What is the best meal you have ever eaten? For me, it was during a visit to Honolulu, Hawaii. I have had many delicious meals since that trip, but nothing has quite matched in texture, flavor, variety, freshness or uniqueness. When I heard about Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant in Los Angeles, I wanted to examine whether or not the food served in this mainland restaurant could replicate the Hawaiian island sapor.
The Face Behind the Fusion
Roy Yamaguchi, the founder of Roy's Restaurant, was born in Tokyo, the son of an American soldier from Maui and an Okinawan mother. During his childhood, he made several impressionable trips to Maui to visit his grandparents who owned a tavern in Wailuku.
By age 19, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and in his early twenties, became the executive chef at Le Serene in Los Angeles. In 1984, Yamaguchi opened his own restaurant in Los Angeles called 385 North, and he was chosen as the "California Chef of the Year" in 1986 and 1987 by the California Restaurant Writers Association. However, Roy desired to further expand his culinary horizons and longed to renew his acquaintance with Hawaii. In 1988, Roy returned to Hawaii and permanently moved to Oahu. It was there he opened the first Roy’s Restaurant, serving dishes based on the memories of the feelings and flavors of his upbringing. Dubbed "Hawaiian Fusion" cuisine by Yamaguchi himself, the food can be described as a combination of exotic flavors and spices mixed with the freshest of local ingredients with an emphasis on seafood.
Soon after Roy's opened, Food & Wine Magazine named it the "crown jewel of Honolulu's East-West eateries," and it made Conde Nast Traveler's "Top 50 Restaurants." Gourmet Magazine acknowledged Yamaguchi as "the father of modern East-West cooking" and the New York Times described him as "the Wolfgang Puck of the Pacific."
Location, Location, Location
The Roy's empire has now expanded to 31 Roy's Restaurants, including 22 in the Continental US, 6 in Hawaii, 2 in Japan and 1 in Guam. I recently had the chance to visit the downtown Los Angeles location, sample the legendary food, and speak with the executive chef, Curtis Mar, and the managing partner, Matt Dochin.
Elegantly positioned on Figueroa Street in the center of downtown, the restaurant is decorated with soft floral touches of the islands, warm colors, wooden accents and classic vertical lines. The bar is positioned to the right of the entrance, and provides a stylish place to enjoy a cocktail in anticipation for a table in the dining area.
Though the menu is available online, I will emphasize the website is only a hint of what each restaurant has to offer. I was pleasantly surprised and almost overwhelmed to find that along with about ten of Roy's signature dishes, there are 20-25 other versions of Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion cuisine, as well as a sushi menu serving both rolls and nigiri-style sushi. Chef Mar explained to me that at each Roy's location, the head chef has the freedom to create their own menu, but the signature dishes such as the "Hibachi Style Grilled Salmon" are always present.
The Meal Itself
With this in mind, my dining companion and I ordered one signature dish and one of the chef's creations during each course of the meal. I did not initially intend to order sushi, but I curious about presentation and freshness/flavor, so we decided on two nigiri appetizers, the unagi (eel) and the suzuki (sea bass), along with the Lobster Potstickers and the Oysters Rockefeller.
the suzuki nigiri
I had never tried oysters before, but I marveled at how just one spoonful could pleasantly remind me of sitting in the ocean with sand running through my fingers! Generous enough to be shared, this selection is buttery, drizzled with an aioli-type sauce and bursting with the deep sea.
the Oysters Rockefeller
The Lobster Potstickers were skillfully plated on oblong china and kissed with black and white sesame seeds, but seemed to be coated in too much sauce and I could not taste the main presence of lobster, as the title of the appetizer indicates. Still, I was very impressed with the rest of the appetizers and looked forward to the next selection.
I chose one of Chef Mar's variations as my main course, the Lau Lau platter. Lau Lau is comprised of smoked pork, Hawaiian seasonings and taro leaves, and is traditionally served in a banana leaf.
the deconstructed lau lau platter
This particular presentation was served "deconstructed" in a bowl in the center of the plate. It was sitting in a sweet and savory sauce and topped with crunchy Asian noodles. To the left of the bowl, there were two colossal sea scallops, dusted with mochi, lightly seared, and finished with miso-butter sauce. To the right of the bowl, was a piece of Misoyaki Butterfish (black cod) served with a sake and citrus reduction. My friend ordered a Roy's signature dish, the Roasted Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi with Lobster Butter Sauce. It was paired with a serving of Swordfish and Asparagus (on the menu, the Mahi Mahi there is also available without the Swordfish). I enjoyed every part of this course. The scallops were plump and tender. The pork, though not served the traditional style, stayed true to unique flavor of the Lau Lau dish. It was a perfect combination of smoky, sweet and savory flavors, and the meat was fleshy and not at all stringy. The butterfish portion of my course was another enhancement of the Lau Lau dish. It was grilled perfectly and was one of the most delicious servings of fish I have ever eaten. It was balanced on a dollop of mashed deep purple yams (I first thought the yams were mashed taro, but as I was discussing the meal with the managing partner , he informed me that it was not a taro but a dark sweet potato indigenous to Hawaii). If available upon another visit, I would select the butterfish by itself as the main course.
the macadamia nut mahi mahi and the swordfish
Another impressive highlight of the main courses was the Roasted Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi. It was also flawlessly executed. On the remaining side of the platter my friend ordered was the swordfish. It was accompanied by a "katsu" banana. The banana was a delicious touch and was sweet enough to be served as a dessert item. Along with all the other fish dishes, the swordfish also had a very palatable flavor and matched in freshness. My friend and I agreed we preferred the mahi mahi, but that the butterfish that I had ordered was indeed the most delicious.
To finish an already impressive and remarkably memorable feast, we decided on the Roy's signature Melting Hot Chocolate Soufflé and an "omakase-style" Bento box of treats. The souffle was impressively presented free-standing in a small rounding stream of raspberry sauce and a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. It was rich and decadent, but I was further delighted by the myriad of samples in the bento box!
the dessert omakase bento box
The bento contained a chocolate chip brownie with vanilla bean ice cream (a palm tree-shaped cookie tuille garnish) and caramel sauce. The next partition of the box accommodated a macadamia nut tart (much in the style of a small pecan pie), and a profiterole with coconut cream filling and chocolate sauce. Two of the partitions housed fresh pineapple, berries, and kiwi. Still another partition held green tea butter cookies and green tea ice cream in a mochi wrapper. In the center of the bento there was a serving of mango pudding with raspberry sauce hearts, and in the remaining partition there was a dish of tropical panna cotta prepared with cream cheese and orange scented milk. It was served with a chocolate macadamia nut biscotti. My favorite was the brownie, as the chocolate in it was even more delectable than the souffle. The dessert tray was another brilliant example of the fusion of traditional items and Hawaiian/Asian ingredients.
The presentations and the freshness of the meal are the true standouts of the dinner. I am curious about the differences in each location (both on the menus and in the decor). My interest is further piqued by rumors of a possible Sacramento or Roseville location opening (currently, the closest Roy's to Sacramento is in San Francisco). Along with the staple dishes, the establishments proudly bear the name of Roy Yamaguchi, a definitive culinary pioneer who cultivated a distinctive style previously unseen in Hawaii and the world.