Maybe the second time will be the charm for the restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach.
In this aspirational space, operators of the original tenant, BLT Market, had the admirable goal of wooing diners with Hawaii- focused, farm-fresh and healthful meals, but anyone could have told them that in this state few people are willing to spend $150 or so on a veggie-centric meal.
It didn’t help that the restaurant didn’t have the help of signage, hidden on the eighth-floor lobby level of the building for exclusivity’s sake. Developers just didn’t understand the Hawaii mindset that associates inconvenience with valet parking and navigating an unfamiliar building.
Those conditions are still in place, but the newly opened La Vie has a brighter future, already generating a buzz with the lure of modern French cuisine in a town starving for a change from the same-old.
La Vie is the first of three concepts to be introduced by Japan-based G.Lion Group Hawaii, owner of Hy’s Steak House. Adding to the restaurant’s pedigree are the familiar faces of executive chef Shaymus Alwin, who received many accolades at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Azure restaurant, and general manager Dusty Grable, whose diverse background includes acclaimed restaurants in Honolulu and San Francisco.
The layout and interior of the restaurant remain the same, with an understated casual air, open setting and view overlooking Waikiki, great for catching Friday evening fireworks at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Most people associate French cuisine with particular dishes and ingredients, such as beef bourguignon, cassoulet, escargot and coq au vin. This isn’t that kind of place. It’s funny that in this era of globalization, all cuisines have melded together, so that modern French cuisine looks, feels and tastes a lot like new American cuisine.
FRENCH CUISINE is defined as rooted in cooking traditions and practices from France, but these techniques have been codified and used as a universal language in kitchens around the world. With local refinement over time, there’s little to separate modern French from new American, although the idea of French cuisine still has cachet and may be what it takes to bring in people for a look.
The inaugural menu is short but sweet, and I find the tasting menu format of three courses for $79 and five courses for $119 reasonable for the quality and portion sizes. That said, value is in the eye of the beholder. For a customized experience, diners could throw the traditional appetizer- entree-dessert format out the window and go with three appetizers or three desserts if they prefer, and arguably get less value than the person who opts for three entrees. For a couple sharing courses, there’s a lot of variety within a combined six or 10 choices.
The downside of the smaller menu is that it can feel limiting. I tried the three-course menu on my first visit and proceeded to order some of the perceived high-value dishes, passing over some gems in the process. I’d enjoyed asparagus with a poached egg many times before, so I thought I could skip it, but it turned out to be one of my favorite dishes on a return trip. In Alwin’s hands, this was no plain-Jane dish. Slices of asparagus are part of a composed salad also comprising alii mushrooms, crunchy buckwheat, pea shoots and Parmesan crisps, with the egg as centerpiece in a bowl into which was poured a chervil nage.
Then there was the sunchoke tofu, a $10 supplement item, which didn’t seem glamorous enough for round one, but again, on trip two it was another favorite dish. The slightly sweet tofu made from the root of the sunflower had a panna cotta-like quality that was made more savory with a dollop of American sturgeon caviar, finished with thin slices of abalone, green onion and a bit of crunch from fried baby shrimp.
If I had to pick just three dishes, it would be these two plus the lobster remoulade, a poached lobster tail accompanied by a crunchy tangle of celery root “pasta,” a dream for those who want to be creative about adding more vegetables to their lives. Considering how hot it’s been lately, the whole dish had a light and refreshing vibe, with a touch of vadouvan, the lighter French interpretation of Indian masala.
AT SOME time bread will arrive, babka with the marbling of mushrooms. Adding truffle butter amplifies the flavor. Dinner initially starts with an amuse, recently a satisfying and refreshing jasmine tea granita with crispy lentils and a pour of carrot soup.
Considering that the company behind Hy’s Steak House is the owner, it’s surprising that seafood impressed more than steak. Dishes of roasted scallops from Maine (where Alwin is from); dayboat snapper wrapped in thin, crisped ham; and king salmon Parisienne, accompanied by smoked potatoes, spinach and leek sauce, fared better than American wagyu that didn’t excite the palate.
Usually I don’t order duck outside of Chinese restaurants, because elsewhere it becomes dry and rubbery. That is not the case here, where 21-day aged duck breast, a contemporary update of duck l’orange, is a dish I’d gladly order again.
You can finish with some very French desserts, localized to include flavors of the isles, such as a Mont Blanc of sweet potato with coconut, or a souffle of Waialua chocolate.
Ritz-Carlton Residences, eighth-floor lobby, 383 Kalaimoku St. (valet parking)
>> Call: 729-9729
>> Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. daily; breakfast 6:30 to 11 a.m. daily
>> Prices: $79 or $119 per person for three or five courses
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.