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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 7, 2006

Critic's favorites match all palates, pocketbooks

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Raymundo Madrigal, right, and Al Gaitan enjoy Ola at Turtle Bay's Hawaiian-style New American cuisine.

Advertiser library photo

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Lunch specials at Hakkei feature a variety of different items. The restaurant features traditional Japanese comfort foods.

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Editor's note: Here's a look back at our critic's top picks of recently reviewed restaurants.

HAKKEI

Rating: Four (very good)

1436 Young St. at Ke'eaumoku Street

944-6688, www.hakkei-honolulu.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays

Details: Temporarily BYOB. Free parking. Reservations recommended. AmEx, JCB, V, MC

Overview: Feast on traditional Japanese comfort foods at this quaint house of oden soup pots.

Price: $3.80-$7.60 appetizers; $7.60-$14.20 a la carte nimono, yakimono and tempura dishes; $15 and $18 set lunch menu; $35 and $60 set dinner menu ($50 per person set group menu for three or more; $40 chicken sukiyaki set menu with one-day advance notice)

Recommended: goma tofu, onaga no kaisen ae, nankin manju, buta kakuni, nasu dengaku, unagi no hasamiage, ebi no kakiage, set lunch and dinner menus

There's no need to envy happy Japanese diners on KIKU TV's "Soko ga Shiritai" anymore. From a hot-spring resort in Yubara, Japan, comes this cozy, modern-rustic spinoff where you can sample washoku cuisine. Executive chef Seiya Masahara (an "Iron Chef" winner) oversees chef Koji Kuwa, who prepares exquisitely simple dishes.

Plain ingredients such as daikon, konnyaku and meatballs (chicken, shrimp or squid) go into a hearty dashi for a soothing oden, the hot-pot specialty. Set meals, which include small side dishes, are the way to go, but the a la carte selections are tempting: Buta kakuni, buttery pork morsels long simmered in a shoyu-based sauce; kabocha pumpkin encased in tiny arare balls. Even ebi no kakiage, which dots a delicately sweet nest of tempura-fried sweet potato and carrot threads with beads of corn and shrimp, reveals how dishes become more than the sum of their parts in the right hands.

STAR OF HONOLULU

Rating: Four and a half (very good to great)

Aloha Tower Marketplace, Pier 8, 1 Aloha Tower Drive

983-7827, www.paradisecruises.com

Hours: 4:30-8 p.m. daily.

Details: Full bar. Seasonal menu. Validated $2 parking with purchase at Aloha Tower Marketplace. For gentlemen: slacks required, jackets recommended. Motion-sickness medicine recommended for those prone to seasickness. Not recommended for keiki under 12. Special menus (chicken, fish or vegetarian) available with 24-hour advance notice. AmEx, DC, Disc, JCB, MC, V

Five-Star package: $165 ($123.75 kama'aina) per person (includes taxes; gratuities not included)

Overview: Executive chef Eric Omick's seven-course dinner menu and the crew make the Five-Star sunset suppers shine.

If only dinner could last all night when cooked up by executive chef Eric Omick, sous chefs Richard Franco and John Peru and the crew of this 1,500-passenger vessel. Pampering service, fine food and stunning views (come early for a window seat) make this cruise luxurious, romantic and delicious.

Omick's classically inspired dishes match the opulence of the top deck's golden Art Deco bijou the Super Nova dining room. Drinks and plates arrive in smooth, fluid waves while live jazz rocks the boat in a mellow way. A course of sweet, poached Maine lobster, juicy beef tenderloin and final triptych of artful desserts compete for attention with gorgeous sunsets and occasional breaching whales. It's all enough to make you wonder why you would have a special-occasion dinner on land.

OLA TURTLE BAY RESORT

Rating: Four (very good)

57-091 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku

293-0801, www.turtlebayresort.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Details: Full bar. Free validated parking. Dinner reservations recommended. Casual resort attire. Keiki menu. AmEx, Disc, JCB, MC, V

Overview: At this open-air North Shore beach haven, chef-owner Fred DeAngelo hits New American cuisine with a Hawaiian beat.

Price: Lunch $7.95-$10.95 appetizers; $8.95-$15.95 entrees; dinner $7.95-$12.95 appetizers; $16.95-$33.95 entrees

Recommended: Lunch 'ahi poke; bruschetta salad; Kahuku corn on the cob; grilled fish sandwich, North Shore burger. Dinner crab cakes; kalua pork and goat cheese nachos; togarashi salmon; mushroom risotto; beef tenderloin; creme brulee; strawberry and papaya tart.

Dinner cruise not an option? Settle for the next best thing in this breezy, open-air, ground-level tree house that sits almost where waves roll onto Kui-lima Cove's beach.

Ola's menu jaunts into New American cuisine, but comes home with playful Island touches in dishes such as 'ahi and lobster poke served in a wonton spoon and kalua pork and goat cheese nachos. The "local first" motto means North Shore Cattle Co. hamburgers, tomatoes from Green Growers Farm and produce from Kahuku Brand-Matsuda Fukuyama Farms as well as other smaller farms.

DeAngelo is working on expanding the lunch menu. On April 16, the restaurant will offer an Easter Sunday brunch.

JUST TACOS MEXICAN GRILL

Rating: Three and a half (good to very good)

Remington College Building, 1111 Bishop St.

545-2960, www.justacos.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.

Details: Counter only; sheltered seats outside. Pay parking lots, metered street parking. Disc, MC, V.

Overview: At this taqueria, watch 'em grab fresh corn tortillas hot off the griddle and stuff them with a choice of 10 kinds of regional Mexican meat fillings.

Price: $2.50 taco; $3.75 super taco; $4 mulita

Recommended: carne asada; fajitas; fish; shrimp; mole; flan; shaved ice

So it's just soft tacos, but with a choice of 10 meat fillings all under $5, it's easy to see why folks line up at Jesus Santoyo's downtown counter.

House-made tortillas (staff grinds the imported corn themselves!) are grilled, then stuffed with a succulent filling. There's a silky peanut-buttery chicken mole accentuated with chocolate from Puebla. But Ensenada-style lightly battered, deep-fried shrimp topped with crunchy, shredded cabbage and a creamy tartar-like white sauce is so good you'll want to double order.

Santoyo recently added a hard-shell taco salad ($5.25) to the menu. An upcoming, bigger location is in the works.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com. Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, service and ambience in relation to price. Menu listings and prices are subject to change. Reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. The Advertiser pays for meals.