Doraku at Royal Hawaiian Center was recently renovated, giving the restaurant a stylish update. Seating was expanded, with additional booths and tables at the front, and a small room was added for private parties, or diners who simply want a more intimate space.
The sushi bar and bar were redone, and changes were made to refresh the menu and drink list.
We stopped in to try out the refurbished space.
Doraku invokes the Japanese concept of shibui, the aesthetic of simple and inobtrusive beauty, while also folding in contemporary elements.
Long wooden tables and booths and stone statues of wise and wizened men sit in contrast to bright lanterns hanging in the entranceway and Asian- themed paintings done in modern colors and angles.
It’s clear that the restaurant isn’t trying to transport you to Japan, though; diners are greeted by rock music as they walk in.
I appreciated the classy interior, but I was all about the lanai. Three floors above the street, it’s pleasantly at eye level with the tops of palms adjacent to the center. Large red umbrellas add color and shade diners from the sun’s late afternoon glare.
When I arrived, at the top of happy hour, the place was fairly empty, but tables filled in short order. I saw plenty of visitors in pairs. At the standout table, made from a single length of tree trunk, a jovial and boisterous group of 15 or so local teachers were gathered.
At the bar, an even mix of what looked like local diners and visitors in leis got comfortable.
This might be a good place to note that the Royal Hawaiian Center has recently revamped its parking rates, as well; shopping center customer now get free validated parking for the first two hours with a minimum $10 purchase.
The happy hour menu offers a generous selection of more than 20 items, including sushi rolls, cold and hot dishes.
The beautifully understated setting had me in the mood for something light. My server recommended Salmon Carpaccio ($6, normally $12.95) and the Lomi Lomi Roll ($6, a happy hour special) for contrast.
The carpaccio — bright cuts of orange swimming in an orange sauce on a white plate — was tender, and a small heap of purple onions, slivered leek and tobiko added color and contrasting flavors. The sauce is ginger-miso.
“The Salmon Carpaccio is very popular, especially on a hot day,” said server Curtis Stranghoener. “It’s light and fresh, and people love the ginger-miso dressing. They tend to remember it and ask for it on other dishes.”
The Lomi Lomi Roll is a Spicy Tuna Roll – tuna and cucumber – topped with diced salmon, onions and tomato, and drizzled with unagi sauce. Even without adding wasabi, the roll has a spicy bite. It’s a chewy, tasty chunk of rice and seafood, complemented by the delicate teriyaki sweetness of the unagi.
Beer, wine, cocktails and sake are all on the happy hour menu, ranging anywhere from $4 for a beer to $34 for a liter of sake.
My Lychee Martini ($6, normally $11) tasted refreshingly like fresh lychee, not flavored syrup, and came garnished with a single whole lychee. It’s thick, like a smoothie, and the strong vodka base hits as the sweetness of the lychee subsides.
“When someone wants a sweet drink, we recommend the Lychee Martini,” says Stranghoener. “It’s made from real lychee that we puree ourselves.”
I also had the Hibiscus ($6, normally $11), which looks like lemonade. It’s effervescent, served in a glass with ice and slices of lemon.
The Hibiscus tastes like a light floral tea made into a soda, with a hint of citrus and a pleasant alcohol aftertaste. The ingredient list reads: “Elderflower liquor kissed with sparkling wine and club soda.”
The large selection of food and drink on Doraku’s happy hour menu offers an opportunity to taste-test the main menu offerings at good prices, and the restaurant’s subdued Japanese aesthetic, presentation of the dishes and attentive servers are attractive and satisfying. If you happen to be strolling (or cruising) along Kalakaua and decide to check it out, you won’t be disappointed.
Royal Hawaiian Center, Suite 304
Happy Hour: 4-6 p.m. daily
>> Salmon Carpaccio, $6
>> Lomi Lomi Roll, $6
>> Lychee martini, $6