The Weekly Eater

By Nadine Kam

Thursday, February 25, 1999

Garlic tastes finer
second time around

LIKE beaus who have behaved badly, restaurateurs sometimes call or send letters requesting a second chance. Sometimes I've listened to their pleas and promises that, "Everything's better now" or "We've improved our menu," only to return to the same old, same old.

I had a good feeling about Ninniku-Ya's request, however. Well, a good feeling plus a nagging suspicion that electronic information is destined to live forever and come back to haunt us one way or another.

Old news is especially bad when it comes to restaurants. I believe that for all but the Top 10 percent of restaurants, reviews are valid for only three to six months. After that, there's a tendency for chefs to shuffle off, quality to slip, menus to change.

In Ninniku-ya's case, a staffer e-mailed to say he had seen my 1997 review of the restaurant on-line, and the menu and service had improved since then.

He was right. The last time I visited, I gave them a mere 2-1/2 stars for food. They've been upgraded. Sauces are more complex, dishes more varied. And the garlic aspect still makes dining here a bit of an adventure.

How do they add garlic, for instance, to an appetizer of Black and Blue Ahi (market price)? It's in the saffron sauce.

Star Rating

Or a hot spinach salad ($10)? Via toasted garlic "chips" tossed with anchovies and real bacon.

In many dishes, the garlic flavor is mild. You're more likely to taste garlic for days after a visit to Assaggio's than here.

Start with Roasted Garlic French Bread ($8) or Scallops ($10) sauteed in butter and accompanied by a light garlic, white wine and lemon sauce. A frequent special is Avocado-Ahi Salad made with a quarter cup -- often more -- of diced garlic.

If it's soup you prefer, Tom Yum ($9) is a seafood-intense version of the hot-sour Thai specialty. A few small slices of garlic accompany red chilies, clams, shrimp, calamari and scallops. There's enough for two.

ISHIYAKI is still a popular part of the menu, that is, meats cooked on a hot stone. These are a 9-ounce Filet Mignon ($28), 16-ounce Prime Steak ($25) and Rack of Lamb ($28) cooked rare and served on a sizzling platter to finish heating through at tableside. Steaks are served with a quartet of sauces, one with the flavor of bleu cheese; one teriyaki that didn't get used much and one made with miso and peanuts. My favorite is the creamy Peruvian, spiced with Hawaiian chile peppers and containing plenty of cilantro.

Among seafood offerings are the Tiger Shrimp Phuket ($21), stirred with diced garlic, shiitake and veggies; Seafood Paella with mussels, shrimp, calamari and scallops ($24); and Salmon and Gorgonzola Paella ($23), which resembled risotto and proved milder than one might imagine possible with the strong cheese. This dish was a great complement to the prime steak, which was topped with pesto and roasted garlic, and came with garlic mashed potatoes.

Perhaps the most garlicky of dishes are the pastas, $12 for the pasta with a trio of mushrooms, $17 for Manila clams.

Desserts follow through on the theme. Kona coffee cheesecake and coconut-lemongrass sorbet are drizzled with light garlic cream sauce. The warm roasted flavor of the garlic and sweetness make a pleasant match. It's amazing that we don't see this combination more often.


Ninniku-Ya: 3196 Waialae Ave.
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Prices: Dinner for two about $65 to $75 without drinks
Call: 924-2298

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

-- excellent;
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- average;
-- below average.

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