Restaurant Reviews

Planet Hawaii

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.

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.

One of the benefits of sitting at the spectator perch is the chefs take pity on you for having to watch them wipe their hands on their aprons and grit their teeth to keep the profanity in check. So in appreciation, they feed you their mistakes and miscues gratis. One of the chefs asked us if we liked soft-shell crab and immediately began cueing up a row of plates and dismembering a whole crab before we could answer.

The large crabs are golden, covered as they are in panko bread crumbs before they're fried. They come out greaseless, and the tiny pieces of leg the chefs passed out were moist and sweet without being mushy. The dish looks a little different when decked out in all of its entrée glory. A pair of golden crabs are stacked one upon the other on a pad of white rice. Sometimes the one on top tumbles off the plate and the chefs have to reassemble them, pushing one down into the other to get it to stay put. The crabs are delicious through and through and are dabbled in a piquant stone-ground mustard sauce. There were no mushy spots or oil slicks, but the rice on which these crabs rest is pathetic: dry, hard and sticky. It was as if they had perched these crabs on some kind of inedible bulk filler whose only purpose was to promote good fried-crab posture.

Roy's wine list is clever and agile, geared to the flavor intricacies and wine-unfriendly slants that Asian-influenced cuisines often present. The white wines include a healthy selection of off-dry to medium sweet wines (including German Rieslings) as well as a healthy selection of dry whites that have nothing to do with chardonnay. In the reds, the merlots and cabs are relegated to the back of the wine list with pinots, zinfandels, California Rhone varietals and other global reds occupying the foreground. Roy's "exclusive" wine bottlings are made by some of the wine industry's most respected names, including Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen. Plus it has short, effective flavor descriptions and pairing suggestions. This is a list with wit and intelligence, one that wraps tightly around the food instead of being stapled to it as an afterthought.

Still, it might be hard to effectively pair a wine with the buttered opah in kimchi (fermented cabbage) butter sauce. The top of the fillet is embossed with a sprig of cilantro leaves, perfectly flattened and embedded into the fish. The fish meat is dense and solid. Yet the flavor is delicate and sweet, setting up a perfect foiling opportunity for the bitterness that peeked through from the kimchi-laced sauce.

Another thing you might not expect from Roy's is acuity with game, but their twisted rendition of surf & turf (shrimp and venison) is as good as it is provocative. The slices of venison dribbled in a port-thyme reduction were ruddy and silky, with an undercurrent of smoke. The meat was exceptionally tender, with no sinuous streaks requiring you to overwork the incisors. The shrimp were succulent--even buttery--but they were slightly overcooked, and the flavors were a little soapy.

Service was slow and inconsistent, at least at the kitchen bar. Drink orders never appeared, dinner orders were taken only after long waits, and our server said "absolutely" after everything we asked or stated. This can get a little creepy after the third drink.

But then again she didn't try to put leis around our necks or accompany the open kitchen show with ukulele riffs.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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