Roy Yamaguchi

Roy Yamaguchi

Roy’s: Staying Fresh at 28

Contributor
This legendary restaurant is serving timeless and inspiring cuisine

It was 1988 when a young Japanese-born, Hawaiian domiciled chef, Roy Yamaguchi opened his first Roy’s in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was a near-revolutionary concept, presenting a Hawaiian-Japanese Asian fusion genre that captured the public imagination. Freshness of seafood was one of its central mantras in an era when sauces masked an enormous amount of average quality seafood and determined overcooking.

Roy’s grew to six sites in its home state, then beyond to 19 U.S. mainland restaurants in seven states (predominantly California and Florida). Yamaguchi also founded other restaurants in Guam, Japan and Hong Kong. He took a James Beard Award (1993), a Nation’s Restaurant News Hall of Fame award, and developed a TV career with appearances in his own series Hawaii Cooks with Roy Yamaguchi and on programs with others. In what is perhaps the ultimate measure of chef celebrity nowadays, he also has his own line of cookware and food products.

Stylistically, Roy’s emphasized seafood, minimal saucing, fresh vegetables and stunning presentations. At its inception it diverged significantly from the beef-centric status quo, French-inspired cream sauces, a distant supporting role for vegetables, and a “meat and two veg.” style of plating. The contrast, and the innovation, were clear.

Since then trends have moved both positively and negatively for Roy’s style of cuisine. On the one hand, public acceptance of sushi has become almost universal (to illustrate, in the mid 1980’s a Dallas newspaper reported that only 20% of adults would eat ‘raw fish’. Twenty years later it was 80%). On the other hand, the sushi and sashimi market became more competitive. Again, with respect to Dallas, it looked as if whole neighborhoods had been zoned ‘sushi’.

Roy’s had never been solely a sushi play, it was just an early example of such cuisine. That meant that the restaurant could weather changes in tastes and in the market. Today’s menu plays on the Hawaiian theme, despite its exoticness being diminished, as much as ever. The left side of the menu begins with sushi. The Lakanilau Roll ($17) is a venerable example of ‘Royness’. Wagyu beef, snow crab, tempura asparagus, avocado, sesame miso and truffled greens. The ingredient list reads like a who’s who of luxury items. But it works, melding into a complex bundle of intricate flavors in the mouth.

Among cold appetizers, the Hawaiian Style Ahi Poke bathes avocado with wasabi aioli (a piquant touch), tobiko caviar and kukui nut jus. It is attractively presented in a large serving spoon. This is one of several dishes marked with an ‘R’ in the left margin of the menu, which signifies a creation of the local chef. It gives the customer variation at different Roy’s locations within the overall corporate direction, and likely better overall preparation quality as the opportunity to innovate attracts more innovative chefs.

In the hot appetizer section I have to give an honorary mention to the lobster bisque. Even though this classic soup is widespread, I chose to sample it at the media dinner that I attended because I make the dish as a bumbling home cook and trying professional examples keeps me honest about how I’m doing. Roy’s signature feature is the addition of a little red curry before serving. It changes not just the color (giving it a pacifying burnt ochre hue) but also imparts Thai aromatics of coconut milk.

Szechuan Spiced Pork Ribs are an example of how Roy’s can take something you thought you knew and embellish it with their own ingredients. In this case, the ribs are smoked and glazed in Roy’s proprietary Mongolian sauce. It has a sweet flavor that I expect proves popular.

Among the fish & shellfish main courses the venerable Roy’s Misoyaki ‘Butterfish’ still impresses. The Alaskan black cod (also known as sablefish) is the star on the plate, being served with a sweet ginger wasabi infusion sauce and flanked by baby bok choy and furikake rice. The flavors in the latter add so much more than common plain rice. I ask managing partner, Stephanie, if Roy’s regards Nobu as a close competitor (in the back of my mind is Nobu’s black cod with miso recipe). With this dish, as with everything we have tasted, the kitchen (under Executive Chef Christopher Diaz) makes no missteps, functioning like a well-oiled machine.

Desserts are in the unctuous, size-endowed idiom suitable for splitting with the table. Traditional pineapple upside-down cake and Roy’s Melting Hot Chocolate Soufflé (the type that spurts molten chocolate from the center when cut with a fork) are both impressive.

The beverage program offers something for all palates. There are flights of cognac, bourbon & rye, dessert wines, cordials, and coffee and tea. The wine list is not huge, but eclectic, although markups are robust. Craft cocktails sit centrally on the menu and reflect considerable thought and design, all within the Hawaiian theme.

Corporate was coy about future plans so I can’t promise Roy’s is coming to your neighborhood. However, travelling readers would do well to seek Roy’s out for a high quality and healthy dining experience.

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