A look into dishes worth savoring this winter season, and what inspires the chefs who create them
Photography by Amber Schoniwitz
The concept of comfort food is universal, yet its definition is unique to each and every one of us. Geography, culture, family, and age all play a part in shaping our palates. While we may consider the American diners from yesteryear nostalgic, young people today are growing up in a culinary world like never before, with wider diversity and greater emphasis on farm-to-fork movements. In the spirit of the holiday season, we asked a handful of talented chefs from Waikiki’s top restaurants to show off some of their very own comfort-style cuisine. Take a peek into what this concept means to them, and how it translates into their cooking. If there’s one thing we all can agree on, when it comes to comfort food, there can never be too much!
Chef-Owner Bill Granger
Favorite Dish: Kim Chee Fried Rice
After twenty years in the restaurant business, Chef-Owner Bill Granger’s newest Bills Sydney location in Waikiki is his first venture into the U.S. Impeccably designed with modern form, natural wood accents, and an atmosphere of comfortable sophistication, the two-story building offers a beach bar cafe downstairs, and a casually elegant restaurant upstairs. While the menu is inspired by tropical produce and a fusion of international cuisines, all of Granger’s dishes reflect a quality that is intentionally simple, but executed with the greatest attention to detail. Renowned for their signature Ricotta Hotcakes, Granger explains, “The ricotta hotcakes were my vision to create the perfect pancake. The addition of ricotta adds lightness and good hit of protein while beaten egg whites bring an almost soufflé like quality to the pancake. We serve the hotcakes with banana and honeycomb butter which melts to create a sauce.” Garnering praise from The New York Times as the ‘egg master of Sydney,’ Granger hints that the secret is “utilizing fresh local organic eggs with very little done to them, they are creamy and sublime.” Besides breakfast, Bills Sydney offers a variety of unique salads, refreshing pastas and flatbreads, and heartier dishes like pork ribs and yellow fish curry for lunch and dinner. There are no boundaries when it comes to ingredients, but the unifying idea that “Bills is all about comfort food,” Granger says, “casual food of the home that reassures but with a fresh twist to also excite.”
Executive Chef Joseph “JJ” Reinhart
Favorite Dish: Red Curry Seafood Medley
The Hilton Hawaiian Village’s premier restaurant, Bali Steak & Seafood, offers guests the highest quality steaks and seafood along with an uncompromising view of Waikiki Beach. Enjoy a sunset in the relaxed South Pacific décor with cocktail in hand and one of Executive Chef Joseph “JJ” Reinhart’s signature dishes. When asked about “comfort food,” Reinhart has a menu of options, since this notion speaks to who he is as a chef. His signature style incorporates the simplest, quality ingredients prepared with heartfelt elegance. Take the Diver Scallop appetizer, for example, where the citrus-salted scallops are presented over ginger rice porridge, topped with a Hamakua mushroom ragout and heart of palm salad, and surrounded by house made chili oil. “Every culture in the world has some sort of porridge dish,” explains Reinhart, but this one leaves an unforgettable impression. The aromatic rice offers an explosion of flavor, paired perfectly with the delicate scallops, achieving both depth and balance of flavor and texture. For Reinhart, “Comfort food is something that takes you back to being a kid, like something that made you feel better no matter what… but personally, I always like it when it’s given some sort of twist.” With such an appreciation for the intricate details that make every bite one to savor, enjoy a truly memorable culinary experience, and be sure to make a reservation at Bali Steak & Seafood.
Executive Chef Ron Vasquez
Favorite Dish: Oolong Marinated Sea Bass
When it comes to Chinese-American cuisine with an upbeat, modern attitude, there’s no better place than P.F. Chang’s Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian Center. Featuring a refreshing menu filled with new and classic favorites, P.F. Chang’s prepares each dish to order, stressing quality and style. While Chinese food is somewhat of an American past time, Executive Chef Ron Vasquez explains, “The perfect comfort dish is uncomplicated, yet filled with lots of flavor.” The Salt & Pepper Prawns are both sweet and spicy, seasoned with salt and pepper, ginger, black beans, whole red chili peppers, and served with a mustard vinaigrette dipping sauce. Choose your weapon (chopsticks, fork, or fingers), and attack these crispy sensations for lunch or dinner. If your comfort is of the five-o-clock variety, check out P.F. Chang’s happy hour from 4pm to 6pm daily for discounted small plates and specialty drinks like the famous Waikiki Chang’s Mai Tai.
Executive Chef Diego Pacuruco
Favorite Dish: Ribeye Steak with a slice of thick cut sizzling Canadian bacon
Wolfgang’s Steakhouse offers a no-frills attitude about what to expect from this celebrated American restaurant, which may explain the constant line of customers at the door. Without question, the star of the show is the phenomenal Porterhouse Steak for Two, Three, or Four. This enormous cut of USDA Prime beef features both filet mignon and New York strip steaks, and is dry aged in-house to achieve peak flavor and tenderness. Executive Chef Diego Pacuruco hails from the original Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in New York, and moved to Hawaii five years ago to open the Royal Hawaiian Center location. His knowledge and passion for the craft of fine steaks is clearly apparent in each dish, because for Chef Pacuruco, “there’s nothing more comforting than a simple, juicy, high quality steak,” and after tasting the Porterhouse, we would have to agree.
Executive Chef Rodhel Ibay
Favorite Dish: Cacciucco di Mare
Perched on the second floor of the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s historic Rainbow Bazaar, Fresco Italian Restaurant welcomes guests into an atmosphere of relaxed, clean modern design with the familiar aromas of a hearty Italian kitchen. Known for utilizing fresh ingredients whenever possible, Fresco fuses old-world recipes with Hawaii’s local produce. Executive Chef Rodhel Ibay explains, “In Italy, what you’ll find on dinner tables is a reflection of the ingredients available at the market, at the dock, and at the butcher. Comfort food is about cooking with what’s a part of your culture.” He adds, “If you ask me, basically all Italian food is comfort food!” Letting flavors simply stand out is key in Ibay’s mouth-watering Linguine All’ Aragosta e Granchio. The rich lobster and crab are slowly cooked into the thick tomato sauce, made from both local and D.O.P. tomatoes imported from Tuscany, and served with linguine prepared al dente. Simple, savory, and unmistakably “Fresco.”
Executive Chef Rey Baysa
Favorite Dish: Spinach Artichoke Dip
With unique music, jaw-dropping memorabilia, and Waikiki’s only giant guitar wave, there’s no place in town quite like Hard Rock Cafe. If there’s a special place in your heart for a juicy burger stacked high with all the fixings, then be prepared to fall in love with the Original Legendary Burger. This two-hander is made with a ten ounce beef patty topped with smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, a crispy fried onion ring, lettuce, vine-ripened tomato, and pickles, all on a brioche bun. According to Executive Chef Rey Baysa, this all-American classic embodies what is essential to comfort food. “It’s not simply a particular dish or cuisine, but also the memories and nostalgia associated with it. Comfort food should bring you back to your youth, no matter your age.” So go ahead, and let your inner child rock out with this truly legendary burger, a side of hot fries, and maybe that decadent hot fudge brownie sundae for dessert.
Working Sous Chef Richard Arakaki
Favorite Dish: Poke Bar (Tuesdays) & Ceviche Bar (Wednesdays)
Kuhio Beach Grill is well known for excellent buffet selections, especially the succulent, four hour roasted, tender prime rib. Working Sous Chef Richard Arakaki who has been with the restaurant for 32 years claims, “we have the best prime rib in town.” It is cut to order every night, and paired with a live chef action station that varies depending on the day of the week, allowing guests to have a new and unique experience each time they visit. Thursday’s dinner selections are themed around a traditional American spread, including irresistibly sweet and savory, fork-tender mango BBQ pork ribs, boneless, skinless fried chicken, bacon baked beans, corn on the cob, and all the accompaniments you’d expect from a backyard barbecue. “Our American theme is all about comfort food,” Chef Arakaki adds, “to me, comfort food is home-style cooking, just like a Sunday night dinner with family and friends.” And what’s a family dinner without dessert? Top off your Thursday night at Kuhio Beach Grill with their Sundae Station and build your very own sweet creation starting with a fresh made waffle cone.
Executive Chef Danny Chew
Favorite Dish: Shrimp Bao, Curry Banh Mi, Korean Fried Chicken, Thai Tacos (He couldn’t choose just one)
One of Waikiki’s most iconic oceanfront hot spots is getting a makeover this November. RumFire Waikiki will undergo a complete renovation, while remaining open and fully operational. Look forward to brand new high-end-chic design concepts, the addition of a second bar with a full ocean view, and private cabanas with VIP service. The new menu will focus on Executive Chef Danny Chew’s unique take on contemporary street food. “The vision is to take street food from around the world and rework it into a casual restaurant environment,” says Chew, who has a knack for fusing traditional American comfort foods with an unexpected twist of Asian influence. His succulent Kalua Pork Nachos are topped with melted cheese sauce made from pepper jack, Maui onion, habaneros, Sambal, and fish sauce. The in-house pickled Serrano chilies add both a sweet and hot kick. Also tempting, the “KFC,” or Korean Fried Chicken, is first brined in buttermilk over night, then steamed, chilled, floured, deep fried, and finished in the wok with a spicy gochujang vinaigrette. The rich, piquant chicken falls right off the bone. Pair with a cold beer or a fiery rum cocktail, and be sure to catch a sneak peek during renovations, and don’t miss RumFire’s big reveal by 2015.
Chef Richard Inay
Favorite Dish: GP Garlic Shrimp
Football season is here, and Giovanni Pastrami has exactly what you need to cheer on your team. Waikiki’s best sports bar offers each guest the best seat in the house with wall-to-wall high definition TVs, and all-star American classics like the #1 selling Pastrami Ruben Sandwich. Sink your teeth into the thinly sliced hot pastrami, sauerkraut, and melted Swiss on grilled rye, and discover how to tailgate gourmet-style. Chef Richard Inay explains that “Giovanni Pastrami is much more than a typical sports bar,” as the entire menu features high quality ingredients, without compromising on quantity. For example, “Our pastrami comes from the same purveyors that supply many top delis in New York, Chicago, and California,” says Inay, and the restaurant serves over two thousand pounds of the prized meat each month. Have your pastrami in an eggs benedict, as a topping on a burger, in sliders or sandwiches, or mixed with fried rice. As if the pastrami wasn’t enough, Inay also serves up a ten-page menu filled with a huge selection of breakfasts, sky-high deli sandwiches, half-pound burgers, as well as fresh pastas, Round Table Pizza, and other stadium favorites.
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