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Hawaii: Disney's new Aulani hotel dining options are few and pricey

September 12, 2011|By Brady MacDonald | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Dining at Disney's new Aulani hotel in Hawaii.
Dining at Disney's new Aulani hotel in Hawaii. (Disney )

Reporting from Ko Olina, Oahu —

The restaurants at Disney's new Aulani hotel in Hawaii are expensive and limited, unless you like fine-dining food and prices at every meal.

The $800-million Aulani in Ko Olina on leeward-side Oahu had a soft opening in late August with an official grand opening scheduled for Sept. 22.

> Aulani: Photos of Disney’s new Hawaiian resort

I've been staying at the Aulani the last few days with my wife, Nancy, and our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, where we spent a small fortune on food on top of room rates starting at $399 a night.

We did much more than eat at the Aulani, but I wanted to give you an overview of the meals we had at the resort during our recent visit.

On our first night, we made reservations at 'Ama 'Ama, Aulani's signature fine-dining beachside restaurant, which takes its name from the local mullet fish and its inspiration from 12th century Hawaiian fishing settlements.

The restaurant, designed to look like a fisherman's waterfront home from the 1890s, features an international menu set amid a thatched-roof hut sprinkled with fishing gear.

For an appetizer, we shared the delicious Kalua pig with cheese croquettes and Serrano ham in a romesco sauce ($16).

For dinner, I ordered the goat cheese ravioli ($31) and asked for the recommended Sauvignon Blanc (although the wine never arrived). Nancy got the Chinatown duck breast ($40) and Hannah, who will never be a cheap date, went with the New York Strip ($41), which I cut up for her tableside.

The highlight of the meal was the soufflé potatoes side dish ($8), which looked and tasted like potato chips filled with air.

For dessert, we shared a meringue mousse and a pineapple tart.

After dinner, I watched the sun set behind the low lying clouds  in what would turn out to be one of the most memorable moments of our vacation.

We all agreed the food at 'Ama 'Ama was good but not great. Pretty much standard high-end hotel food.

Dinner for three with cocktails came to $200 before tip. Not outrageous for a special dinner, but there was no way our wallet or waistline could afford to eat like that at every meal, even on vacation. But as we’d soon find out, the Aulani’s dining options were limited after the 'Ama 'Ama.

The next day we headed over to the Off the Hook poolside bar for lunch, where the menu was filled with $17-$19 sandwiches and a $21 Angus burger (all served with chips and cake).

I'd come to expect $10 tropical cocktails in Hawaii. I had my share of agave nectar margaritas rimmed with red sea salt while Nancy preferred the passion fruit mojitos. But $21 for a burger? Come on.

Add to that the $32.99 refillable drink mug sold in the gift shop (good for your entire visit) and it was clear the Disneyland pricing model would be employed throughout the Aulani resort. I quickly realized I'd have been better off if I'd taken the $100 Disney wanted me to spend on Coca-Cola and gone shopping at Walmart to load up on soda, water, beer, wine and snacks.

After passing on Off the Hook we ventured back to 'Ama 'Ama for lunch, where the prices were more affordable than the night before, with sandwiches and salads from $12 to $24.

The Lomi Lomi salad with corn chowder ($9) was easily our favorite dish of our visit. We could have licked the plate clean.

I wanted the crab and lobster roll, but I couldn't stomach paying $24 for a sandwich. I went for the Kalua pulled pork sliders on rice buns ($14), which represented the exact type of fun and accessible Hawaiian food generally missing throughout the resort.

Nancy went with the well-prepared opah fish tacos ($19). We got out of there at a more manageable $55 (before tip). Nancy, who writes about food for a living, found the lunch at 'Ama 'Ama a better value than dinner.

That night we had reservations for dinner at the Makahiki buffet, which turned out to be most in keeping with the Hawaiian theme of the resort and our favorite meal at the Aulani.

The Makahiki, named for an annual Hawaiian harvest festival, featured a dining room-length mural using paints that change from vibrant purple-reds to cool, ocean blues with the aid of special lighting.

Our waitress, Oahu-born Michelle Uyematsu, recently returned home after living in Orange County, and she asked us if we liked Hawaiian food.

We'd made a point of visiting authentic Hawaiian restaurants during our pre-Aulani stay on Oahu, sampling the poke at Ono Seafood, the plate lunch at Rainbow Drive-In, lau lau at the Highway Inn, kalua pork at Helena’s and malasadas at Leonard’s Bakery.

"It sounds like you guys have been trying a lot of the local cuisine," Uyematsu said. "A lot of people are afraid to."

Among the appetizers: octopus poke, lomi lomi salmon and, of course, the omnipresent poi. The best of the entrees: the guava barbecued ribs.

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