With ll Lupino Trattoria and Wine Bar’s opening following that of the successful launch of Wolfgang’s Restaurant by Wolfgang Zwiener last year, Zwiener is hoping lightning will strike twice for him at Royal Hawaiian Center.
Although Wolfgang’s Steakhouse was new to Hawaii, the first by the 41-year Peter Luger Steakhouse veteran dates to 2002 in New York, so he’s got that steakhouse formula down. In comparison, Il Lupino (said to translate to "Little Wolf," though Italians in town say "Lupeto" would free it from some unintended kaona), is the baby of the family, with attendant growing pains.
I was urged by some readers to go to the restaurant as soon as it opened last month, but having gone, I thought I’d wait a bit. It wasn’t quite done tweaking the menu or its prices, which have gone up a bit. I was particularly intrigued when I caught sight of the meat slicer, right next to the bar. I had an inkling of what was coming and thought charcuterie service was worth waiting for. It’s such a rare treat in Hawaii that it feels so decadent and special.
When I returned to the restaurant last week, charcuterie still wasn’t on the menu, but it was serving platters to anyone who inquired, and when you see someone in the heart of the dining room slicing and plating something that looks so delectable, who wouldn’t ask?
The platters are subject to change, but that night the offering was a combination of thin-sliced coppa, a dry-cured pork shoulder; aged blue cheese; a soft, savory sheep’s milk cheese; quince; and a challenge to diners of head cheese that was enjoyably beefy, if one could stomach the idea of eating the brain terrine.
It’s currently being offered in a range of $15 to $40, depending on your selections, with options to pick three or five items.
The restaurant is city-chic and simply appointed. The real ambience comes from the full house and sophisticated clientele. No doubt many are filtering in from the neighboring Pink Palace and Sheraton Waikiki. Italian cuisine is a universal favorite, and I can see why many would be lured by the huge "Il Lupino" lettering facing the two hotels at the back of the Royal Hawaiian Center.
In the kitchen it’s still hit-or-miss.
The salads here are good, starting with the panzanella ($11), a chunky combination of chopped cucumbers, red and yellow tomatoes, olives, red onions, croutons and gorgonzola tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette.
For those with a taste for bitter greens, Insalata di Rucola ($11) of baby arugula, candied Marcona almonds and candied pears was promising. I loved the delicate vinaigrette, but whoever added the last flourish of salt had too heavy a hand. What should have been a small pinch tasted more like a teaspoon. I should have sent it back rather than risk hypertension.
But I like the attention paid to vegetables overall. There’s more in the form of side orders like spinach sauteed with oil and lemon ($10), which was just perfect, as were red and yellow roasted beets sprinkled with gorgonzola ($9).
The budget-oriented would be able to make a nice meal of salads and shared pizza or pastas. The pizza crust is nothing special, but a simple Margherita ($14) with pomodoro sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil is always a pleasure. I also like the ample veggies topping the zucchini and melanzane pizza ($14) of oven- roasted zucchini, eggplant and tricolor peppers.
You can’t go too far wrong with $15 to $20 pastas, but they aren’t appreciably better than $10 pastas around town. A friend who had visited on a separate occasion complained that the linguini with clams ($16) had no flavor. Red and white versions are offered. I don’t know which she ordered, but the garlic and white-wine version, made richer with a little butter, was fine, even if the pasta was a bit flabby.
I always fall for the ravioli, this time, a slow-cooked duck ravioli with duck ragu ($20). These are mostly pasta and tangy sauce and very little filling. The ragu was supposed to make up for it, a nice try, but there was little duck flavor overall. I had no complaint about the four-piece portion, but a friend — a tiny woman — did, saying she could have eaten 12 pieces.
My favorite dish turned out to be the tagliatelle all puttanesca ($15), sensual, drapey strips of pasta coated with a tomato sauce of capers, anchovies and olives with a spicy zip.
Grilled salmon ($28) is another standard can’t-go-wrong sort of dish. Here, it receives an unusual topping of cucumbers that add little but texture, flavor-wise. That’s the job of the balsamic vinegar sauce.
The menu is rounded out with filet mignon ($38), grilled New York steak ($36) and veal ($27) and chicken piccata ($22), but I was lured by osso buco ($47) promising pine nuts, olives, golden raisins and creamy risotto Milanese. The reality did not live up to the anticipation, mostly because the bright, acidic tomato sauce didn’t have the rich, slow-cooked savory appeal you’d expect at that price point.
Overall, it’s a nice place to visit, but one where the food doesn’t yet measure up to the setting or intent to establish another world-class brand.
Nadine Kam‘s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail email@example.com.