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O.C. Eats | O.C. on the Menu

Tempting Taste of Hawaii

Roy's in Newport Beach Offers Sampling of the Islands

August 26, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Welcome to Roy's, home of a red-hot bar scene, inventive Pacific Rim cuisine and Muzak in the valet lot in Newport Beach.

If you go to Hawaii much, you've probably heard of chef Roy Yamaguchi. He pioneered Pacific Rim cookery at his L.A. restaurant, 385 North, in the mid-'80s. It proved ahead of his time over here, so he closed it and shrewdly moved to Hawaii, where he quickly established himself as the Aloha State's celebrity chef. Now he has a company with 15 restaurants from Guam to New York, with more to come soon.

I've eaten at three Roy's-- Honolulu, Maui and on the island of Hawaii--and I was won over by dishes like Asian spiced spare ribs and lomi-lomi salmon. I awaited the Newport opening eagerly.

But Newport Beach is not Hawaii. Getting the fresh Hawaiian fish and other local products that make his cuisine so appealing over there is no mean feat. And several dishes I liked there--including the two I just mentioned--are not even attempted here.

I do give credit to Yamaguchi for not serving newly fashionable Hawaiian fish such as onaga, opakapaka and opah, which probably wouldn't meet his standards for freshness by the time they arrived here. But you need to know going in that this will be a different experience from what you get in the islands. And, I'm sorry to say, it often doesn't live up to the hype.

None of this deters the California hard bodies, musclemen and fashion plates who have packed this place from day one. Like Cowboy on PCH, Roy's seems to have struck a chord with the Newport hip-oisie. Just watching the beautiful people decked out in their Prada outfits and designer tank tops is enough to give an ordinary fella a serious complex.

Five of us were seated at a table near the front entrance, where we were barely able to hear each other speak because of the noise level. We did have a great view of the open kitchen and its gleaming copper hood. And everyone looked reasonably comfortable in handsome striped booths or at casually chic bare wood tables.

Yamaguchi's waiters are trained to be enthusiastic about what they serve, so be prepared for a touch of the hard sell. You may want to start with a few dim sum-style appetizers, meant for sharing. The best of them, crunchy lobster pot stickers, are much better without the accompanying sesame-Japanese pepper miso butter, a muddled sauce that turns fusion into confusion.

The Cantonese-style barbecue baby-back pork ribs are tender, nicely smoked. What I don't like is the excessive amount of sticky, cloying hoisin-type sauce they are coated in, which obscures the flavor of the meat, rather than enhancing it.

Crispy Chinatown chicken spring rolls are deep-fried cylinders tasting of oil and not much else. The ginger scallion flat-iron seared shrimp sticks are good grilled shrimp, served with a spicy wasabi catsup.

The individual wood-fired pizzas are fine, though I'm not sure I'd come here with pizza in mind. My favorite, for the record, is tiger shrimp and peppered pancetta pizza with garlic confit and smoked Gouda. Another decent choice would be blackened chicken and stewed andouille sausage pizza.

A shredded Chinese chicken salad comes in a giant radicchio leaf with a hoisin ginger dressing and crisp honeyed pecans for added crunch. Crispy panko-crusted calamari salad is even better, the calamari paired with Napa cabbage and a spicy lemongrass dressing.

Part of Roy's menu changes daily, meaning a slew of special appetizers and entrees in addition to a core menu. One evening there was a fine roasted corn and onion soup with crisp shallots, also an intriguing, beautifully reduced cassoulet of escargots and lamb sauteed with garlic, leek and pancetta.

One of the best things I sampled here was another special, Asian spaetzle. In this quirky dish, tiny German flour dumplings mingled with garlic-seared calamari, baby broccoli and red onions.

Among entree specials, I've had two fine fish dishes: perfectly cooked Chilean sea bass with long beans and morels and a sesame-crusted hunk of moist Atlantic salmon.

But I really felt the lack of those Hawaiian seafoods. The only ones on the menu most nights are Hawaiian swordfish or, yawn, blackened ahi tuna.

*

I must say that the signature melting hot chocolate souffle with raspberry coulis and vanilla bean ice cream is delicious. Remember to ask for one when you place the order for the entrees, because the souffle takes 20 minutes.

You can't go far wrong with white chocolate cheesecake, either, topped with a great pineapple relish--or, when available, with a scrumptious tropical banana split that uses coconut ice cream, fresh pineapple and wonderful glazed bananas.

A creatively designed wine list (there are categories like "silken, sensuous Pinots" and "a European rustic sampler") is priced for Honolulu. In other words, expensively.

But you'll probably come away happy from Roy's, unless, like me, you've experienced Roy's in Hawaii and dined on lomi-lomi salmon, spicy ribs and onaga. Then you'll probably pine for Hawaiian sunsets, tropical mists and a level of cooking you know a talented, overhyped chef is easily capable of.

Roy's is expensive. Appetizers are $5.50 to $12.50. Entrees are $19.50 to $25.95.

BE THERE

Roy's, 453 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. (949) 640-7697. Open for dinner only, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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