Celebrating 30 years of great steaks at Hy’s

Jo McGarry
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Friday - May 18, 2007
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At Hy’s they cook over kiawe coals
At Hy’s they cook over kiawe coals

Honolulu has in recent years become the town of the steak house. We Honolulans are notorious for falling head over heels in love with new restaurants, and so we have with a succession of new steak joints. Who could blame us? But who’d have thought even a couple of years ago that we’d be having lively discussions about the relative merits of dry-aging versus wet-aging of prime cuts of beef? Here we caveman carnivores are, though, doing just that, newly and happily educated in the ways of molecular change over time, under controlled conditions, in a T-bone.

Having enjoyed the fare of our various new steak houses, and been so educated, it was a pleasure to go back on a recent evening to our town’s original great steak house - Hy’s, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.

It was in a sense going back in time, but also back to the one eternal truth of meat: Aging, schmaging - in the end it all comes down to the quality of the cut and what you do with it.

At Hy’s, now as ever, they cook over kiawe coals, a dancing orange flame nipping at some of the finest protein on earth. While you’ll never catch me criticizing hickory or oak or guava or any of other various woods that we humans discovered long, long ago are good for grilling, kiawe is king. Called mesquite in Texas, Hawaiian kiawe imparts a gentle smokiness that does not overpower meat, and certainly enhances even the very best cuts - as I discovered with a huge rack of lamb, and my dining companion with a petite filet mignon.

Thinking about it now, looking at my juice-stained notes, writing these words, the mouth begins to water all over again. Mm-mmm ...

But that’s getting ahead of the appetizers, among other things.

Located near the diamondhead end of Kuhio Avenue, an easy in and out of Waikiki via Kapahulu, Hy’s is the same wood-paneled parlor you remember. The ambiance is English manor, but warmer, the walls decorated with historic prints of pastoral scenes, heroic battles and notable personages. There’s seating for 150, but because the restaurant is really a combination of nooks and corners, the feeling is much more intimate. Which is a good thing, whether dinner is of the romantic, business, special occasion or catch-up-with-friends variety. The nooks include the Green Room, where the décor is classic art deco, a cool space for private parties.

Hy’s herb-crusted lamb ribs
Hy’s herb-crusted lamb ribs

And near the bar, Audy Kimura plays guitar and sings mellow tunes charmingly, as he’s been doing for 20 years. As far as I can tell, that is the longest-running gig for any entertainer in Waikiki - SOS at the Outrigger not counting because of the changing cast of characters. Audy, as much as the fare, is a big reason so much of Hy’s business comes from repeat customers. They include a fair number of celebs. A few nights before my visit, basketball legend Magic Johnson was in and cheerfully posed for photos with staffers.

And because so many of those employees have been there “forever,” there is a comfortable familiarity. They include Chef Danny Florino, who on this night stands inside the glass-enclosed grilling chamber, Hawaii’s original “performance kitchen.” Despite staying busy tossing fresh chunks of kiawe into the fire and raw chunks of meat onto the grill, he never seems hurried. Long-timers include our waiter Mark Nezu, a bright and personable Iolani alum who started as a busboy and now makes, according to Audy, “the best Caesar salad in Hawaii.” We’ll see about that.

Although we’ve come for cooked meat, we begin with raw - the Tartare Trio. It’s three neat cylinders of filet mignon, ahi and salmon, served with crostini ($19.95). The lox-like salmon is prepared with capers and finely julienned bell peppers; ahi with Maui onion and an orange-soy reduction sauce, and the finely mushed filet mignon with capers, tomato remoulade and a hint of Dijon mustard. Saving room, we pass on yummy-sounding appetizers such as escargot a la Hy’s ($12.50), Thai-style scallops charred over kiawe ($11.95) and coconut-crusted soft-shell crab ($15.95).

The “lost art of the Caesar salad,” I’m pleased to report, is alive and well at Hy’s - with tableside preparation, the romaine leaves wrapped in a cotton cloth to absorb excess moisture and keep them fresh. “I stick pretty close to the original Caesar recipe,” Mark says. When we ask for extra garlic, he says “That’s fairly a common request.” A touch unique to Hy’s: a quick twist of pepper on the chilled plate before placing the leaves. Audy is right, this is the best Caesar salad I’ve tasted in years, and at $10.95 per person well worth it. A member of the Maloof family, which owns the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and much of Las Vegas, calls it the best Caesar in the world. Other salads on the menu include tomato, onions and bleu cheese ($9.95) and Thai beef ($8).

And now the main event, er, course. The herb-encrusted rack of lamb ($45.95) is impressive, nine ribs, nearly two fingers thick the way Mark cuts them. Lamb is one of my favorites, a barometer of sorts, and this is as good as it gets, maybe better. It is served with a variety of starch options - I go for garlic mashed potatoes - and braised green beans.

My friend’s 7-ounce filet mignon ($36.95, $41.95 for the 11-ouncer) is an inch-and-a-half thick, beautifully medium rare. We trade bites and, again, this is as good as steak gets.

The wine list is excellent, earning a Wine Spectator award of excellence, and we washed down our meaty morsels with Kings Ridge pinot noir from Oregon, lightly colored and nicely nosey.

Hy’s is one of the rare places to serve a Delmonico steak, a ribeeye without the rib ($35.95 for 12 ounces, $41.95 for 16). The most impressive cut is the veal chop, at least two inches thick ($37.95) - unless it’s the 15-ounce prime rib ($34.95, $26.95 for 10).

The menu also includes a variety of seafood and pasta dishes.

The lost art of the tableside flambé is also thriving at Hy’s. Choices include Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee and a magnificent chocolate concoction. We opt for a Hy’s specialty, Sinatra’s Strawberry Flambe, served over a big scoop of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ($12.95, as are the other flaming desserts).

That’s a lot of food, and we leave with doggie bags. Here’s how good Hy’s is: The next day, those lamb ribs are really good straight out of the refrigerator.

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