A bountiful buffet and so much more

Jo McGarry
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Friday - July 27, 2007
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From the buffet: Hawaiian plate with chili pepper water, shoyu and poi
From the buffet: Hawaiian plate with chili pepper water, shoyu and poi

When you think of Hausten Street, visions of tropical flora, waterfalls and a beautiful wedding chapel don’t exactly spring to mind. In fact, when out-of-town guests travel to The Willows by taxi, they often think they’ve been dropped at the wrong location.

“We get so many guests who’re on vacation, or coming here for a rehearsal dinner who’ve heard about our beautiful location - but think that the they can’t be in the right place,“says Willows’ managing director Kyle Nakayama.

Until, that is, they step inside one of Honolulu’s oldest dining destinations and are greeted by the beauty of the restaurant’s lush garden setting.

But nowadays The Willows has much more to offer than just a great ambience and lots of food - it also has the talents of one of Honolulu’s up-and-coming young chefs, Jay Matsukawa.

This is the third attempt, in a way, for Matsukawa, to make his mark at The Willows. He first took the reins as executive sous chef of The Rainbow Room (the restaurant that sits treehouse-like above the general dining area) after the restaurant had undergone extensive renovations. Next, after a brief stint away, Jay returned to open J at The Willows, a fine dining restaurant where he created gorgeous dishes like rack of lamb, braised oxtail ravioli, lemon-grass-infused bouillabaisse and a series of quite stunning desserts.

The Willows Chef Jay Matsukawa and managing director Kyle Nakayama
The Willows Chef Jay Matsukawa and managing director Kyle Nakayama

But either the call of the buffet is too strong, or the marketing for the fine dining restaurant never quite got off the ground, as J at The Willows opens now only for private functions and events. The good news for regular Willows guests though is that Matsukawa has taken over at the culinary helm, meaning he’s in charge of catering, events and of course, the buffet.

“We offer buffet for lunch and dinner and brunch on Sundays,” says Kyle. “But Jay does specials depending on what fresh produce is available or what kind of fish we have, so you never quite know what’s going to be on the buffet.”

Standard offerings include traditional Hawaiian dishes such as lomi salmon, kalua pork, lau lau, pipikaula, poi and chicken long rice, and there are dozens of other daily offerings that include misoyaki butterfish, furikaki ahi, char siu duck and Asian-style braised short ribs. The dinner buffet offers similar dishes with rotating salads, a poke bar and a carving station that features a roasted, crispy skin suckling pig, and garlic and Hawaiian salt-crusted prime rib. But unlike most other buffets in town, you’re just as likely to find oysters Rockefeller, shrimp cocktail or fresh catch of the day laid out in a fine-dining presentation too.

“Depending on what we have, I’ll plate dishes and put them on the buffet,” says the modest Matsukawa, who surprises guests with occasional daily specials.“We know that people love to come for the buffet,” says Kyle. “But what we always wanted for The Willows was for people to think of it as a gathering place, a place where they could meet up with family and friends and kick back and enjoy the atmosphere - and the food.”

And while it’s true that the call of the buffet in Hawaii is strong, those with an interest in good food should make a note to try The Willows now that Matsukawa is in charge.

Not even the limitations of a buffet can hide the talents of a gifted chef.

The Willows Restaurant 901 Hausten St.

Honolulu 952-9200 Weekday lunch buffet $19.95 Daily Dinner Buffet $29.95 Seafood Sunday Champagne Brunch $32.95

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