The Beach House is the most controversial restaurant on the island of Kauai amongst the passionate food community of locals and frequent visitors. Its location a mere ten yards removed from Lawaii Beach with a striking view west toward the sunset each night is truly spectacular, paradise found. It is the quintessential Kauai restaurant for honeymoon dinners, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, celebration for being on Kauai dinners.
The magnificent setting is not controversial, not up for debate. The merits of the restaurant itself, however, can be fiercely heated. Is any of The Beach House food worth the price tag? The debate continues. Having dined at the Beach House all my life, the quality does fluctuate tremendously year to year. In the late 90’s when Jean-Marie Josselin ran the kitchen, The Beach House was the pinnacle of paradise dining with the food to match the view. When the new Maui based restaurant group in charge of the Plantation House in Kapalua took over The Beach House about a decade ago, the experiences went one step down, but still was far above the usual oceanfront, romantic tourist trap.
Slowly over the past few years the menu has stayed the same, but preparations sloppier, the service less polished. Now in 2012, the Beach House has hit the bottom with an experience that makes myself and my guests who have dined at the Beach House for decades, including a couple who have visited since their honeymoon in 1982 (two hurricanes ago, since then The Beach House has crept inches and inches away from the coast for safety reasons), for whom the name The Beach House conjures majestic, awe-inspiring views and meals remembered for a lifetime, have decided this destination may not merit a return meal for some time.
Not all of the blame goes to what is served on the plates. The fresh Island ahi sashimi is fine with far high quality ahi at least than the exact same preparation at nearby Merriman’s. Nothing is special with the dish, the wasabi soy dipping sauce similar to any other on the Island and the fish sitting atop a useless bed of cabbage. Nicely marinated ceviche mixing a mystery Island fish, scallops, and tiger prawns arrives dramatically in an open coconut. Even the unoriginal crab cake is superior to many versions, actually containing more crab than breading. A salad of asparagus and local tomatoes from Kilauea, and goat cheese is fine, but lacking any plating creativity with the goat cheese displayed in a scoop like potato salad at a school cafeteria, and the ingredients overpowered by the too acidic soy sherry vinaigrette.
The Beach House’s main plates focus on, like most restaurants on Kauai, the fresh fish. Instead of crafting the preparation to the fish, The Beach House’s chef Marshall Blanchard has three set fish of the day preparations and simply plugs into those three whatever the fishermen bring in.
We would have ordered the miso marinated shutome (Hawaiian swordfish) over shitake mushrooms in a complex sounding, Southeast Asia inspired, ginger and fish sauce filled broth. However our waiter, using his visits to Vietnam and Thailand as rationale for his advice, says the chef is from Colorado and the broth is weak and nothing exciting like the description says. True or not, it’s brutal that the waiter has to admit a dish’s faults, especially if it’s to dumb down a dish for diners.
Monchong comes crusted in a wasabi crust that tastes of nothing but panko crumbs, sitting in a pool of lemongrass lilikoi beurre blanc with no detectable lilikoi or lemongrass. The same goes for the macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi in a citrus aka miso beurre blanc that tastes like the same beurre blanc. Both fish are perfectly flaky, with some ceremonial asparagus on top, and a pointless, tasteless scoop of rice next to the fish as if this were Red Lobster. Did I mention its $40 for these two fish?
At least the mahi mahi and monchong weren’t grilled to a dry oblivion like the ono in a lemon basil aioli. The accompanying Kamuela tomato stuffed with sauteed spinach, boursin, and parmesan cheese was the type of cold, flavorless side you’re very likely to find untouched at a convention banquet. The fire roasted, over the magnificent Kiawe wood native to Kauai, ahi in both a ginger lime beurre blanc (yet another variant of that beurre blanc…yet they all taste like butter…) and black bean sauce (that you can actually detect) is the most consistent dish on the menu the past few years. The furikake mashed potatoes with the ahi though always lack any taste of the umami rich furikake.
In short, too many indecipherable beurre blanc sauces, too many presentations that look the same, the grilled ono with the stuffed tomato shouldn’t have made it past the first cut, and please, above all else, do not serve a lackluster side of rice pilaf with the fish. These problems make The Beach House seem more like being fed by a catering company at high end New York dining room prices.
Returning back to the service, whether it was because we had a “late” (8 pm?) reservation and everybody wanted to go home by 10 or not, never hit its stride. Orders weren’t taken until at least a half hour after we were seated. Water glasses were unfilled too many times to count. Plates were taken away before everyone at the table was finished and in one case, before a diner was even done with an appetizer. Our main server was helpful, but also seemed to be talking down to us, whether it was advocating for a $12 more expensive malbec than our first choice or about his travels and how the miso marinated shutome was not up to par. It’s not as if his recommended monchong and mahi mahi ended up being any more original.
Matters were made worse when The Beach House ran out of requested desserts wines and even had run out of flourless chocolate tart, which everyone had been greatly anticipating. How do you run out of your signature chocolate dessert? You don’t. The chefs simply didn’t want to make another tart because it takes time. At Roy’s and any other successful restaurant with a souffle to be baked, they ask long before the dessert time, whether or not to fire up the souffles. There’s no excuse. There also is no excuse for the recommended replacement, a dry, pointless carrot cake with a scattering of macadamia nuts. The waiter even pushed into this saying that the chefs want to go home and he would just go cut the slice himself. A destination restaurant doesn’t serve that carrot cake, doesn’t run out of chocolate tarts, and certainly doesn’t say the chefs want to go home. Isn’t fine dining supposed to make the diner feel special?
It’s a shame The Beach House has declined to this level. No longer does it have that majestic connotation. Instead, it spells tourist trap loud and clear. The good news is the restaurant can only go up and the prices can only go down. If you want to watch the sunset at Lawaii Beach, set up in front of The Beach House on the gorgeous lawn between the restaurant and the ocean. It’s the same view, without the comedy of errors going on in the dining room.