As American as macadamia pie
Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine is a true American success story
By Erica Wayne 07/02/2013
H i Readers, happy Fourth of July!
To commemorate the holiday, I’m celebrating Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, an independent restaurant chain which, like our president, was born in Hawaii.
I’m proud to say I’d heard of both Roy (Yamaguchi) and Barack Obama before they reached the heights of fame since all three of us arrived in Los Angeles in 1979. Barry came to Occidental College as a student, when I was a junior faculty member. And Roy worked as a chef at several city eateries from 1979 to 1988, after which he moved to Honolulu and opened his first eponymous restaurant. My husband and I, attending an engineering conference in Oahu that year, dined at the newly opened Roy’s with friends.
Most of you know the rest of the story. Obama’s in his second term as the country’s highest elected official, and Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine has grown from an Island singularity to 31 restaurants in the United States, Guam and Tokyo (Yamaguchi’s birthplace). As for me, I’m still living in Pasadena and writing the same column I’ve been producing since 1984 (sigh).
But, let’s get back to Roy’s. While the chain was spreading, I ignored it in favor of one-offs. What I remembered from our 1988 experience was excellent seafood (blackened and macadamia-crusted) and lots of tropical fruit flavors mixed with sesame and soy. In the late ’80s, that budding style of “Asian-fusion” cooking was avant-garde. By 2007, when Roy’s opened a store in Pasadena, it had become somewhat old hat. Seared ahi was everywhere!
But a few weeks back Roy’s sent out $25 gift cards to local residents, and there was no way we could resist such a bargain. So, in we went, expecting, frankly, to be under-whelmed. But there’s a good reason why Roy’s has a Zagat rating of 25. (Shiro in South Pasadena, arguably one of California’s finest seafood restaurants rates a 27, while Pasadena superstars Parkway Grill and Bistro 45 command a 26.) For a chain, Roy’s is really top-notch for service and cuisine.
When I made the reservation, I was asked if it was a special occasion. Actually, we were celebrating the end of my husband’s last class of his final course before retiring from UCLA. And when we arrived (at 6 p.m. on a Saturday), despite a milling throng of diners, we were seated at once in a cozy, enveloping booth and congratulated by our server on Alan’s achievement. A printed piece of paper was on our table reading “Hau’oli la Ho’omaha loa, Alan. Roy’s Pasadena and our Ohana would like to say Mahalo for choosing to celebrate with us this evening. Congratulations on your Retirement.”
We were sorely tempted by the list of specialty cocktails (all except one priced at $10.95). Guava mojito, basil cucumber collins, Smithfield sling and nifty (less than 150 calories) coconut frappe all sounded irresistible. But, instead, knowing that we were in for the long haul (Roy’s three-course spring prix fixe menu - $36.95), we opted for a bottle of house chardonnay ($32) from the extensive wine list and got down to choosing our meal.
From the appetizer list, we picked pork belly satay with honey-coriander glaze, spicy pickled vegetables and scallions; and shrimp and green papaya with crispy garlic, herbs and chili nam pla. The pork was delicious, six thick pieces on skewers with a wonderful sweet sauce, a dollop of kimchi on the side and a sprinkling of green onion. The large shrimp were succulent, papaya slaw adding a wonderful crunch with the seasoning of chili fish sauce and garlic providing just enough kick.
The entrées we selected were steelhead trout with couscous, shiso, Maui onion, fava beans and mint; and Thai-style lemongrass chicken with creamy jasmine rice, bok choy and red curry. The trout was sautéed with crisp skin and rare flesh, on a bed of ptitim (Israeli-style) couscous. The flavors were subtle and harmonious. The chicken was far more assertive. It had been grilled, and the char added even more flavor to the hot, coconut-scented curry that suffused the rice.
Desserts were an easy pick. There were only two on the list: strawberry white chocolate bread pudding with orange-basil syrup, macerated strawberries and vanilla ice cream; and Roy’s melting hot chocolate soufflé with Belgian chocolate, raspberry coulis and vanilla bean ice cream.
If they sound over-the-top, they’re even more impressive upon delivery.
I usually subscribe to Sandra Boynton’s observation that white chocolate is chocolate for people who don’t like chocolate. But blended in with moist, syrup-laden hunks of pudding chunked across a long rectangular plate on a base of custard and sided with a small scoop of ice cream, it was a fine addition to a lovely sweet.
However, for those of us who don’t just like but LOVE chocolate, the soufflé was the piece de resistance. No petite serving here; a warm tennis ball of the darkest bittersweet confection paired with an equally huge scoop of ice cream on a bed of crème anglaise and raspberry puree – words fail. But it’s a must-have.
As if these two sweets weren’t enough, our server delivered a special sponge cake round topped with colorful diced fruit and, yet again, a written congratulatory message, this time in chocolate around the border of the plate. Despite the full restaurant, service was exemplary, we were neither rushed nor ignored, and seating in the restaurant was spacious enough for conversation.
I wonder if Roy’s décor is standard throughout the chain. The Pasadena floor plan is complex, with an angular open kitchen and two seating areas dressed in browns, oranges and reds, with stylized art deco stained glass lighting, floral prints and tropical upholstery. At least two floor managers supervised the staff, reminding us a bit of keenly observant pit bosses in a casino. And passing through the flaming tiki torches lighting the outdoor dining patio as we left, we enjoyed the Las Vegas theatricality of the façade.
As I write this, the spring prix fixe menu we sampled is still in place. However, by the time you read it, summer will be full upon us and the menu may have changed. But fear not, many of the items are variants of regular a la carte offerings.
Since we’ve expressed our pleasure with Roy’s to friends, several have advised us that Roy’s “Aloha” Happy Hour (when the price of appetizers and drinks goes down to $6) is not to be missed. And now that Alan’s truly retired, we won’t!
641 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
Full bar/Major cards