Kona coffee BBQ sauce, which was somewhat salty to my taste, but others ate it up.

I DON'T KNOW if it was just exhaustion setting in after a long day or after eating so much, but by the time entrees started arriving, I was less intrigued.

Much attention is focused on the Pier 38 local seafood (market price has been about $26 to $28), with the day's catch checked off on a sheet of paper. If you so desire, choose your fish, and your method of preparation, either roasted at high heat with white wine, Meyer lemon and herbs, or with a soy-ginger lacquer. This might seem novel to an out-of-towner, but for this local, the preparations weren't exciting enough. I'm all for tasting the fish, but in the former case, the high heat seemed to zap any of the enhancing effect of the wine, lemon and herbs.

I felt the same way about the roasted chicken ($32), in which I took more interest in the kabocha on the plate than the chicken itself. And although the Marcona almond and Meyer lemon crust seemed interesting when served atop grilled Mountain Meadow lamb chops ($45), the crust didn't add as much as the zinfandel reduction.

Deduction will leave you with USDA prime rib eye ($45) and Kona shellfish bowl ($45) of lobster, prawns, clams, scallops and konyaku in a spiced Kaffir lime and chili broth.

I couldn't bring myself to order the $60 Shanghai-style crispy lobster, but it's one dish I aim to try next time I'm there.

You might not need dessert if you drink your dessert all along. In addition to wine, Azure offers several specialty drinks, from a refreshing Asian pear martini to a bracing Sazerac, a New Orleans classic making a rare appearance in the 50th state.


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.