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First Impressions

In Newport Beach, Roy's Reaching for the Flavors of Hawaii

July 29, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

In front of the new Roy's Newport Beach, a gaggle of blonds with long, tanned legs and their escorts in tropical shirts stand waiting for the valet (this, in a place with a huge parking lot if you so desired to park your own BMW), white Styrofoam containers in hand. "How was it?" I ask in the general direction of the crowd, as we head toward the free-standing Fashion Island building (next to Hard Rock Cafe). Nobody bothers to answer, too intent on trading stories about Hawaii and meals at Roy's there.

Roy is, of course, Roy Yamaguchi, who started his cooking career in L.A. at L'Ermitage and Michael's, later opening his own place, 385 North on La Cienega Boulevard, but only really began to get a national reputation when he launched his first namesake restaurant in Honolulu in 1988. Eleven years later, Roy Yamaguchi's name and face are as recognizable as that of Wolfgang Puck or Nobu Matsuhisa.

Decor-wise, there's not much to distinguish the Newport Beach locale, the 15th in the chain to date, from any other upscale suburban restaurant. Hawaii is invoked by the lanai shutters, a tropical aquarium and potted palms. Of course, there's the requisite open kitchen with a dozen cooks in black baseball caps toiling in full sight of the crowd. What does set Roy's apart, though, is the indefatigable friendliness and enthusiasm of the waiters, many of whom seem to be veterans of other Roy's.

With the help of our server, we ordered a slew of dishes from the classics side of the menu, and a few, mostly fish, from the chef's specials. Lobster pot stickers fried in a delicate wrapper are tender and good, the sweetness of the sauce undercut with enough citrus and heat to keep it from being cloying. Just. Chicken spring rolls are nicely fried, but after taking a bite of the rather bland, dry filling, I wonder why anyone would want to fill spring rolls with ground chicken. Baby-back ribs have been cooked, and cooked, until the meat is literally falling off the bones. Though they're nicely permeated with Asian spices, they have no tooth. Blackened ahi tuna is as boring as it inevitably is anywhere, redeemed, in this case, by a punchy soy mustard butter sauce.

Instead of asking, "Are you still working on this?," servers inquire if you're "through enjoying this?" Which sets the tone here--positive and upbeat. Everyone is convinced you're going to love the food. If you're someone who craves sweet sauces, it's likely you will. I had more trouble.

While I did enjoy the tender rack of lamb with Mongolian chili glaze, I found the honey-mustard short ribs of beef too flabby. Our waiter was careful to characterize the Hawaiian fish as all very mild, and suggested choosing seafood dishes by the sauce, not the fish. Never mind the sauce: My guest can't get past how overcooked and tasteless her Hawaiian ono is, since she'd just been in Hawaii a few weeks before where she was eating ono every other day. The restaurant is very new, and they've obviously got the usual kinks to work out.

The blasts of sweet, hot and sour in Yamaguchi's Pacific Rim cuisine are bound to appeal to younger fans brought up on the salty, sweet excesses of fast food. The feeling of the restaurant is brash, loud, energetic--as big-city as it gets in this part of Orange County. I'm hoping that once the chef and cooks get a chance to catch their breath, what comes out of the kitchen will come closer to the taste of Roy's in Hawaii.

BE THERE

Roy's Newport Beach, Fashion Island, 453 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; (949) 640-7697. Open for dinner daily. Appetizers $7 to $9; main courses $15 to $23. Valet and lot parking.

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