By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
It's difficult to approach a restaurant transplant like Roy's with a whole lot of hope and without a whole lot of suspicion. From the press kit, Roy's kind of seems like a Hawaiian vacation exhibit in the Palace of Wax, one with a toque-wearing Roy Yamaguchi facsimile tossing leis around a Don Ho head while a puffed-up blowfish in a Hawaiian shirt looks on. Chef/owner Yamaguchi himself makes note of his restaurant's "aloha" style of service, so it's not hard to see those swaying grass skirts coming into focus after a single parasol drink served in a hollowed-out coconut.
Roy's is stuffed to the gills with hype. The press kit bleeds with accolades and milestones. "Roy invented what he calls his 'Hawaiian Fusion' cuisine--a tempting combination of exotic flavors and spices..." reads one blurb. "Dishes like rare ahi in grapefruit vinaigrette and Asian herb sauce would represent something bold, even brazen, for some; but for Yamaguchi, merely the next evolutionary step for a classic dish," drips another. The magazine Bon Appétit labeled Yamaguchi's early work "California-French-Japanese-eclectic," a clumsy term that today would be distilled and slipped under the global fusion rubric.
Yamaguchi opened his first Roy's restaurant in Honolulu in 1988. Since that time he has captured a James Beard Award, been lauded by reams of glossy magazines, gotten himself a public television series called "Hawaii Cooks With Roy Yamaguchi" and starred in an Iron Chef installment called "Iron Chef USA: Showdown in Las Vegas," a show that wasn't produced by Don King or Donald Trump. He has also opened 32 Roy's restaurants in the United States plus Guam and Japan. Thirteen of those restaurants are partnerships with Outback Steakhouse.
Ahi and avocado poketini: $13
Boston bib salad: $8.50
Roasted-duck salad: $8.50
Whole Dungeness crabs: $30
Venison and shrimp: $29
Buttered opah: $24
In the mainland, this one-man culinary carnival has spread his namesake from California to Austin to New York to Philadelphia and Florida. Roy's is a sort of Planet Hollywood, spreading and thriving without the Willis/Stallone appearances or the Chapter 11 annoyances smearing up the glass-encased thematic paraphernalia.
In other words, I expected Roy's to be a Hawaiian Disney World with prefab food, parasols windsurfing in glasses of chardonnay, little grass skirts on the prawns and an expediter who plays the ukulele.
But that isn't what I got. By some fluke of fate and defective last-minute planning on a Saturday night, my party got seated at the Exhibition Kitchen Bar, which put us within earshot and gave us clean sight lines into the elegant mechanics of Roy's grub rumba. The first thing you notice is that this team of chefs wears baseball caps with Texas flags embroidered on them. The second thing you notice is that only one member of this team is wearing latex gloves, while everyone else wipes their hands and seemingly everything else on their aprons. The third thing you notice is that this group of kitchen hands moves with the tight control and well-timed symmetry of a belly dancer.
They shout orders. They shout numbers. They shout messages in code. When someone yells "S.O.S." you think you're about to witness a corn-oil blaze. Then you learn that S.O.S is not a coded distress call but shorthand for sauce on the side. And they can't cuss--even when they run out of tobiko or a server babbles about a blundered Boston bib salad--because they have 11 pairs of eyeballs just waiting for that "aloha" style of service to slip up and get colorful. This is a heroic exercise in restraint for these guys (and one girl, who had the dirtiest apron I've ever seen outside of Jiffy Lube) because when you sink a dim sum canoe or catch a bib salad on fire, sometimes the only thing that helps is an unimpeded string of four-letter words.
But even more entertaining than waiting for a kitchen hand to slip up and spew a little profanity is watching the dishes come to life. After a few minutes, we shucked our menus and just watched the food selections parade by.
One of the most attractive was the ahi and avocado poketini, a layering of diced tuna and tomato with a wasabi nori aioli. The entire reddish mixture is settled in a martini glass and topped with tobiko caviar. The flavors are immaculate and blistering with incredible freshness.
When it doesn't catch fire, the Boston bib salad is a simple spread, with fresh leaves draped over a plate and speckles of blue cheese grated over the top. Grating this strong cheese adds a deftness, giving it a light dusting of tang instead of a bombardment of gym-sock crumbles. The top was also sprinkled with pecan bits and splashed with ginger-wasabi vinaigrette. The effect kind of hits your palate with a jolt of focused balance.
This is in stark contrast to the roasted-duck salad, which looked like a volcano made of salad tailings. This funnel-like preparation of greens, carrot shreds, bean sprouts, onions and bell pepper strips was dabbed with pieces of torn duck meat around the base and along the rising cone, which ends with a pinch of pickled ginger at the vent. The salad was waterlogged and mushy. It sagged and was lazily collapsing in on itself, looking as if it had been prepared and allowed to sit and sweat in a cooler for a while. Yet we know this didn't happen because we watched the men in baseball caps throw them together two and three at a pop.