Bali recaptures traditional


POSTED: Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I grew up “;normal,”; which by social standards at the time means I was raised by two parents in a happy household with brother and sisters, a dog, a cat — perhaps more guinea pigs (32 at one point) than typical — and lacking of the kind of drama that ruins lives. Normal.

Then I became a writer, and though for a long time I still considered myself a normal person, I learned that writers are not normal at all. We are society's cultural daredevils, going, looking, seeing, tasting, doing just about anything for the sake of a story and idea. I once believed that everyone shared my enthusiasm about the new, but there's a stronger pull for conservatism and tradition.

That is where there is a disconnect sometimes between a critic and the “;normal”; diner. The critic values ideas, art and change. The typical diner just wants his/her belly filled in the most pleasant way possible. This is how Spain's Ferran Adria can be considered by critics to be one of the world's most revered chefs today, yet the average person would not consider his molecular gastronomy to be meal-worthy.

Tradition is finding a resurgence in Waikiki as hard times call for more familiar comforts and less re-imagining of food. For this I'm grateful. Very few can make their experiments work, and in spite of my love of the new, I prefer chowing on a simple tried-and-true recipe done well, rather than a botched experiment.

The most beloved and basic of foods is the grilled steak, and you can't miss the renaissance of the steakhouse with the Moana's Beachhouse Restaurant, Wolfgang's Steak House at the Royal Hawaiian Center and the latest, the rebirth of the Hilton Hawaiian Village's Bali by the Sea restaurant as Bali Steak and Seafood.

With the property's proximity to the Hawai'i Convention Center, I was told they kept fielding requests for steak from convention attendees, and it just became a no-brainer to follow the No. 1 rule of business: Give the customers what they want.

FANS OF THE old Bali will find the room the same, with familiar waiters and even some old favorites on the menu, such as Kahuku sweet corn and Maui onion soup, angel hair pasta with vine-ripened Hauula tomato sauce, and orange-miso-glazed Kona kampachi. And, true to its new name, there's an abundance of meat and enough sides to keep things interesting with return visits.

The cornerstones of the Bali experience — romance and fine service in a beautiful setting — are also intact, making a steak dinner here less of a fetishist experience than say, at Wolfgang's.

I enjoyed the experience more than the old Bali, where I had a sense the menu was trying too hard to impress. The popularity of steak makes it seem as if that burden has been lifted, so I felt more relaxed as well.

For a sense of balance, seafood figures prominently in the appetizer selection. You can't go wrong with the sugar cane crusted scallops ($16), perfectly seared on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, served with a light ponzu sauce and the delicate crunch of an arame (seaweed) salad.

Steamed clams ($14) are given the island touch with a broth of lemongrass and coconut milk that didn't overpower the shellfish. Basil adds more flavor while island tomatoes add color.

Other starter selections include lump crab cake ($15), Kona lobster bisque ($10) and poke with avocado ($14), but believing in vegetables with every meal, we opted for a menu returnee, the salad of Big Island goat cheese and beet, which many diners treat as a layered dip, using it to top lavosh from the restaurant's bread basket. It works either way.

Brush up on your steaks before you go so you can decide whether you want a flatiron steak ($28), New York strip ($42), filet mignon ($42) or Paniolo rib steak ($44). Prime rib fans will find 12-ounce ($28) and 16-ounce ($36) portions.

I went with the cowboy steak because of its reputation for marbling and flavor that makes it the steakiest, and wasn't disappointed. It's presented with a whole bulb of roasted garlic and thyme so you can continue “;cooking”; at the table, adding either to taste.

You also have a choice of bearnaise, thyme mustard, peppercorn or poha berry chutney as sauce. I went with the local choice of sweet poha berry, but I think the thyme mustard or peppercorn is more appropriate for steak.

Side “;enhancements”; are $8 each, or you can choose any three for $19, saving $5 in the process. Local asparagus had the perfect combination of tenderness and crunch with grill flavor; potato puree was typical; and bouncy roasted Hamakua mushrooms benefited from a sprinkling of thyme leaves that came from a sprig of garnish. Other options include Kahuku sweet corn, truffle parmesan fries, creamy polenta and basmati rice-coconut couscous.

Many here have a sweet tooth, so the orange-miso glaze ($36) on the Kona kampachi has its share of fans, but I found it too heavy-handed for the delicate fish. I prefer fats to sweets, so next time, I'd like to try the baby lobster tail with lobster mac and cheese ($38).

Desserts are available, but with the intact tradition and dramatic presentation of a chocolate Diamond Head filled with truffle, over a cloud of dry ice, you might not need it.

IF YOU WANT to check out the restaurant, this is a good month to do it. To acknowledge October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Bali Steak & Seafood is offering a special Travel Pink menu in addition to its regular menu.

The four-course dinner starts with the Kahuku corn and Maui onion soup and a choice between Duke's iceberg wedge and hearts of palm and watercress salad.

Choose one of four entree selections — angel hair pasta with tomatoes and Hamakua mushrooms, roast Cornish game hen, seared snapper or petite filet mignon with green peppercorn sauce, and finish with dessert of mocha cake — at a cost of $58 per person, not including tax and tip.

At the end of the meal, diners will be presented with an insulated tote bag, custom-designed water bottle, a beach towel and discount coupons for Tropics Bar & Grill and Mandara Spa.


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Her column appears every Wednesday.





        Hilton Hawaiian Village » 941-2254

        Food ;*;*;*;*

        Service ;*;*;*;*

        Ambience ;*;*;*;1/2

        Value ;*;*;*

        Hours: 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays Cost: About $100 to $120 for two without drinks

        Ratings compare similar restaurants:

        ;*;*;*;* - excellent

        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations

        ;*;* - average

        ;* - below average.