Leaving Roy’s To Upgrade Tiki’s Waikiki

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - June 08, 2011
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Executive chef Ronnie Nasuti says he found his groove at Tiki’s. Jo McGarry photo

I was sitting at Tiki’s Grill and Bar in Waikiki chewing the fat with Ronnie Nasuti. Literally. He’d just brought a dish of pork scratchings out of the kitchen with a side of homemade green papaya salad.

“I was watching some of our cooks eating these last night,” he says pointing to the puffy little pockets of pork fat, “and I thought they might make a cool appetizer.”

It’s the kind of dish that makes you thirsty for a cold beer, and just one of the many signs that Tiki’s is out to set some culinary trends these days.

“I’m going to call it chips and salsa,” Nasuti says as we marvel at the crisp pork rind melting beneath the spicy green papaya dressing. If it makes it to the menu, it will join dozens of new dishes Nasuti has created since taking the top chef position at Tiki’s late last year in a move that sent ripples of near-disbelief through the local culinary community.

But if the shift was surprising to foodies, it was also something of a shock for the chef who’d become a fixture in the open kitchen at the original roy’s restaurant in Hawaii Kai.

“It was really stressful leaving Roy’s,” he says with the kind of utter honesty that fuels his reputation as a humble and hardworking chef. “I don’t like to change, and I never imagined I’d leave the strong team we’d built in Hawaii Kai. I never really thought of working anywhere else. So, yeah, of course it was tough to leave.”

But when Tiki’s owners Bill Tobin and Kelly McGill made Nasuti an offer he couldn’t refuse, even Roy Yamaguchi wished him well.

Half a year later, the chef who towered above his team in the heat of Roy’s open kitchen is looking comfortable in the new cool of a refurbished and contemporary Tiki’s.

You need look no further than the new menu to see how his unpretentious, island-inspired dishes have replaced the nearly decade-old staples. New additions include Poisson Cru - fresh, local ahi infused with coconut milk and lime juice then tossed with fresh ogo and Kahuku sea asparagus and served with fried plantain chips; and Tiki Torched Tataki - seared fresh yellow fin with wasabi, white shoyu, takuan sauce and mango sunomono.

Sizzling Lettuce Wraps - soft Kula butter lettuce leaves filled with kalbi rib eye and served with house-made kim chee and bean sprouts - have become an instant favorite, and on a menu that features fresh island fish (grilled opah, cajun-style ahi and mac nut-crusted mahi are just a few), he’s also added prime rib poke, and a miso smothered pork shoulder that’s slowly cooked then served over kabocha puree and drizzled with a spicy demi glaze.

“When you look at a menu,” says Nasuti, “you have to understand the dishes. I just started by taking off the stuff I didn’t understand and replacing it with dishes that make sense. “

With bright-red accents on walls, plump, red cushions, red lanterns hanging at the bar, warm, wood furniture and live local music every night, Tiki’s oozes a new style and confidence that might just be strong enough to tempt even those who “never” go into Waikiki.

“I think I’ve finally found my groove,” Nasuti says looking out over the ocean from the restaurant’s second floor location at Aston Waikiki Beach.

I think Tiki’s has, too. Happy eating!


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