And then came Roy

Times Staff Writer

It was 1981, and Los Angeles was just beginning to feel the first tremors in the epic seismic jolt that would shake the city to its gastronomic core. Michael's had been open less than two years, and Trumps, St. Estephe, La Toque and City Restaurant were only a year old. But the best dinner I had here that year was at a motel -- in Burbank. And the best dinner I had here the next year was at a hotel -- near the airport.

Both those dinners -- and many others, equally dazzling -- were cooked by a brilliant, boyishly handsome chef named Roy Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi was 25 then. Today, at 47 and still boyishly handsome, he's the closest thing to a king that Hawaii has had since Kamehameha.

With six Roy's restaurants on the islands -- and a seventh planned for the western end of Oahu next spring -- he is widely credited with helping to trigger a revolution in the Hawaiian restaurant world.

Yamaguchi also has two Roy's franchise restaurants in Tokyo, two more in Guam and one each in San Francisco and New York -- plus 19 Roy's that he shares 50-50 with the Outback Steakhouse chain in other mainland U.S. cities, including Newport Beach and San Diego. But he's proudest of his Hawaiian restaurants and of what he calls their "Hawaiian fusion cuisine," a blend of the islands' native products and the flavors and techniques of its many Asian immigrants.

Like most American resorts, Hawaii was long an epicurean wasteland. Apart from Spam -- Hawaii is the world's largest per capita consumer -- island cuisine consisted largely of overly sweet "Polynesian" dishes (most of which had names that sounded suspiciously like KakaPupu) and pseudo-French food that was invariably cooked poorly and served pretentiously.

"Before we opened the first Roy's [in December 1988], Hawaii was dominated by European chefs cooking continental cuisine," Yamaguchi told me over lunch recently in Honolulu. "They were proud to bring in Dover sole. Then they overcooked it and served it in restaurants made with dark wood and dim lighting. Everything was formal, with coats and ties."

On islands surrounded by excellent local fish and filled with spectacular produce, in a setting where sun-worshipers wear shorts year-round, Yamaguchi thought that was all a bit silly. So Roy's restaurants are casual, open and airy and the menu is filled with opah, moi, walu, mahi-mahi and opakapaka, accompanied by Maui onions and lomi lomi tomatoes and, of course, poi and pineapple and macadamia nuts.

Hawaiian fish tends to be mild in flavor, and that plays to Yamaguchi's longtime strength as a superb saucier. He prepares butterfish in a sweet ginger and wasabi butter sauce; crispy moi in a Thai curry, lemongrass and black bean sauce; and grilled ono with a spicy sesame, cucumber and ginger vinaigrette.

Yamaguchi opened the first Roy's in eastern Oahu about the same time that Peter Merriman opened his eponymous restaurant in Waimea, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Both talented chefs, they became the leaders -- Merriman the intellectual and spiritual force, Yamaguchi the more ambitious, market-savvy entrepreneur -- of a fledgling Hawaiian regional cuisine movement. Yamaguchi has written two cookbooks, appeared regularly on television and was the first chef in Hawaii to win a James Beard Foundation Award.

Born and raised in Japan, Yamaguchi decided to become a chef at 16, when he took a high school home economics class and made a turkey dinner with oyster dressing for his school counselor. The counselor suggested he'd found his life's calling.

Yamaguchi enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York, then moved to Los Angeles.

When I first met him, he was fresh from three years under the legendary Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage. I can't remember which of my friends first told me that if I wanted a great French dinner, I should try the Safari Inn in Burbank, but I'm sure I laughed and muttered something like, "Yeah, right."

My friend knew what he was talking about, though, and when Yamaguchi moved from Burbank to the small, elegant Gourmet Room at the Sheraton La Reina Hotel, I happily followed. An airport hotel was an unlikely destination for the city's budding becs fins, alas, and when the venture floundered, Yamaguchi decided to strike out on his own.

He opened 385 North, on La Cienega Boulevard, with a significant number of investors -- myself among them (the only time I've ever made such an investment). I wasn't writing about food or wine then, and I figured that if my art- and music-loving friends could give money to museums and symphonies, I could support the art form I most loved -- the fine-dining experience.

The restaurant folded after three years, and I never made a penny on my modest investment. But I already knew enough about the restaurant world that I hadn't expected to.

What really disappointed me was that Yamaguchi abandoned French cuisine for an early fusion style that he said would have a "broader appeal" but that sure didn't appeal to me.

"I wanted to express more of my Asian side," he said the last time I saw him in Hawaii. "I wanted to experiment with the food I was raised with -- the raw fish and ginger and soy and wasabi I remembered from when I was a kid in Japan."

Back then -- and even on a subsequent trip to Hawaii, with his empire already starting to grow -- I thought his cooking lacked its early brilliance. I wondered if he'd decided to trade artistic excellence for financial success.

Money was certainly an important factor in his decision, but I now realize he was also doing something more complex -- trying to reconnect with his past by learning new skills, using different products and different techniques.

Yamaguchi has clearly learned and grown during his years in Hawaii. What at 385 North had seemed an ill-conceived blend of his French training and his Asian roots, has clearly blossomed -- with time, experience and the infusion of Hawaiian products -- into a personal, often brilliant interpretation of contemporary fusion cooking. He, personally, made us the best dinner we had in nine days in the islands.

He served us local fish (moi and butterfish and walu and shrimp) bathed, variously, in miso and wasabi and soy and scallion oil and served alongside pickled ginger and bok choy and daikon and preserved plums. He also made duck and sweetbreads and short ribs -- all done in his Hawaiian fusion style.

Clearly, he still has the chops. He says he cooks in each of his restaurants when he visits them and he cooks "two out of four nights when I'm home." But he's on the road six months a year; that wouldn't appear to leave much time to create new dishes. I'll bet most of his customers don't eat as well at any Roy's as my wife and son and I did in Honolulu -- with him in the kitchen. So I asked him:

"Now that you're more entrepreneur than chef, do you miss being a real cook, a full-time chef -- a full-time French chef?"

"No. I like teaching the young guys I hire to cook in each of my restaurants," he says, "and I do a lot of special dinners for 30 or 40 people when I'm in various cities, and some of those are classical French dinners. But that's not who I am anymore. I like the Hawaiian fusion cuisine best now.

"When I opened the first Roy's, it was in a part of Oahu known as the graveyard of restaurants -- an old swampland that had been turned into a residential district and no restaurant had succeeded. But my family had vacationed in Hawaii when I was growing up, and my cousin was a Realtor here and when she called me to come over and look at this building, it just felt right. It felt magical.

"I wanted a neighborhood restaurant where people could be as comfortable as they are at home and where I could cook the kind of food my father made when I was growing up. I'm happy now."

After our last dinner at Roy's, so were we.

*

Coconut panna cotta

Total time: 15 minutes, plus 4 hours chilling time

Servings: 6

Note: From "Hawaii Cooks," by Roy Yamaguchi (Ten Speed Press, $32.50)

2 envelopes granular gelatin

6 tablespoons water

2 cups coconut milk

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Fresh fruit, diced, for garnish

1. In a small bowl, combine the gelatin with the water until softened.

2. In a small saucepan, combine the coconut milk, cream, sugar and vanilla. Place over medium heat and warm until hot to the touch (about 110 degrees). Add the gelatin and stir until dissolved.

3. Pour into 6 (6-ounce) ramekins or custard cups. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours, or until set.

4. Serve garnished with fresh fruit.

Each serving: 426 calories; 5 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 34 grams fat; 26 grams saturated fat; 68 mg. cholesterol; 34 mg. sodium.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.

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