"You're kidding," I said. "And where's your hula skirt and my ukulele?" I thought to myself.
"Just lightening things up," she responded.
I have avoided Roy's "Hawaiian fusion cuisine" the last three years. I did not want to recover kitschy memories of my suburban childhood. I well remember when the neighbor, Mr. Big Kahuna, buried a pig in the back yard for a luau replete with every cliche from "the islands," as Hawaii was always called by lei-wearing folks who returned from a week there to bore captives with two-hour slideshows. It's only been a few years since my own souvenir Don the Beachcomber menus disappeared, along with my monkey carved from a coconut shell. And I still have vivid memories of a Hawaiian restaurant in Charlotte built around a rumbling fake volcano with a tinfoil crater illuminated by a red light.
Of course, Roy's is free of all such crap -- if you don't count the two customers wearing loud Hawaiian shirts who were there the night Wayne and I visited. The enormous, sleekly decorated restaurant is part of a chain -- another reason I've avoided it. But this is no ordinary chain. The original Roy's was opened in 1988 in Honolulu by the Japanese-born Roy Yamaguchi, who had become an icon earlier in Los Angeles at his first restaurant, 385 North. There, he developed the so-called Euro-Asian fusion cuisine that has had an enormous impact on American dining.
Yamaguchi now owns 30 restaurants flung as far away as Guam. A difference between Roy's and the average chain is that local chefs -- like David Tarrin in Atlanta -- are not expected to offer only Yamaguchi's dishes, though they do remain the core of the menu. The food is by and large good, although the high-fusion presentation -- all that verticality -- feels a bit retro now.
We started with an appetizer plate for two. It was not called a pu pu platter, and there was no hibachi grill in sight. Our waiter had promised that the plate's wood-grilled baby-back ribs, sauced Szechwan-style, would be the best we'd ever tasted, and I'm inclined to agree. There was also blackened ahi tuna with soy-mustard butter -- the only lackluster thing on the plate. Crispy spring rolls and pot stickers were each served with their own sauce, as was rather strange chicken fried in coconut batter and skewered. Our waiter explained that shrimp were usually used, but the restaurant was running low. Fine, because coconut-battered shrimp is one of my least favorite dishes on the planet. I loved the smoky, spicy edamame that finished off the plate.
You will want to order fish here. I have to say the preparation competes with that of fish whiz Richard Blais (formerly of defunct Fishbone, and now operating his namesake restaurant, Blais). The sauces run a tad sweet for my taste, but that's a minor complaint. I ordered one of Yamaguchi's classics -- meaty shutome (a type of swordfish) encrusted with white and black sesame seeds and served over a hot slaw with a Thai peanut sauce. Two banana fritters -- more coconut in the batter -- completed the sculptural dish.
Wayne ordered ono, unrelated to Yoko, which is better known as wahoo and whose name translates as "good to eat." Somewhat flaky but nonetheless meaty, the fish was in a light rice-flour (mochiko) crust with a shellfish cream sauce, surrounded by tempura vegetables. It's a toss-up for me. Either dish will make you happy.
For dessert, we split a chocolate souffle -- similar to Bacchanalia's Valhrona chocolate cake -- served with an itty-bitty scoop of vanilla ice cream.
If you absolutely demand kitsch, show up at the restaurant Tuesday, May 25, to celebrate "Lei Day" for a prix-fixe menu and a free orchid lei -- if you're a woman. On June 4, Yamaguchi will be on the premises for a food and wine tasting. Call the restaurant for details about both events.
Here and there
Friends have been bugging me to try Da Vinci's (674 Myrtle St., 404-389-0567), which is across the street from Mary Mac's, so I lunched there recently with my friend Ken McBride, who lives nearby.
The New York Italian-style restaurant was completely empty, which is a shame. It's a pleasant two-story rectangle turned on its end, and the owners have obviously sunk some cash into the place to create a cheerful decor as free of Italian stereotypes as Roy's is of Hawaiian ones. There's not a wax-dribbled Chianti bottle or checked tablecloth in sight.
We ate downstairs in the bar, next to the front window, where we could watch people waddle furiously to Mary Mac's. Not that I felt the weight melting off me as I chomped through a stromboli stuffed with sliced turkey, bacon and mozzarella, served with a little cup of watery marinara. It was kind of weird but irresistible, the sort of food that stirs antediluvian memories of adolescence in my rapidly going-extinct body. Ken had a calzone -- not the Mexican or the jerk chicken one, thank you -- but spinach and mushroom. Tasty.
Pizzas, pastas and sandwiches are also available. Give it a try.
Best News of the Week: At long last, Soto (3330 Piedmont Road, 404-233-2005), one of the best sushi bars in America, has reopened after a long hiatus. Chef Sotohiro Kosugi not only creates remarkably unusual sushi and sashimi dishes, but operates the best Japanese kitchen in the city. I will report at length soon. ...
Also reopening, on May 19, is the Cabin on Buford Highway, but with a slightly changed name, the Cabin Room. ...
Weird Dish of the Week: It's a sandwich made of fried green tomatoes with crumbled bacon, melted cheese and a Russian-type dressing. You'll have to drive to Clayton and visit the Sweet Willow Tea Room to try it.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at email@example.com.