Of all the Hawaiis I've come to know during six trips to the islands, I'm most familiar with two of them. On the one hand, you have the relatively untouched Hawaii of soaring cliffs and lush, incredible jungles, of brilliant coral reefs, perfect, golden beaches, and huge, lumbering sea turtles floating through brilliant turquoise seas. On the other hand, you have the big money Hawaii of luxury hotels whose swimming pools are so vast they sometimes contain their own islands and beaches, a Hawaii of honeymooners and swank boutiques and incredibly expensive restaurants that, in my experience, have yet to produce an entree more superb than a fresh ahi steak from the local fish market brushed with soy sauce and fine-ground pepper, then seared to fool-proof perfection over an open grill.
Personally, I prefer the more natural Hawaii, although I feel I can at least appreciate the luxury version, and have been known to drop by those big hotels from time to time for a cocktail and an afternoon by the pool. Technically, those pools are for paying guests, and yes, I was thrown out once when a former girlfriend and I fell for the old “Can I get you a towel?” trick. (Next question: “What room are you staying in?” Oh.) We left quietly, of course, bore the hotel no rancor, and returned with our own towels the following year. We swam, lounged, and enjoyed ourselves quite thoroughly, and while we didn't eat on the premises, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the restaurant at that hotel was named Roy's.
Roy's. According to an e-mail from Randy Caparoso, vice president and director of public relations for Roy's, the San Francisco Roy's (which opened in late August) is actually the 19th in a long line of Roy's. Other sites include Roy's New York, Roy's Scottsdale, Roy's Denver, three Roy's in Tokyo and another in Guam, all of which are spinoffs of the original, Honolulu Roy's, and the brainchildren of award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi. Obviously, this Roy cat knows something about running a successful eatery. In fact, the S.F. version is the first in a series of joint venture partnerships with Outback Steakhouse Corp., a union that may pepper our nation with as many as 50 Roy's over the next five years (Roy's Orlando, Roy's Baltimore, and Roy's King of Prussia, N.J., to name a few). That adds up to a whole bunch of Roy's, or, more specifically, a whole bunch of Roy's I plan to avoid, because from what I've seen, Roy's San Francisco is delivering tepidly pleasing, mediocre tourist food at outrageously big-city prices.
With few exceptions, entrees at Roy's will set you back an average of $25. In my personal vision of the restaurant universe, that means that not only should Roy's be better than, say, Dine, Jianna, or Cosmopolitan Cafe — three relatively new places, all less expensive — but that Roy's XIX should at least approach the magic of higher end establishments such as Boulevard or Azie. Actually, I'd like to apologize to the five restaurants I just mentioned for including them in the same sentence as Roy's, then apologize to Roy himself for being so hard on his new restaurant. But still, Roy, please understand: Though $25 per entree certainly isn't unheard of in this city, at those prices I expect veins of brilliance to run through each and every dish. I want new dimensions of excellence to be pierced.
Roy's didn't pierce any dimensions. Instead, Roy's lost my reservation.
Still, the place is new, these things happen, and 45 minutes isn't that long of a wait. I sauntered over to the bar, where I found my friend Alexandra meditating on whether or not to send back her syrupy, insipidly sweet Mai Tai. She did, and, hoping to drown ourselves in more luscious tropical libations, we requested a drink list. But Roy's doesn't have a drink list, so we racked our brains for a tropical concoction. How about…a Singapore Sling! Our bartender didn't know how to make a Singapore Sling. We kept trying, and over the course of the evening sampled a very good Blue Hawaiian, a creamy, frothy, strawberry-rich Lava Flow, a silky Piña Colada, and a watery, unmuddled, disastrous Mojito, so terrible we sent it back as well.
The décor at Roy's is bearable, but not particularly enticing, a semivast, moderately opulent space marked by vivid red-and-yellow paintings, a gorgeous, towering wine rack, and an antiseptic brightness that spoke more of Los Angeles than Hawaii. As for the service, if I had to guess, I'd say the management at Roy's held a meeting that afternoon about saying hello and goodbye to customers: “Hello!” “Goodbye!” “Nice tape recorder you've got there!” The staff is friendly, young, and trying hard, but left me somewhat disgruntled because I never received an “aloha.” Then a fine young woman in a miniskirt looked me right in the eye and said it: “Aloha!” Much appreciated, but Roy's wasn't off the hook, because that was Alexandra's friend, Jennifer.
Once seated, we noted a number of nice touches. For example, the staff allowed Jennifer to join us on approximately seven seconds' notice, and our table bore a tasty soy bean-garlic-ginger dip and a pair of cute miniature pineapples. But the service was slow, those pineapples proved a tad prickly when fingered, and our chopsticks were cheap wooden things that had to be broken apart. The food itself tended to lack complexity, dazzle, cunning, and refinement, as if, perhaps, it had been dumbed down for mass consumption, or as if the splendor one reads about at the original Roy's has diluted with the expansion of the Roy's empire. Sometimes, sweetness seemed both the overriding flavor and a dish's downfall, as with the first two tidbits in our dim sum–style canoe appetizer — sweetish, mushy Szechuan pork ribs, and shellfish potstickers with a clumsy, fiery-sweet chili aioli. A small cylinder of sesame-rich tuna poke contained no bad flavors, but few good ones, either. Two grilled shrimp on a stick exuded a pleasant smokiness, while a pan-crisped crab cake tasted remarkably like a Filet-o-Fish from McDonald's.
Meanwhile, a charred butterfish appetizer made us want to track Roy down and ask him how he got his butterfish so dang buttery. It was an oily-rich, flaky slab of flesh, like most butterfish, but not elevated to any remarkable degree by a bland salmon roe spread. We tried one salad, the ahi sashimi and avocado version, which, in addition to the obvious ingredients, consisted of a few daikon sprouts, greens, pickled ginger, and a soy dipping sauce. Every element tasted like it was supposed to, but the salad lacked unity, as if it had been thrown together at random.
The fish at Roy's is definitely top-notch, and the portions are agreeably large. Unfortunately, the saucier (or whoever's in charge of improving on the raw ingredients) appeared to have lost his or her enthusiasm for cooking. A pair of mixed entrees allowed us to try four dishes, the best being a gingery, melting shutome (Hawaiian swordfish) with a zipless peanut curry, accompanied by a fillet of mahi mahi, supposedly seared but lacking any tangible evidence of it, with a rich, bisque-like macadamia-lobster sauce. An achingly tender rack of lamb was bathed in a sweet, one-dimensional caramelized pineapple sauce that hampered our enjoyment of an otherwise fine cut of meat; its partner, a savory slab of Chilean sea bass, probably would have suffered under a slightly bizarre-sounding Szechuan peppercorn/blue cheese/ tomato fusion if the sauce had contained any flavor whatsoever.
On a brighter note, dessert did us right. We selected pastry chef Courtney Fouts Broadworth's eponymous sampler, an impressive gallery of sweets that included a selection of crisp, chewy, perfect little cookies; a bittersweet, nicely balanced chocolate decadence cake; a decent opera cake; a clever little macadamia nut crème brûlée laced with nibble-worthy chunks of the nut itself; a small scoop of chocolate ice cream over florentine cookies; and coco-rich truffles that caused Alexandra, a truffle lover if ever there was one, to rave unendingly about how this, here, was the absolute incarnation of truffliciousness. That's a whole lot of tastes for one plate, and quite commendable when they're so good. So, Courtney, if you're reading this, please know that we adore you with all our hearts.
As for the big kahuna himself (Roy): Hey, brah, you owe me an “aloha.”