PREMIUM PICK: MERRIMAN’S
1108 Auahi St.; 215-0022. Lunch, dinner, happy hour. $$$-$$$$
Founding chef Peter Merriman, an originator of the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement, made his name with exquisite plates prepared from local ingredients. His original Merriman’s in Waimea became a destination, renowned for its pioneering strategy of working with island farmers. Over the years, he’s added to his family of eateries, and the newest Merriman’s in Kakaako, opened last year, makes the restaurant group’s populist instinct evident.
The problem, if you’d call it that, is that some dishes offered here are such simple crowd-pleasers that they thwart the desire to experience a sublime plate. For a great meal, it’s best to skip the poke, fish tacos and quesadillas, and let Merriman’s play to its strengths.
Trust this restaurant to serve the freshest seafood and singular “dirt-grown” vegetables and salads, favoring local flavors and classic preparations.
A recent dish of snapper was cooked to perfection, on a bed of polenta so rich with butter and pecorino cheese that it could inspire sighs, and topped with shaved fennel and two juicy, jumbo shrimp. Sichuan-style green beans make for a sublime side, tasting of the garden and emanating a corrective heat.
The pot pie is a deserved favorite: comfort food, yes, but elevated with Keahole lobster and fresh, generous scallops dotting the creamy sauce. The crispy, flaky crust is irresistable.
Similar pleasures are to be found in Merriman’s small plate of tako and country bread, served in an escargot pan, swimming in garlic butter.
And, oh yes, the breads! All are lovely, but best of all are Merriman’s buttermilk biscuits, served warm with a crunchy outer layer.
514 Piikoi St.; 592-8500. Dinner. $$-$$$$
Yamada Chikara is hidden in plain sight on Piikoi Street, very near Ala Moana Center, with subtle signage. Inside, a minimalist ethic holds; the restaurant cultivates a sedate, peaceful atmosphere that leads to a focus on the plates.
Chef Chikara Yamada trained at esteemed restaurant El Bulli in Spain, practicing the magical art of molecular gastronomy. Spanish and Japanese flavors combine at his restaurants in Japan, New York and Honolulu, where he expanded in 2018.
Yamada Chikara made some changes this year: Tea service to end the multi-course meal is no longer included, and a front room and bar counter are now available for diners seeking a more casual experience. Take advantage of this to visit more often, savoring individual menu options such as a luscious macaroni gratin topped with Kauai shrimp, tender beef tongue in red wine stew, or daily specials such as a beef ramen.
You can also choose the well-engineered Spanish Omelet, a centerpiece offering that highlights Yamada’s craft, with layers of potato foam, caramelized onion and egg yolk foam, truffled and served in a narrow glass, to emphasize its structure. It’s a unique experience for Honolulu diners.
The multicourse menu, which changes frequently, is an affordable marvel. The freshest rice from Hokkaido is a delight, served with delicate caviar. “Quinoa” — actually transformed, freeze-dried foie gras, served with a warm consomme that reconstitutes the delicacy as you spoon it into your mouth — is a delicious and humorous gastronomical offering.
1001 Queen St.; 773-8235. Lunch, dinner. $$-$$$$
Customers can still walk in at Rinka, now settled in Ward Villages — but that may not last long. It’s becoming a fast favorite in the neighborhood, with an extensive menu of sushi, sashimi, grilled, simmered and fried items, along with hot pot and shabu shabu to cook at your table. Teishoku sets for lunch are also a popular option. Make a reservation to assure yourself a table.
Rinka moved into the A‘eo building (site of the Kakaako Whole Foods) in 2019. It can be hard to find for a first visit: Find it on the ground floor, facing the Ward Theatres parking garage. Everything about the restaurant feels new, bright and shiny so far; it’s spotlessly clean and brightly lit, making Instagram pic-taking easy.
As for the food, nearly everything is fresh and attractive, offering great value at a midrange price point. The selection of vegetarian items is small, but delicious; salads such as the “kale and colorful vegetables,” sprinkled generously with crispy, salty salmon skin and served with a sweet yet astringent dressing, allow for healthy choices.
Fan favorites include the black sesame tofu topped with uni, sushi rolls in inventive combinations and artfully prepared sashimi plates. There’s enough here to bring you back for fresh experiences throughout the year.