With the exception of New York’s Central Park, it’s hard to think of a town with a public interface like Honolulu’s Kapiolani and Kuhio Beach Parks. It’s fractal and uneasy, this zone between the ocean, Waikiki, the Parks, the Shell and Zoo and Aquarium, but the bottom line, economically and demographically, is its real estate. Some years ago, the Realtors who run this town coined the phrase Gold Coast for a shoreline dominated by a high-rise condo ghetto and now we’re stuck with it, in all its tawdry Trump-esque glory.
Food-wise, the area is almost a desert, and high rents and the zoning enforcement keep it that way. No food trucks for this neighborhood, those are for the people who actually live and work in this town and are willing to trade a little scuff and scrap for a hot Korean taco or crispy chicken waffle during their lunch break. If you want to dine without being inside the ticky-tack of Waikiki your options are limited. Wouldn’t it be nice to walk to dinner and back through the Park? Sit overlooking the sea and not be engulfed by barbecue smoke? Bonk our heads on the benevolent spreading arms of the hau tree that Princess Kaiulani and Robert Louis Stevenson lounged beneath, writing poems and composing meles?
There’s was only restaurant that fits the description: The Hau Tree Lanai at the New Otani. The idea sparked in my companion an immediate desire for revenge. It seems that during a working pupu, her colleague scarfed up all the shared appetizer except for a tiny spoonful that, if memory served, was divine. “Lobster and…” she paused. “Asparagus? I know it sounds strange, but…”
We’re not strangers to The Hau Tree. The breakfast is where our ohana, like so many other local families and businesses, holds its meetings. If you get there early, you can sit up at the railing and watch the aquatic rituals unfold before you like a French movie: the hardcore rough-water swimmers in goggles and Speedos, the mommies watching over their broods, the ancient bathing beauties, the would-be he-men doing pushups, the metal detector people and, of course, that god of our blase days, the lifeguard. The waiters are local and will know you; the coffee is dark and good; the menu offers up an Island-tweaked menu, with two of my family’s favorites that go back decades: Corned Beef Hash ($18) and a quintet of Eggs Benedict options (turkey/Canadian bacon, crab, salmon/bacon, half-CB Hash and vegetarian). If my brother-in-law is in town, we share the Corned Beef and Crab Benedict ($18).
For lunch, The Hau Tree is on the down-low with locals who need to do business or meet an old friend in an atmosphere that is serene, even contemplative. The sunlight dapples down through the branches and it’s hotter, which makes the gazpacho a good pick, although the Portuguese bean soup is hard to resist. You can also get sashimi, poke, Loco Moco, shrimp scampi, a mahi burger (tried and true) and a couple of Hawaiian-style curries–an upscale tour of the old-school culinary horizon from the North Shore to The Willows to Rainbow Drive-in to Foodland’s Poke Bowl. The beef burger is Big Island Kulana, a quintet of salads refresh, and those Egg Benedicts make an encore. An appetizer and a salad/sandwich/entree will run you from $25 to $40 per person.
Although we’ve come to The Hau Tree for nearly 40 years, I couldn’t remember going there for dinner. And then there we were, and the grilled lobster asparagus appetizer (with fish roe and a dab of Bearnaise, $17) caused my companion to place her elbows on the table to discourage any interlopers. The rest of our party had ordered Chef Rene’s $65 Prix Fixe, however, and had their own lobster (Kona, in a spinach pesto with tomato concasse). The sole entree on the fixed menu was, smartly, a twofer: macadamia-crusted mahi and a Black Angus filet mignon. My companion had the same mahi as a market price entrée, sautéed, and was very pleased. I, on the other hand, violated a basic rule of tourist-town cuisine and ordered fancy, the mahi crusted with crab and avocado and gussied up with both a garlic aioli and a beurre blanc ($43). Soggy and leaden, it reminded me that when you don’t know what you want and you can get island-caught fish (opakapaka, mahi, onaga, ahi, opah, and tai) in a variety of simple preparations (sauteed, pan fried, cajun style and steamed), go for it.
If I’d wanted to splurge, I would’ve also done better with the Seafood Mixed Grill, where the fish (lobster, shrimp, scallop, fish) give your taste buds a chance, being separate; the Fisherman’s Stew (ditto plus clams and crab, in a tamarind saffron broth); or the Harris Black Angus 20 oz. ribeye. Fortunately, I could just scoot back my chair and feast on the view: a sunset over Makaha and the happy faces of my crew. Under the hau tree is still the place to be, as it has been since the days of Princess Kaiulani and RLS.