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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 9, 2003

La Mariana experience rises above so-so menu

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Lance Kanaka plays sweet Hawai'i-inspired tunes and familiar favorites at La Mariana. It's the atmosphere, more than the food, that makes the Sand Island Road restaurant special, says critic Matthew Gray. He calls the place a throwback to a bygone era, a colorful, ultra-tiki-inspired nautical nugget.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

La Mariana Sailing Club

50 Sand Island Access Road

Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily

Dinner: 5-9 p.m. daily; open until midnight Fridays and Saturdays


1/2 Good

Most mornings, I lie in bed and wonder: Where will I be eating today? What will I be eating today? And will it make a good story?

I find myself turning to my inner gastronomic Buddha, who enlightens me as to the transcendental clarity of the breakfast state of mind. Wake with images of what you wish to eat, says this Buddha, and you will spring from bed a complete person. That decision made, it's merely a matter of executing all the right (culinary) moves.

Tonight, I'll find myself at La Mariana Sailing Club, a throwback to the days of old Hawai'i, a colorful, ultra-tiki-inspired nautical nugget of a place, eating and drinking, and drinking some more, with my friend P.J. In the week or so since I first visited La Mariana, many friends and colleagues have shared their La Mariana stories. This brings me to a lifelong recurring thought, which is: "Why am I always the last to know?"

After visiting La Mariana the first time, for lunch with my friend Keira, I knew I had a special situation. This one-in-a-million place commands a different mindset: A visit here is 90 percent experience, 10 percent food, and that's OK, as long as you know in advance.

La Mariana is a bit tricky to find: Though its address is 50 Sand Island Access Road, it's actually on a little dead-end side street just after the big curve in the road. Look for a white sign that has the number "50" spray-painted in black. When you get there, turn right, and thread your way around the marina office to find the restaurant right on the water.

Walking up the pathway, I found myself gazing out at Ke'ehi Lagoon and the moored boats that call this place home.

Seated at a cozy little table with comfortable high-back wicker chairs, I scanned the interior of the restaurant, jam-packed with wood carvings, seashells, glass bubble balloonfish lanterns, assorted bamboo touches, a waterfall and so much more. It's a feast for the eyes. But how would it taste?

We tried a couple sandwiches. The club special ($8.25) comes with ham, turkey, bacon, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The bacon and avocado sandwich is built on wheat bread ($7.75) with alfalfa sprouts and tomato with Thousand Island dressing. Both samplings were, at best, standard-issue stuff, which can be said for the whole menu.

We'd sample entrees next. Would it be the eggs Benedict ($9.25) with ham and turkey on an English muffin? Or the mahimahi Florentine ($14) with fresh spinach, marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and herbs? Those two dishes initially called to me; however, my indecision mocked me. Instead, I ordered the combination of tender chicken and the mild shrimp curry ($10.25), served with rice and a small cup of sweet chutney. It didn't hit the curry spot for me, but Keira's breaded shrimp ($12) with tartar sauce and lemon was pretty good.

The nighttime visit with my buddy P.J. was pre-sold as a catharsis session. Sure, we'd be eating, but the reason for getting together meant it was time for us two guys to shoot the bull and bend elbows.

It began innocently enough. I was washing down mai-tais ($5.50, sweet and refreshing, complete with pine-apple wedge and paper parasol); P.J. chose his favorite, rum and Coke ($2.75).

We had a couple pupu to keep us company: nachos grande ($9.25) and shrimp lumpia ($5.25), which both hit the spot. La Mariana's pianist was playing sweet Hawai'i-inspired tunes, along with old favorites and the "Happy Birthday" song several times over, although no one appeared to be celebrating a birthday.

When it was time for dinner, I ordered the eggplant au gratin ($17), stuffed with shrimp, scallops and fish. The light cream sauce worked, adding richness without camouflaging the taste of the seafood. P.J. had the shrimp scampi ($16.25), a subtle rendition of the classic, light on garlic and wine but still satisfying.

We ended the night with a fudgie-good slice of double-decker chocolate cake ($4.50) and two forks.

I recommend La Mariana, especially for friends from out of town, or for those nights when you pine for something different. It's a contagious mix of frivolity, Hawaiiana and music. Just leave your food expectations at the door and enjoy yourself.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.