The selection of restaurants for the ‘Ilima guide begins in early summer and there are always worthwhile restaurants that open long after those discussions end. Here are a handful that opened after deadline, but deserve a place among the top restaurants of the year.
HAMADA GENERAL STORE
885 Queen St.; 379-1992. Breakfast, lunch. $$
Who doesn’t love a multi-generational, family business success story?
Since 1958, H. Hamada Store had been a fixture on Queen Street. The company, started by Hatsutaro Hamada before World War II, was first known as a salvage company, but later branched out into produce and groceries.
Hamada’s grandson Elroy ran the business until he retired in 2007 and closed the store for good. Because of the difficulties of mom-and-pop grocers in light of increased competition from big-box retailers, none of his children wanted to continue the fight.
Fast-forward 12 years and the Hamada name has been resurrected for a fourth generation as Hamada General Store, a casual restaurant on the same family-owned site as the former store, owned and operated by Elroy’s son Brandon Hamada and his chef-partners Neil Nakasone and John Estrella.
The trio had no problem drawing a crowd from opening day in August, as they’ve had a following since 1999, when they met in the kitchen of Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room. Working together for 20 years, they realized they shared a similar vision, even if their culinary styles differ. Estrella is described as “the homey one,” and Brandon Hamada “is the fancy one.” Nakasone is the one with a more global outlook, whose passion is for Italian and Mediterranean fare. Somehow it all comes together in comfort-driven casual sandwiches and plate lunches with a contemporary sensibility.
The menu features a short list of about 17 dishes. Order at the counter and dishes are brought to you when ready.
“It’s stuff we grew up eating,” Hamada said. “I think we try to touch every demographic, what people like to eat.” He said the menu will grow over time, but for now they’re winning hearts through customers’ stomachs with the likes of wafu hamburger steak with kabayaki- braised onions and mushrooms, daikon oroshi and ponzu; and pork katsu reimagined as loco moco with Japanese curry replacing the usual brown gravy.
Diners who have already run through the regular menu keep coming back for daily specials, to the point that they’re typically sold out by noon. Some examples include beef-and-potato-laden HGS pastele stew, garlic rib-eye with escargot butter and balsamic reduction, and surf and turf of 5-ounce grilled rib-eye and lobster tail.
The Ritz-Carlton Residences, lobby level, 383 Kalaimoku St.; 729-9729. Breakfast, dinner. $$$
Most people associate French cuisine with particular dishes and ingredients, such as beef Bourguignon, cassoulet, escargots and coq au vin. La Vie isn’t that kind of place. In this era of globalization, all cuisines and classic techniques have melded together so that modern French cuisine looks, feels and tastes a lot like new-American cuisine. But French cuisine still has cachet and may be the lure that brings people to Waikiki for a look.
La Vie is the first of three concepts to be introduced to the At Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, by Japan-based G.Lion Group Hawaii, owner of Hy’s Steak House.
The layout and interior remains the same since its days as BLT Market, with its understated casual air, open setting and view overlooking Waikiki.
The inaugural menu created by executive chef Shaymus Alwin is short but sweet, with a tasting format of three courses for $79 and five courses for $119. Diners get to pick every item and the temptation would be to go with heavier dishes than appetizers, but to do so would mean missing out on some gems, such as sunchoke tofu (a $10 supplement item). It doesn’t seem very glamorous but turned out to be one of my favorites. 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.
Another favorite is 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. The whole dish had a light and refreshing vibe, with a touch of vadouvan, the lighter French interpretation of Indian masala.
Other highlights are roasted Maine (where Alwin is from) scallops, dayboat snapper wrapped in thin crisped ham, and king salmon Parisienne accompanied by smoked potatoes, spinach and leek sauce.
3579 Waialae Ave.; 376-8576. Lunch, dinner. $$-$$$
Few would argue that ramen reigns when it comes to Japanese noodles in Hawaii, but Kikue invites you to reconsider soba, a noodle for today and beyond as the health conscious become more aware of its combination of nutrition and the gluten-free nature of the buckwheat flour it’s made from.
All such thoughts about science and health go out the window, however, when this most casual and basic of ingredients is combined with such luxe ingredients as truffles, uni and caviar.
Soba noodles made in-house are the centerpiece of a menu that comprises many a guilty pleasure.
At the most basic, there is hot or cold plain soba. The next level is soba with Kauai shrimp tempura or niku soba, served cold with a generous amount of thin-sliced pork belly, served with a nontraditional broth, or tsuyu, of soy sauce, sesame oil and cayenne, for dipping.
At the higher end, hot duck soba is topped with five pieces of tender grilled duck breast; cold truffle soba is so loaded with shaved truffle that its signature essence flavors the entire dish; and my favorite, cold uni soba, which arrives like a work of art, the noodles topped by dashi gelee and a piece of uni in a pool of uni foam, topped with a small amount of caviar. Both the dashi and foam are wonderful in flavoring the noodles until the last bite.
You’d probably go home hungry if you were to dine izakaya-style without the soba, given the pricing and portion size of the starter dishes. But given how filling noodles can be, a little goes a long way, so you could savor small portions of such luxe sides as duck foie gras teriyaki, grilled A5 wagyu or torched fatty tuna.
A pared-down lunch menu features plain soba, donburi and soba-donburi combinations.
The Ritz-Carlton Residences, lobby level, 383 Kalaimoku St.; 729-9729. Lunch, dinner. $$$
Where La Vie takes diners to France, its sister restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Quiora, opts for sunny Italy and a menu of pastas made in-house by sous-chef Miranda Eckerfield, an alumnus of San Francisco’s acclaimed Flour + Water.
And what pastas they are. First there are the ones we all know and love: lush, blankety pappardelle; childhood love spaghetti; and ribbonlike tagliatelle. Then comes delightful cappellacci, flat sheets of pasta folded to resemble little hats and served here with Italian sausage, brightened by a sauce of lemon.
Family-style dining is welcomed at this open-air patio restaurant, with the same menu offered day and night. The menu is small but satisfying, with a handful of carefully selected starters, such as Calabrian chili garlic shrimp or housemade burrata, and family boards for two, designed to be a meal centerpiece.
The boards feature a choice of pork, whole fish, bone-in-steak and seasonal vegetables, with a choice of such sides as polenta, chicory salad, garlic broccolini or country potatoes with onions, and a choice of sauce.
It’s typical to enjoy a board alongside a pasta, but I’d prefer to end with pasta. As delicious as it is, it doesn’t leave much room to enjoy the rest of the irresistible menu.