Dinner around the world


POSTED: Sunday, December 07, 2008

Life is complicated, and the act of pigeonholing people and brands is a shortcut that frees us from working too hard adding multidimensional facets to our daily encounters. In this social shorthand, I've always regarded the Sheraton Waikiki as a place for banquets and meetings, never a foodie destination.






        Sheraton Waikiki Hotel / 921-4600


Food: HHHH


Service: HHH


Ambience: HHHH


Value: HHH 1/2


Hours: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. daily


Cost: About $200 for dinner for two




The Starwood management team has been innovative in recognizing the sophistication of diners and set out to amp up the Sheraton's bland, middle-of-the-road shell and break into the vaunted lists of kamaaina and visitor musts. Anyone who has ever tried to manage brand image—and who hasn't now that we all know our good name and reputations are our personal brands?—will know that public perception is difficult to alter, but, starting with Rum Fire and now Twist at Hanohano, I think they're off to a good start.

I'm not sure whether Hanohano regulars will feel the same way about the changes to their beloved dining room, which has been updated to look at least 30 years younger. They don't have to worry too much, because the layout of the room is still the same, with a combination of tables and cozy booths that allow great mountain and ocean views 30 stories up. Request an Ewa seat and show up just before sunset for a romantic evening or any special occasion.

When I visited, there seemed to be some confusion as to how to deal with a kamaaina versus a tourist. I didn't like being asked for a phone number when I was already there and didn't like being kept waiting at the bar 20 minutes without an explanation when the room was two-thirds empty. I hope they work this out, because first impressions set the tone, and automatically putting guests in a bad mood—if they choose to stay at all—gives the rest of the staff and the chef an additional obstacle to overcome.

Luckily, the food more than compensated for the awkward beginning.

You're presented with chef Ryan Loo's new tasting menu with three options. For $80 you can choose appetizer, entree and dessert. For $90, choose two appetizers, an entree and dessert. For $110 you can get two appetizers, two entrees and a dessert (per person). Add $25 for wine pairings for any of the three options, and note that all the individual combinations can get confusing when large parties are involved. The cost is in line with prix-fixe menus on both mainland coasts and Vegas, where last year I had prix-fixe dinners of about six to eight courses for $150 to $200 per person without drinks.

THERE IS A core menu of about five appetizer choices and five entrees. And each week, there are additional selections that take you to islands around the world, from the Seychelles to Sicily. There is a lot to explore even before you start island hopping. In the core appetizer group, the creamy roasted cauliflower and Kona lobster bisque is a pleaser, and land meets sea in the Hawaiian-style crudo, kona kampachi topped with a salad of baby fennel, red radish and blood orange vinaigrette. The flavor is fresh and clean, and although it isn't overt to diners, part of the restaurant's appeal is its focus on organic ingredients whenever possible. To that end, chef Loo and director of food and beverage Bhuvanesh Khanna are meeting with local farmers to present their wish list of ingredients they'd like to see grown here.

Diet watchers will note the inclusion of lots of healthful ingredients throughout, like minted lemon pesto accompanying pine nut-crusted Colorado rack of lamb, and vitamin-rich gingered cranberries, baby arugula and honey pumpkin puree served with the seven-spice duck breast. I had heard that this was one of the venue's best dishes but was a little reluctant to make it my first choice, only because so many restaurants fail the duck test. But here it was great: Tender, moist and flavorful, with the light kiss of anise, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, clove, coriander and allspice. I heard someone deliver the ultimate compliment, “;Wow, someone else besides the Chinese knows how to do duck!”; But wait, isn't Loo a Chinese name?

I also enjoyed the alae red salt and rosemary grilled beef served with cheddar mashed potatoes tinged green with chives, as well as a humble cassoulet of diver scallop, prawn and Manila clams. The only dish in the core menu that didn't work for me was the Tahitian vanilla slow-poached onaga in coconut kaffir lime nage; that was too treacly for my taste. I prefer fish that tastes like fish, rather than coconut candy. But that's just my culinary aesthetic. There was nothing technically “;wrong”; about the dish, and those with a sweet tooth will likely love it.

I felt fortunate to have visited during the week inspired by the Greek isle of Santorini, with appetizers of grilled eggplant and lemon goat cheese served with fig balsamic and tomato fennel marmalade, white bean and onion soup, and crispy zucchini blossoms stuffed with a shrimp and chive mousse with the homey texture of fishcake. The dish is finished with the classic sauce, dill tsatziki.

The Greek-themed portion of the menu will be offered through Thursday, when the next destination of Phuket, Thailand, pops up. The special menus run two weeks each, and you can always call ahead to find out what's next in the rotation. Other islands, besides those mentioned prior, are Porquerolles, France; Mallorca, Spain; and Key West, Fla.

Globe-trotting has never been easier, nor more delicious.


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