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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Hawaii's New Captain Cooks : It's now possible for the most demanding food lover to dine well in the Islands, thanks to an influx of talented chefs and the birth of a new breed of serious restaurants.

October 21, 1990|JANICE WALD HENDERSON | Henderson is a food and travel writer and cookbook author who travels frequently to Hawaii.

Ask travelers what they like about Hawaii and they quickly tout the winsome weather, beautiful beaches and haute hotels. Sophisticated dining is rarely mentioned. A dish like mahi mahi garnished with bananas and orchids was considered adventurous cuisine. Until recently, that is, and the birth of a new breed of serious restaurants.

Lately a number of first-rate chefs have invaded the Islands, and it's now possible for the most demanding food lover to dine well. The quality and variety of Hawaii's restaurants don't yet match those in Los Angeles, but a few new establishments scattered throughout the islands now offer highly personal interpretations of Hawaiian regional American cooking. And the inventive food is served up in fashionable surroundings.

Hawaii's culinary revolution began in the early '80s in, of all places, hotels. During that decade, American-schooled chefs took the helm of resort dining rooms, gradually replacing most European-trained chefs. The young mainlanders were surprised that such a paradisaical state could be so dependent on shipped-in, frozen food.

Given creative and financial license, the chefs began working with local farmers, encouraging them to grow premier produce, from baby lettuce to esoteric herbs. They formed alliances with those raising local lamb, preparing island goat cheese and aqua-farming fish.

Over time, the local cuisine has continued to evolve. This new cooking style has developed in two directions. One, sometimes called contemporary Hawaiian, emphasizes indigenous products and generally prepares them according to classic European techniques. An example of this is poached onaga (red snapper) with three-caviar sauce.

Sometimes, however, the style is taken a step further. Since the Islands are perched between the Orient and the West and its residents include Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and other Asian nationalities, the cuisine is heavily influenced by Asian ingredients and cooking styles. This has given rise to the second type of regional Hawaiian: a kind of Eurasian cuisine. For this, chefs combine Oriental and Western ingredients in dishes using both European and Oriental cooking techniques. When harmonious, this blend results in some of the most fascinating food in Hawaii. For example: Hawaiian swordfish is grilled and served with shoyu (soy sauce) ginger vinaigrette or grilled rack of lamb with tamarind plum sauce.

Today, it's not unusual to find contemporary Hawaiian cooking in many hotels and restaurants. But despite interesting menus, execution of the ideas often leaves something to be desired. Perhaps in their haste to be trendy some establishments forget that such innovative cooking requires enormous skill (a fault many California restaurants share).

"Hawaii is slowly coming of age," says Mark Ellman, chef and owner of Maui's trendy restaurant, Avalon. "Give us a little time." With chefs such as Ellman, and the creative cooks listed below, it's easy to be patient.

Located in Oahu's upscale Hawaii Kai suburb (about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Waikiki), Roy's is easily the premier restaurant of the new genre of Hawaiian cuisine.

Roy's is home base for Roy Yamaguchi, who is generally regarded as one of the finest chefs in the country. Yamaguchi made the food hall of fame as chef of Los Angeles' now-defunct 385 North, and some faithful followers trek to Oahu just to consume his cooking.

Open less than two years, Roy's is certainly worth the drive from Waikiki. This restaurant may be the ultimate amalgam of East-West cooking. Yamaguchi lets loose a wealth of flavors that fuse to excite--and often, ignite--the palate. Great grazing goods include crispy Chinese-chicken pizzas topped with shiitake mushrooms, pickled ginger and Japanese spice sprouts (sprouted daikon radish seed) and Louisiana crab cakes with spicy sesame-butter sauce.

Fresh island fish dominates the menu. Charred ahi (tuna) may be tossed into a salad dressed with spicy soy vinaigrette. Or the fish is seared and served with Southwestern achiote sauce and spirited shrimp salsa. Ulua (pompano) is presented with Sichuan-style shrimp, Chinese peas and scallions while a ginger-watercress sauce surrounds a sensuous duo of ono (wahoo) and oysters.

Poultry and meat are also treated to a Yamaguchi twist. A dazzling Thai curry-Cabernet sauce is spooned over grilled lamb from the private island of Niihau. Pork T-bone is offset by grilled pineapple and silken Madeira sauce spiked with ginger.

If diners can divert their attention from Roy's irresistible food, they'll delight in an gorgeous view. The upstairs dining room (a lively bar is downstairs) is surrounded by windows that look out to the wedge of the Pacific Ocean between Koko Head and Diamond Head craters. Inside, exotic flower arrangements provide bursts of bright color for a peach-and-white minimalist decor. The frenetic kitchen is open to the room, and the feeling--noise and all--is not unlike dining at Spago.

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