When I first see the new restaurant 53 by the Sea, I think of the scene in the most recent film version of “Pride and Prejudice” in which Elizabeth falls in love with Mr. Darcy after seeing his £10,000-a-year estate. (Girls, you know what I’m talking about.) 53 by the Sea looks like a millionaire’s villa in Europe, complete with enormous, double doors, swanky balconies and BMWs. “This is a food review. Don’t be wooed by the estate,” I tell myself, while my dining partner/roommate mutely stares at her maxi skirt and tank top and moans, “I am soooo underdressed.”
A little over a month old, the place is bustling, even on a Wednesday night. We walk in and try not to gawk at an impressive double-railed flight of stairs leading up to the second floor.
We’re seated at a round table with a chair on one side and a plushy couch against the wall. Sitting in the chair somehow feels awkward, so we use the soft pillows to separate us so people won’t get the wrong impression. There’s a spectacular sight of the ocean and Waikiki lights. Maybe it was the crowd of Japanese people going “Itadakimasu!” or the bay view, but somehow I feel like I’m eating in a high-brow restaurant in Yokohama.
Our server comes by with a bread basket of crispy foccacia, ciabatta, walnut bread and Hawaiian sweet bread rolls. (We learned later that it was his first night; he did great.) The diverse menu is Southern Italian, with a local twist. Although there were “safe” dishes such as shrimp scampi ($26) and prime New York sirloin steak ($45), I want to try the signature stuff.
For entrees, we order grilled opakapaka with Okinawan Sweet potato puree ($30) and chicken breast mushroom Marsala ($22). Okay, the Marsala may seem like a boring choice, but I want to know how Chef Hiroshi Hayakawa would use okra and “baked” mashed potato as ingredients.
We begin with the 53 Seafood Showcase ($30), a seafood cocktail platter with Fenne Bay oysters, ‘ahi sashimi, Maine lobster, kampachi-wrapped grapefruit, scallops and a variety of seaweeds. I find that I’m not a fan of the overly spicy cocktail sauce and prefer the sour-sweet soy vinaigrette, although I would have been happiest with plain soy sauce. “It tastes like eating the ocean,” raves my friend, loving the dish. Maybe the gorgeous exterior set my hopes too high; the appetizer isn’t as fresh-tasting as I thought it would be. I don’t like the over-strong, fishy flavor.
When the main dishes arrive, one of the managers asks if we would like him to divide the food for us. Such fantastic service! He prepares two separate plates beautifully, tableside and complete with garnishes, so we can enjoy individual portions of both chicken and fish.
The opakapaka was moist and buttery, resting on purple, pureed Okinawan sweet potato, grilled Maui onion, locally grown okra and Kahuku sea asparagus, served with a dash of basil sauce and a pretty lemon half. The flavors are unusual, light and simple.
The Marsala preparation, on the other hand, is rich and creamy, topped with a generous amount of mushrooms. The sauce is surprisingly sweet, almost like Japanese beef stew, and the chicken tender. The okra is mixed into the vegetables on the side. As for the “baked” mashed potatoes, they taste like gourmet, crunchy hash browns.
For dessert, the eggplant cioccolato ($10) is a must. This treat is traditionally served in towns located along the Almafi coast, and it’s basically fried eggplant layered with chocolate, custard cream filling, walnuts and raisins. I don’t know any other way to explain it, except that it’s delicious. You hardly taste the eggplant, save for a chewy texture that pairs well with the rich chocolate layers.
After dinner, one of the servers gave us a quick private tour of the second floor. In 2007, this building, the former legendary John Dominis restaurant, was sold to Ocean Investments, LCC, a Japanese-based company.
Chef Hayakawa is also from Japan, and used to cook in Roppongi Hills. I can tell; the menu may be Southern Italian, but there’s a lightness to the flavors that’s distinctly Japanese.
Our guide says they actually raised the foundation of the entire building during the $16 million renovation. The restaurant itself, 53 by the Sea, occupies only a portion of the site; the rest is used for weddings and business meetings. If you’ve got $30 grand, you can rent out the entire place for a private function.
With tip, the bill for two of us came out to $116.34. Lunch is more affordable, with entrees that come with your choice of appetizer and dessert. You don’t just pay for the food here; as with all fine dining places, it’s the fantastic service and ambience that matters. By far, 53 by the Sea scores highest in the latter. So why not splurge and feel like a Mr. or Mrs. Darcy once in a while?