Duke's restaurant is an institution in Huntington Beach, named in honor of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of international surfing. The dÃ©cor of this beachfront dining establishment is tasteful Hawaiian with high ceilings, lots of wood, indoor plants everywhere and surfboards instead of artwork on the walls. An outrigger canoe hangs from the rafters. However, the single most dramatic element is the wall of windows facing the ocean. Besides the three dining areas, there is a straw-roofed tiki bar with indoor and outdoor seating adjacent to the pier. This is the place to take out-of-towners for a taste of life in Surf City, but locals have also been coming here for years to enjoy the tasty Hawaiian fusion cuisine, currently prepared by chef Matt Perez.
Crispy, warm sourdough rolls ward off hunger while you make your selections from the predominantly fish and seafood menu. Chunks of very good flash-seared tuna appear in the poke rolls, wrapped in wonton skins and served on a mustardy, lemon beurre blanc sauce, a felicitous combination.
Deep-fried spring rolls are filled with a delicious clay pot-cooked chicken combined with cabbage, carrot shreds and scallions. The filling was unusually good and in a goodly amount for a spring roll, however, the crunchy wrapper had been fried in overused oil, which left an unpleasant aftertaste. A sweet and sour, slightly spicy dipping sauce accompanied the rolls.
Duke's specializes in fish selections from Hawaii, which change daily, chosen according to seasonal availability and sustainability. There are six preparations available, and each is available with any fish. Duke's style is baked in garlic with lemon sweet basil glaze, while Lilikoi is seared with lemongrass and served with a passion fruit sweet and sour sauce. Seven-spice, which is recommended for ahi, consists of a spice rub and comes with papaya hot mustard sauce. For salmon, they suggest hoisin barbecue sauce with sesame glaze, hibachi grilled and served over udon noodles.
The opah, a classic medium-dense Hawaiian fish, has a strong deep-sea flavor. SautÃ©ed with a panko-macadamia nut crust with lemon and capers, this is Duke's most popular style for any fish. We found it to be too heavily breaded and not crispy enough. However, good marks go to the excellent rice pilaf that came with it, a well-seasoned mixture of white and wild rice with an intriguing flavor. We also loved the very fresh, crunchy Asian slaw, made with napa cabbage, bok choy, water chestnuts and cilantro, with a very light passion fruit dressing.
Our hands-down favorite of the evening was the firecracker ono, a delectable, delicate fish, brushed with a spicy tomato cumin aioli and roasted to perfection with a light bottom crust, then placed atop a mound of mashed potatoes that were themselves on top of a black bean and avocado salsa. The mashed potatoes modulated the spiciness of the fish, while the black bean relish added a totally new palate of flavors to the dish.
Our least favorite was the crispy coconut shrimp. The large shrimp were really good, but the coating was neither crispy nor had much coconut flavor. Again, it was the panko bread crumbs that weighed the shrimp down, and the taste of the fry oil was predominant.
Hulihuli chicken and mango barbecued spareribs are two other popular choices. Duke's also features steaks and prime rib. There is a more casual, rather extensive bar menu as well.
The house signature dessert is hula pie with an Oreo cookie crust, a mountain of macadamia nut ice cream and a chocolate fudge topping. The light molten chocolate cake is filled with a very sweet chocolate sauce and served with a scoop of ice cream and a nice, tart guava coulis.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years and can be reached at email@example.com.