The hum of Roy’s Waikiki Beach restaurant
was in full swing. Every table in the open-style dining room was taken, a buzz of conversation floated throughout the room. In the exhibition kitchen, sous chef, line cooks and expediters swirled around executive chef Jason Peel, making the restaurant’s signature dishes, like misoyaki butterfish, braised short ribs and, of course, Roy’s ever-popular chocolate souffle.
All the while Chef Jason worked on a few special dishes just for me and one of my “city girl” co-workers, Lisa—dishes as yet unnamed and dishes not yet appearing on the menu.
I attended a food writing workshop recently. The instructor, Dianne Jacob, author of Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir and More
, suggested these general rules for reviewing restaurants:
1. Go incognito. Do not call in advance and let the manager know that you—from your big, fancy publication—will be dropping by tonight at 7:00 to dine and write a review. Once people know who you are, they treat you differently.
2. Don’t gush and don’t bash. There is a great breadth of reviewing space between the two. Have an opinion but make it a smart one.
3. Choose adjectives wisely. Great. Fabulous. Wonderful. Delicious. These adjectives don’t cut it. They are subjective. Use smart adjectives--adjectives that are truly descriptive—such as tart, buttery and nutty.
4. Eat at a restaurant at least three times before writing a review.
Here’s the thing. Hawaii isn’t that big, and when you live here, you know people and people know you. You know what they do, and they know what you do. Hence, my violation of the first rule.
When I was on Oahu covering the 70th Anniversary Pearl Harbor Commemoration
, I told another co-worker, Sun, I wanted to go to Roy’s at Waikiki Beach Walk. I knew that she was friends with a chef there, but I didn’t know the friend was the executive chef. And I certainly didn’t expect her to email said executive chef and give him the 4-1-1 on both Lisa’s and my eating preferences. See, the thing is, some might say we have picky eating habits. At the time, Lisa was vegetarian but would eat dairy. I didn’t eat beef, pork or poultry but did eat seafood and dairy.
In 1988, Roy Yamaguchi opened his first restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii. Today, there are 31 Roy’s locations
around the world, including six in Hawaii and 23 on the mainland U.S. Roy won a James Beard award for his “Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine,” something he describes as a blending of European techniques and Asian cuisine meeting Hawaiian hospitality.”
Now, Roy can’t oversee all 31 kitchens. But it seems he’s figured out a winning recipe for success. He hires young chefs, trains them himself and, then, gives them great leeway with the menu. Sure, they have to offer Roy’s signature menu items, but they can create their own specials and change up the menu, too.
Lisa and I had heard Chef Jason was offering a smattering of vegan dishes at Roy’s Waikiki Beach, and we wanted to try them. While, the restaurant offers a special vegan prix fixe menu, Chef created some new dishes just for us. Once people know who you are, they treat you differently.
He started us off with “Watermelon poke,” squares of crispy watermelon topped with strips of fennel, puffed rice, shavings of radish and sprigs of mint and cilantro, all lightly sprinkled with a vinaigrette. It was delicious. Oops. I mean bright and crisp. Each bite exploded like freshwater fireworks going off in my mouth.
Chef called our next dish “oven roasted tomato Parmesan basil beignets” and slid onto the bench seat next to me tell me about his inspiration. Like most mothers, Jason’s fed him grilled cheese and tomato soup. Only his mother added grape jelly to the sandwich. Jason’s beignets, arranged on individual ceramic white scoops, may have been my favorite dish of the night. Served warm, they contrasted the cool watermelon and partnered with flavor hints of cheese and tomato alongside sweet and spicy. These balls looked—and tasted—nothing like the lunch dish Jason’s mother used to serve, but they provided all the comfort.
Roy’s dishes are known for being multi-ingredient dishes, and Jason extended that concept into what Lisa dubbed, our “deconstructed potato salad.” When I say that this dish included pan-roasted potatoes sitting atop homemade mustard; pickled beets, fennel relish, jalapeno, cucumber and micro greens, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. This was no super-size salad but more an artfully arranged salad that Raymond Carver would admire.
For our entrée, Jason served me Kona Kampachi, fish, and Lisa, eggplant. Both sat on a bed of coconut polenta and were topped with a relish of corn, onion and jalapeno and garnished with lemongrass and mint. I happen to love the surprising pop of corn in just about anything—how did Jason know?
For dessert, Jason dished up Roy’s signature soufflé and choco-ginger ice cream.
I ate every bite of every dish, and every bite was delicious. Truly. I’d like to find a spot for Roy’s Waikiki somewhere between gushing and bashing, but I am afraid all I can do after my last visit is gush. (By the way, I gushed, too, after celebrating my 23rd wedding anniversary with my husband at Roy’s Poipu Bar & Grill—and that visit was 100% incognito.)
Here’s the thing. If Chef Jason is willing to drop his other tasks—and I am sure there are many—to cater to two picky eaters for an entire evening, I can glean two things about him:
1. He loves to feed people.
2. He sees it as an opportunity to try out new dishes on a couple of willing guinea pigs.
Either way, we’re talking about service and passion--two key trademarks for any good, quality restaurant that delivers time and again. That’s why Roy’s Waikiki Beach gets 4.5 stars out of 5 on Yelp
I guess, in the end, my experience wasn't all that unusual.