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Heir Apparentby Lesa Griffith | Photo: Linny Morris | Hawai'i magazine | November 26, 2012
It’s hard to follow in the footsteps of a legend. Back in the day in Honolulu, there was no other splurge-worthy destination than the venerable John Dominis—the host of a billion special anniversary dinners and weddings from 1979 to 2010. So when the mecca was razed to make way for the $16 million 53 By The Sea—owned by Japanese company Ocean Investments—everyone paid close attention. While the former star’s digs was a low-slung, quasi-modernist sea cave that extended over Kewalo Basin, the new tenant’s crib is a two-story villa-like building meant to echo Honolulu’s downtown architectural prizes, such as ‘Iolani Palace. There are a lot of arches, a lot of marble and a lot of beige—all complemented by the tickled ivories of a piano. At first glance, you could think 53 By The Sea is a throwback to the white-tablecloth “fine dining” of yesteryear. But sit down, and the service and food gloriously teleport you back to the 21st century.
The dining room is a crescent facing the sea, so even if you’re not at one of the tables nestled against the floor-to-ceiling windows, you have a fine view. Some will prefer the intimate banquette nooks along the wall. (I know I did.) For those who prefer dining alfresco, the tables on the small outdoor terrace are another option.
Flip open the expansive menu and discover a concise collection of classic Italian dishes from all over the boot, along with a couple of surprises not found anywhere else in Hawai‘i—like pane frattau, Sardinia’s version of lasagna. Japanese chef Hiroshi Hayakawa, who trained in Italy and paid his dues at New York institution Il Mulino, may not rewrite the book, but he makes clean, well-executed dishes that beg for a repeat visit—million-dollar view or not.
Given the setting, expect a crowded house, so make your reservations at least a week in advance. During my visit, the place was packed with locals at 7:30pm checking out “the new John Dominis” and Waikīkī’s lights twinkling in the distance. But the real excitement is right on the table. The calamari-and-bottarga salad is a huge tousle of well-cleaned baby greens scattered with thinly sliced rings of lightly battered squid, with slices of cured fish roe adding a nice salty bite. The daily seafood carpaccio—kampachi, when I dropped by—is served in classic, pared-down Italian style—with just olive oil, lemon and Hawaiian salt. Items like the 53 Seafood Showcase—featuring an abundance of sashimi riches and oysters—are clearly a nod to Japanese tastes, as are the caches of Opus in the well-stocked wine cave.
Housemade pastas are top-notch, with resonant flavors in dishes ranging from common Bolognese to linguine with lobster and veggies in a spicy white wine butter sauce. Hayakawa tarts up that rustic pane frattau with Bolognese sauce (instead of the traditional marinara), layered with Sardinian flatbread and topped with a silky potato cream.
Seven seafood selections highlight Hawai‘i’s fish; though on my visit the ‘ōpakapaka had a cakey texture, instead of its usual glorious light flake. Beautifully presented with Okinawan sweet potato puree and dots of sea asparagus puree, it warrants another try.
What’s an Italian restaurant without veal? Hayakawa’s bone-in cutlet is pounded coaster-thin, coated with Parmesan breadcrumbs and topped with baby arugula, Parmesan and Pecorino shavings. It’s textbook-delicious—just as he would make at Il Mulino. The menu also highlights steak—choose from filet mignon, rib-eye or New York sirloin; then flavor it with cabernet wine reduction, Marsala and shallot, crisp sage and garlic, spinach and bleu cheese, or simple salt and lemon.
In a multicourse meal, it’s easy for dishes to overlap or lag behind. But my server kept an eye on our progress and communicated well with the kitchen, making the pacing of the meal perfect—and we stretched it out to a four-course Italian-style antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce food parade.
Perhaps the eatery’s most adventurous dish is a dessert—the eggplant cioccolato, a specialty from the Amalfi Coast that features fried eggplant, chocolate, custard cream, walnuts and raisins. The daring creation promises an interesting finish but still calls for some refinement over time.
53 By The Sea does offer other stellar indulgences. People looking for a new after-hours spot should make a beeline for the sultrily lit bar, where former Halekulani barmeister Tim Rita whips up refreshing cocktails, such as bellinis and an outrageously delicious cucumber and basil number. Add the oversize calamari salad, and you’ve got a superb light supper and a luxurious end-of-the-day respite—the perfect accompaniment for that million-dollar view.
53 By The Sea
53 ‘Ahui St.
Lunch, 11am-2pm daily
Dinner, 5-10pm daily
Lounge, Sun.-Thu., 4pm-midnight and Fri.-Sat., 4pm-2am
Starters, $8-$30 (for two);
A must—at least one week in advance
Young guys trying to impress their willowy dates, biz execs exercising expense accounts
Mixed field greens with seasoned fried calamari, chilled lobster, pane frattau, veal cutlet, any one of Tim Rita’s refreshing cocktails
With Diamond Head beckoning above the waves, the views are amazing.