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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hoku's shines bright with 'Wayne's Menu'

By Simplicio Paragas
Dining out Editor

Executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi prepares highly sought-after Kobe beef over a flaming grill at Hoku's.

Photos by Randy T. Fujimori

"Wayne's Tasting Menu"

When: Available nightly from 5:30 to 10 p.m. through this Saturday

Cost: $85 plus tax and tip

Where: Hoku's at the Kahala Mandarin, Oriental

Call: 739-8779

Lunch hours: Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Parking: Validated; self-parking or valet

Grits served with prized Kobe beef. What? Sounds blasphemous! Big Island goat cheese covered with Chinese-style candied walnuts. Huh? This is Hoku's right?


In the end, talented executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi would convince G.B., her mom Rosetta and me that such unorthodox pairings do marry well.

In developing "Wayne's Tasting Menu," which is available through next Sunday, Hirabayashi deftly shows his understanding of what discerning kamaaina palates want and what the Mandarin's visiting guests expect.

This week's menu nails both points right on the proverbial head. It also exemplifies Hirabayashi's knowledge and loyalty to local products.

For example, while it's not part of "Wayne's Tasting Set Menu" — which is too bad — our amuse bouche was a delightful demi-tasse filled with a clear oxtail-like soup that was garnished with bits of foie gras then blanketed with a puff pastry. Think of this as a local favorite that's been gussied up to be trés French. It worked tastefully well.

After this appetite teaser, our courteous and always-smiling server Wendy returned with warm homemade naan (a Northern India leavened bread) from the restaurant's own tandoori oven and freshly-baked ciabatta. We — except for Rosetta, who admitted good bread is one of her weaknesses — all tried to refrain from eating too much carbs, knowing that we had to get through four courses.

The first was a Hawaiian-style ceviche, which was aesthetically presented on a large — and heavy, as Wendy joked — silver scalloped shell piled with crushed ice.

Embedded in the ice was a martini glass filled with bits of onaga, tako, bay scallops and sweet shrimp, all steeped in a zesty yuzu juice that was punctuated with saffron, hints of Maui onions and pear tomatoes. Each biteful tickled the taste buds, sending them on a wild ocean journey. It would end with a splash of refreshing and palate-cleansing mojito shooter, a light rum concoction spiked with lime and fresh raspberry. We all agreed that it was the perfect elixir before our next course.

Fanned out, inch-thick slices of baby beets were bordered by an orange vinaigrette on one side and tiny puddles of balsamic vinegar on the other. At the top of the plate was a candied-walnut-covered, timbale-shaped portion of Big Island goat cheese that sat atop a tiny garden of Waimanalo micro greens. The subtlety of this salad was a light and ideal precursor to our main entrees, which offered a choice between grilled Kobe rib eye and French Antarctica lobster paella.

G.B. and her mom would opt for the latter while I couldn't pass on the former.

The presentation of the paella was unlike any that we've seen before. Usually this classic Spanish dish is served in a shallow bowl with bits of seafood folded into — or placed on top of — a bed of saffron rice.

Not Hirabayashi's. His paella resembled a painter's palette, which was vibrantly covered with slices of orange lobster presented in its shell, contrasting with the yellow saffron rice, green mussel and opaque clam. The dish had visual pop and was an edible masterpiece.

This paella comprises of French Antarctica lobster, mussels and clams.
And so was my medium-rare Kobe. Enhanced with a delicate marsala-and-Alii-mushroom sauce that had faint hints of pancetta (cured Italian bacon), this highly praised beef sliced like butter and had an equally luscious consistency. A side of tomato mozzarella and sweet white corn grits — or "polenta," as written on the menu — tastefully complemented the sweet flavor of the Kobe.

Dessert was the final triumphant pleasure. A not-overly-sweet rhubarb — the perennial plant is approaching peak season — compote was topped with a light, airy and fluffy lime-yogurt foam that slowly evaporated in the mouth. We were all on cloud nine.

No, we were at Hoku's.