Roy’s Poipu Bar and Grill, Kauai
It’s rare to find a restaurant chain with 29 locations across the country worthy of significant praise, but Roy’s is that rare empire to deserve a round of applause for its continued high caliber consistency and creativity. Long after the fusion wave of the 90’s dot com boom era that chef Roy Yamaguchi rode to an international empire from Guam and Tokyo to Denver and Philadelphia, Yamaguchi’s empire has trimmed somewhat, becoming even stronger over a decade later. Today, there are 29 Roy’s across the country, with one in Guam still and one in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills. The original Roy’s founded in 1988 remains, in the outskirts of Honolulu. Gone is the Austin, Texas outpost right at the start of that city’s dining boom and gone is the Denver restaurant in Cherry Creek, where my entire extended family feasted on mahi mahi and ono amidst sub zero temperatures outside. At least it was paradise inside! Gone is the Philadelphia Roy’s where I enjoyed his Hawaiian fusion cuisine in the shadow of the Liberty Bell and no longer can my Dad bring the hibachi grilled salmon with citrus ponzu sauce back to me from the Roy’s in the Seattle Westin. Yes, even smelling it through a rain delay at Sea-Tac, my Dad was a trooper and brought his demanding eight year old or so son the Roy’s salmon on the plane. Nowadays maybe he can bring the porchetta sandwich from Armando’s Salumi next time he goes to Seattle…
After Jean-Marie Josselin left The Beach House a decade ago and Josselin’s A Pacific Café closed shortly thereafter, Roy’s quickly became the premier dining experience on Kauai. With six Roy’s across the Islands, including one on each of the four major islands, a night of Hawaiian fusion dining at Roy’s is as essential an experience to a Hawaiian trip as snorkeling and watching the sun set with a mai tai in hand. I’ve tried numerous Roy’s across the country. The San Francisco one is terrific, but it’s just not the same eating the misoyaki butterfish on Mission Street in the Financial District. The Pasadena branch is excellent, as is the one I visited most recently in Downtown Los Angeles, the perfect pre-Lakers game dining spot.
However, there is nothing like eating at Roy’s in Hawaii. The Kauai Roy’s resides inside the quaint, charming Poipu Shopping Village, a far cry location wise from its ocean side peers in Poipu. The prominent view is of the bustling open kitchen in the central portion of the dining room and of the parking lot from the window enclosed front dining room.
With no ocean view, the food must thrill. And it does.
The Poipu Bar and Grill does not have any of the new sushi creations that Yamaguchi has been placing on mainland Roy’s menus. Still, the appetizer menu is over a dozen listings strong, almost impossible to choose from since each item is more and more tempting. Think back to the Clinton years when restaurant menus had 30 items to choose from, nearly each one had “wasabi” or ginger” as an ingredient, and each dish has at least five parts listed in its description.
The mandatory appetizer order is the famed blackened island ahi sashimi over both a beurre blanc and fiery wasabi soy mustard. Every part of the dish thrives, bordering on too much heat from both the seasoning and the sauce, but not going overboard. Of course the key is the ruby red medallions of ahi that could be served by Jiro. The starter portion uses the higher grade tuna than the main course sized portion, making the choice easy.
The problem is there are too many appetizers to choose from. Some are Roy’s classics like seared white shrimp sticks with house made kim chee, the Hawaii Kai crab cake, and the Szechuan pork ribs. The Canoe for Two is a wise choice for sampling the stand-bys, but the reason Roy’s remains so exciting is how each of its outposts creates various new dishes, unique to that day at that location. There could be sizzling salmon belly sashimi sprinkled with Hawaiian alae salt or blue crab and garlic baked oysters with a tomato ogo relish. Roy’s even hops on the comfort food gone upscale with the Hawaiian gluttony classic loco moco re-invented with a crispy beef oxtail croquette, slow poached egg, and Hon-shimeji mushrooms. Potsticker dishes tend to be too doughy with dry fillings. That was not the case with white shrimp gyoza, cleverly combined with diced lup cheong sausage in an intriguing spicy xo lobster sauce. The only clunker was an uninspired salad of hearts of palm, not moist compressed watermelon, macadamia nuts, and two dots of brie cheese. The pieces didn’t come together into anything, the dish more appropriate at a routine hotel restaurant.
Lobster sauce makes another appearance with the macadamia nut crusted shutome (Hawaiian swordfish), a Roy’s standard that usually features mahi mahi. You can always get the reliable hibachi grilled salmon with citrus ponzu sauce, the dish that made me a young ardent Roy’s supporter. This being Kauai, fish is the name of the game. Some artistry is on display with gremolata crusted ono with pureed Okinawan purple sweet potatoes, and two mango guises: with scallops in a ceviche and in a brown butter mango sauce. I always rave about the misoyaki butterfish in sizzling soy vinaigrette. Butterfish is a stronger tasting fish with flesh as delicate as a ballerina’s step. Nobu’s famed miso black cod has a competitor. The jade pesto steamed Hawaiian snapper in a bread-sopping required sizzling ginger peanut oil is one of the less exciting sounding dishes, yet is just as exciting in reality as it was two decades ago. The pesto is the key here, fresh with pungent arugula and green herbs. The real show-stopper was the special lemongrass kaffir lime mahi mahi over forbidden rice with something similar to a green papaya salsa and a kaffir lime tamarind coconut curry with stunning depth. Like sunset at Polihale Beach, each moment with the mahi stops time.
There is a sous vide rancher’s steak for the meat lovers and molecular gastronomy lovers. I’m sure it’s a winner. In the mainland there’s enough sous vide meat though on neighborhood bistro menus, so go for the fish of Kauai’s sea.
As the case with all Roy’s, there is never a discussion for dessert. Order ahead of the time the melting hot chocolate souffle. The dish is a cliché from the days Roy’s started expanding, but nobody performs the textbook version as well consistently as Roy’s. It’s the standard I’ve always judged others by. With a warm liquid center, crisp but not burned exterior, and some vanilla ice cream to cool your burning tongue, this is dessert as its meant to be. The only glitch is I’ve never understood why the raspberry coulis with the souffle always tastes like cough syrup. It tastes nothing of raspberry. Avoid it and steal all the chocolate from your friends instead.
Service initially was very rocky. There was first a fifteen minute wait after our reservation time despite numerous open tables. Then we were led to the desolate bar patio area across the sidewalk from the restaurant despite our request to be in the restaurant when making a reservation. Ten minutes later we were led to an actual table in the actual restaurant. The waiter was clearly in the weeds, ignoring us for fifteen minute periods between receiving menus, ordering wine, receiving wine, and ordering food. Eventually I had to summon the closest waitress and say we were ready to order, a task finally accomplished over an hour after our reservation time. Luckily, things smoothed over from there.
Another brilliant idea by Yamaguchi: edaname to munch on while perusing the menu. Other restaurants should follow.
Roy’s is the rare restaurant empire as consistent in L.A. as it is in Bonita Springs. There is nothing like eating at Roy’s in Kauai. It sure isn’t like any other restaurant chain.