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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 21, 2006

Revamped menu, fresh look make Hoku's a star

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Maggie Leong of Hawai'i Kai, Edwin Leong of Waipahu and Michele Leong of Boston, Mass., sample the seafood tower at the "glammed up" Hoku's.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi prepares salt-crusted rack of Wisconsin lamb, a recommended dish.

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HOKU'S AT THE KAHALA HOTEL & RESORT

Rating: Five forks out of five (Great)

5000 Kahala Ave.

739-8780

www.kahalaresort.com

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays; dinner 6-10 p.m. nightly; Sunday brunch buffet, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Overview: Resort elegant fine dining in Pacific Rim/international style

Details: Dress code collared shirts with slacks or evening wear; parking validated valet

Price: Lunch, $10-$24; dinner, entrees $38-$94

Recommended: baked Caesar salad at lunch; Tristan de Cunha lobster salad, salt-crusted rack of Wisconsin lamb or wok-fried jumbo prawns at dinner

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The dinner table sets the stage at Hoku's at The Kahala Hotel & Resort: marigold plate chargers that resemble alabaster, silver-tipped jet-black chopsticks that rest on water-smoothed pebbles, bulbous contemporary vases of fresh flowers, Riedel crystal stemware.

And these tables are in one of O'ahu's most beautiful and best-designed dining rooms: high-ceilinged and many-windowed, decorated with contemporary art, arranged on different levels so that every seat has a view of the sea.

The restaurant closed in May to get "glammed up," as the news release said, and reopened June 24 with a refreshed menu by executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi. Among the subtle new touches: new Christofle silver and Italian bone china, new flooring, fresh upholstery on banquettes and chairs. Hirabayashi revamped the menu pretty thoroughly only the signature 'ahi dip, the wok-fried prawns, the Chinese-style whole fish and the popular baked Caesar salad at lunch survived the cut.

In an interview after my anonymous visit, Hirabayashi explained that the goal was to retain the restaurant's "contemporary Hawaiian regional" style accented by international flavors (they've still got the giant woks, the tandoor oven, the sushi bar), but "kick it up a notch." The focus is on seasonal foods and Hawai'i-grown products, but, for his local customers, Hirabayashi also is planning to showcase seafood from elsewhere. "We can eat 'ahi every day, onaga every day but people here don't know (the fish) John Dory, for example."

One thing that hasn't changed is that, for those on an average paycheck, it's a special-occasion place, with dinner plates that begin at $38 and top out at $94 (for a rack of lamb that serves two). But you're almost guaranteed to have a moment like the one experienced by my girlfriend when she joined my husband and me for dinner there. I was blithely mid-anecdote when she took her first bite of the 'ahi poke dip, a seafood aioli that Hoku's serves in place of butter with its house-made lavosh, baguette and taro bread. "Sssshshshsh. Ssssshshshsh," she said, waving a limp hand at me. (Pause, during which her look turned dreamy and her eyes unfocused.) "I almost reached nirvana."

When you're spending the equivalent of a car payment on dinner, you ought to be able to enjoy it. We were pleased that although we had had to accept an early reservation time because it was a busy Saturday night, we were allowed to take our time from amuse bouche to petit fours. Service was professional and unobtrusive. The amuse bouche a free bit of something that the chef sends out to "entertain the mouth" was a tantalizing chilled melon-mint soup with diced apple and Serrano ham adding interest.

Adding interest is something Hirabayashi does well. For example, the Chinese roast duck consomme ($12) arrives as a handsome arrangement of roast duck, foie gras and handmade truffle ravioli in a shallow dish. The waiter conjures up a glass teapot full of broth and pours it over the whole for a bit of theater. The light broth and the delicate portioning assure that while this dish delivers on promised decadence, it doesn't overwhelm.

Warm Tristan de Cunha salad ($26) is a great choice for a light eater who can make an entree of a first course: Buttery, perfectly poached lobster is at the center of the plate, surrounded by warm potato salad and a scattering of greens, all lightly bathed in a Pommery mustard-lemon-thyme vinaigrette. A drizzle of scallion oil here and beet reduction there add emerald and scarlet elements to this gorgeous plate. Nirvana moment No. 2.

Even the sashimi plate Morning Catch isn't the usual tired, pre-selected array but an artfully presented spread of your choice of one or two fresh fish selections ('ahi, salmon and/or hamachi, on the day we visited) with fresh shiso leaf, pickled ginger and chopped fresh wasabi. Market priced, my friend's 'ahi/salmon selection was $21.

Entree selections presented us with a challenge. It was one of those nights when everything looked interesting: crisped whole Island fish in a Chinese-style preparation ($32), kiawe cold-smoked Kurobata pork chop with Kahuku corn and haricots vert ($36), Szechuan wok-fried lobster ($42).

I chose pan-roasted kampachi with English peas, fresh corn and vine-ripened tomato "fondue" ($32), a pleasing plate with a generous serving of well-prepared fish. My husband opted for the sticker-shock-causing rack of lamb ($94), which we shared around. It arrived whole, in a rock-salt crust that the server neatly sliced away before portioning out the chops, allowing us to select the doneness we preferred. With the tender, juicy "lamb pops" (as we like to call them) came an intense lamb jus and an aphrodisiac mint cream sauce, like herbed hollandaise. Nirvana moment No. 3.

My girlfriend's wok-fried jumbo prawns ($36) were, for once, just that: prawns, not shrimp, with the promised "light, spicy crust," stir-fried vegetables and excellent fried rice.

Hoku's boasts a wine list of 230 wines. We stuck with wine by the glass, and I enjoyed in particular a Palmina pinot grigio from Santa Barbara, which paired nicely with my seafood courses.

Restaurant desserts are so often disappointing that when I'm not reviewing, I generally skip them as not worth the calories. At Hoku's, we enjoyed three winners: chocolate nut cake ($11) with raspberry sorbet, warm chocolate cake ($12) garnished with gold, and my mango tarte tatin ($9).

The tart is the kind of dessert that turns you into a snarling Gollum ("Mine!") when your best friend tries to put a fork on your plate. The warm tart was dressed with a drizzle of caramel and a scoop of apple granitee a memorable ending. Nirvana moment No. 4.

Hirabayashi said one goal of the menu revival was to "simplify and refine." Although presentation is still artful, and creativity remains a hallmark, he's stepped back from the towering architecture and the dozen-things-going-on-on-the-plate that used to characterize Hoku's and that sometimes seemed a bit much. This simpler, more refined Hoku's is greatly to my taste.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.