Great Places To Dine In 2009

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - January 07, 2009
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Chef Sean Priester at Top of Waikiki: hot spot, great value

I do not have a favorite restaurant.

I just want to be clear about that, since it’s the question I’m (understandably) asked most often. A food writer’s year-end roundup almost always results in a “best of” column, but for me the restaurant business is too personal to pick favorites.

A great eating experience depends on so much more than just the food or the ambience or the professionalism of the staff. I enjoyed so many amazing meals last year that it’s impossible to choose just one or two as the best, but I will admit my dining dollars most often go to restaurants that have a strong identity. I don’t care whether I’m sitting at a Formica table in Chinatown or on a fancy chair in a fine-dining mecca, if the chef has a strong belief in what he’s doing, the food is almost always going to be good.

If I had one wish for 2009, it would be to banish fusion foods and the kinds of schizophrenic menus that mix pasta with curried sauces and the like. Whether it’s a simple bowl of noodles or a perfect snapper sous vide, the restaurants that do one or two things well this year will thrive ...

2008 was such a tough year for the food and beverage industry, and the first few months of 2009 show no signs of leniency. Expect to see more restaurant closures as we head into the early months of this new year, and expect some of them to be a surprise ...

Don’t expect to see Nobu closing, though - it’s the most widely spread restaurant rumor of the year and was heard everywhere, from the farmers market to the fish auction, and reported throughout the media.

“We don’t know how or why this rumor started,” says a representative for Nobu, “and we’re tired of talking about it.” Nobu managing partner Richard Notar even issued a statement vehemently denying the rumor, but still it persisted ...

Rumors in the restaurant industry are nothing new, but this one took on a curious life of its own. Business, however, seems to be brisk at the famed Japanese restaurant, which should enjoy a surge later this month when Chef Nobu himself comes to town and gets into the kitchen for a few nights.

If restaurant awards show any justice this year, then Sean Priester at Top of Waikiki deserves the award for “greatest restaurant turnaround.” Sorry for the pun.

Priester has paid his dues these past four years. Taking over Top of Waikiki with its outdated interior and even more dated menu was a daunting task. Turning the restaurant into one of the hottest dining and best value spots in town gets him my vote as one of the most-interesting, passionate and exciting chefs in town ...

I was lucky enough to visit Sushi Sasabune on South King Street last month, where I willingly submitted to the expertise of chef-owner Seiji Kumagawa, often referred to as “the sushi Nazi.” The stories of Chef Seiji’s treatment of customers who refuse to abide by his “no shoyu” and “one bite only” rules are legendary in the Honolulu dining world, but the chef’s instructions make perfect sense once you realize you’re eating some of the best sushi in the world at the hands of a master.

Expensive? You bet.

Unforgettable? Absolutely. Happy eating!

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