A Shining New Hoku’s

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 09, 2006
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Chef Wayne Hirabayashi
Chef Wayne Hirabayashi

You’ll have heard by now that Hoku’s closed recently to undergo renovations. Its well-worn bamboo floor was replaced with warmer wood tones, and the restaurant underwent a complete face-lift.

The changes are both obvious and subtle. There’s freshness to the beautiful dining room, and lighting that’s so expertly positioned that each place setting seems illuminated like the star of a Broadway show. Fitting really, because amid shiny new Riedel crystal, china plates and tasteful table decor, it’s the food that shines.

The idea behind the new menu, says Executive Chef Wayne Hirabayashi, was to redefine and simplify the food. Out went most of Hoku’s signature dishes, and in came the new.

“I was kind of nervous, to tell you the truth,” says Hirabayashi. “I told the management, you guys better get ready for some calls coming in.”

But Hirabayashi is one of the few chefs in this town who can change an entire menu and have people thrilled with the results. The calls coming in are not to complain about the missing signature dishes, rather to rave about the newly created ones. Don’t worry, the wonderfully addictive ahi dip is still there, and so is the open kitchen where you can watch Hirabayashi and his team at work.

So what’s on the new menu? Fewer dishes for sure, but more difficult choices because everything looks so good. “Three-subi’s” ($18) have replaced the “Musubi” and now the presentation includes big eye tuna, Kona Maine lobster and house smoked salmon; there’s an exceptional Chinese Roast Duck Consommé ($12), with roast duck, foie gras and truffle oil wrapped in pasta. The consommé is poured at the table from a glass teapot and the heat softens the crisp carrot garnish.

“The idea was to let the garnish become like noodles in the soup,” says Hirabayashi. It works beautifully. A Slow Braised Kahuku Pork Belly ($14) is one of the dishes that show the new Hoku’s at its best. “We started working on pork belly, and we were doing it kind of Asian-style,” says Hirabayashi. “Then we took this trip to San Francisco and noticed that everyone was doing pork belly in a contemporary way, so we came back and worked it some more.” The Pan Roasted Kampachi ($32) is served with English peas, corn and Japanese green onion and a tomato fondue and it’s so good it momentarily sends you into a whole other world.

But the star in this dazzling show of culinary greatness is surely the Salt Crusted Rack of Wisconsin Lamb ($92). Yes, you read that right. $92. It’s for two, though.

“We were asked if we could create something to be served table-side,” says Hirabayashi, “and I just groaned. But I worked on this presentation and it’s working out fine.” The rock salt-encrusted lamb is brought to the table and sliced open by servers (who must groan, too, every time someone orders it on a busy night), and there’s an immediate release of herbs that mingle with the aroma of medium-rare lamb. Breathe it in deeply before they whisk it back to the kitchen to plate it for you - it’s the smell of heavenly food.

There are lovely desserts - all with a hint of the playfulness and attention to detail that Chef Hirabayashi continues to show. I wish I had more room to mention them all.

I’ve been a fan of Wayne Hirabayashi’s for about 10 years now, but here, with this new menu and his dedication to keeping things simple, he’s created one of the best dining experiences on Oahu, bar none. The dining room at Hoku’s may be shiny and new, but it’s the kitchen that’s dazzling.

Happy eating!

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