Azure review: The beautiful room is not empty

azureLast month the Royal Hawaiian reopened with much fanfare. And a new restaurant. I never have high hopes for hotel restaurants here. The Sheraton fell flat with Twist and RumFire—their food is as lackluster as the settings are mesmerizing (there must be some sort of Demetri Martin equation there). But dinner at sister operation Azure last week? Boy did that quash my skepticism.

What was the Surf Room is now a grand, cool, all-white space, with the kind of head room you find in spots like 11 Madison Park—OK, maybe not that high, but just so phenomenally airy and with a real ceiling, not that Styrofoam stuff so many local rooms have to settle for. It immediately makes the list of best dining rooms on the island, along with spots like La Mer, Nobu Waikiki and Kaiwa (topic for a future blog post!). More after the jump.

When the Royal Hawaiian opened in 1927, the space was the Persian Room, and local architect Terry Hendrickson went back to the original roots, with Damascene-esque lamps illuminated by real candles and the Tangiers-ish whitewash and white-on-white wall mosaic for texture. The floor-to-ceiling windows give out to the patio that is home to the famous $500-a-day “cabanas” (actually wall-less tents) and the ocean beyond. As sexy tunes by bands such as Nouvelle Vague waft from invisible speakers, you’ll wish you had a pair of 1968 Pucci palazzo pants for this casually elegant space. It’s the right setting (finally) for chef Jon Matsubara’s HRC-school food (and the polar opposite from the black furniture showroom of Stage, his former home).

The menu is a restrained list of small and large plates, and refreshingly doesn’t bow to lowest-common-denominator tourist tastes like so many Waikiki restaurants. Or if it does make concessions, it’s in a tasteful (and tasty) way, as with baby back ribs rubbed with a Kona coffee sauce. Starwood’s aim is to shake off the Royal Hawaiian’s shabby-chic mantle and reposition it as a Halekulani-level resort contender. And Azure fits right in with the plan.

Matsubara revives some of his Stage dishes—his poisson cru reappears as Azure sashimi. But what I experienced as a misshapen lump at Stage, is here a crisply executed sort of riceless dragon roll, with immaculate slices of ‘ahi and kahala (aka Kona kampachi, and called amberjack on the menu so you won’t freak out about ciguatera and worms—no worry, stay safe!) atop a mix of avocado and watermelon radish. Yes, Matsubara is still enamored of that pretty-in-pink vegetable and it pops up all over the place, adding a sexy crunch.

He eschews cream to create a king crab chowder is light, but still ripe with ocean essence. A seafood salad is a refreshing terrarium of greens and sea asparagus dotted with pieces of lobster, abalone, scallops and prawns. For the sake-steamed manila clams, a server pours a ham-infused dashi over meyer lemon gremolata, resulting in a subtle broth.

Each night brings a “fish auction invoice” of fish of the day (the catch comes straight from Pier 38). The night I went mahimahi, onaga and opakapaka were checked off. (Next time I go I hope they have the hapu‘upu‘u.) You can choose from two preparations: roasted with lemon, extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs or an “island preparation with ginger-shoyu barbecue glaze.” I opted for opakapaka and preparation two. It arrived seemingly pan-fried with a dollop of something very close to hoi sin sauce on the side. The fish was perfectly cooked. Good for seafood purists, but people looking for some culinary bells and whistles may be disappointed.

The big plates are à la carte, and Matsubara’s list of sides is stellar. I could make a simple, delicious, meat-free meal just of the sake-braised Big Island spinach spike with garlic chips, sweet and savory mix of still-crisp corn kernels and hamakua mushrooms (a MUST order) and oven-roasted Waialua asparagus with smoked citrus aioli. On the to-try list for next visit: Kona shellfish bowl and torched Kobe carpaccio.

Azure has a great team, with former E&O Trading Co. lights Jim Weisiger as GM and Joey Gottesman in charge of booze (the illuminated onyx bar is a knockout). Former Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas staffer Michael Swerdloff is assistant manager and in charge of the wine program. While the wine list isn’t anything to write home about right now, and the by-the-glass choice downright feeble, Swerdloff says he’s been on a tasting jag as he builds an eclectic list of about 125 core wines that skews European (he went to boarding school in Switzerland). There will also be 12 to 14 wines by the glass.

Eating here you won’t have a life-changing culinary experience, but you get the total package of well-executed food served by attractive, attentive (but not in your face) people in a seductive setting. There aren’t a ton of places like that in Honolulu. So grab those palazzo pants and revisit the newish Pink Palace.

Photo: Courtesy David L. Moore

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