Sunday, November 22, 2009

Brunch and the Beach

When my friend came from living in New York for many years, she had asked me one day where we could go to get brunch.   Being the middle of the week, I thought she was being a little extravagant for a weekday meal.  After a little discussion, I realized that brunch in New York was a little more commonplace than the extravagant Sunday brunch buffets that we're accustomed to here in the islands.   In New York, brunch was also an everyday casual meal eaten in a cafe or bistro that wasn't necessarily a huge buffet.   It was simply mid-morning and crossed the barriers between breakfast and lunch items, finding a niche of its own dishes.   Not being really big here, we opted for a dim sum brunch that was just what she was hoping for.

While we don't really have a lot of restaurants that specifically carry a casual brunch menu, I really do enjoy the big brunch buffets that are all over the island, primarily for special occasions.  I like throwing on some nice aloha attire, but something a little more colorful and breezy than the type of aloha shirts that we typically wear to work.  I like matching my aloha shirts with my son, and of course I love seeing my wife in a holoku.  I like all of the variety that we have in our buffets, with influences from around the world, including cheese platters from France, dim sum from China, sashimi and tempura from Japan, good ol' American bacon and eggs, our beloved Hawaiian food, and so much more.  I like relaxing afterwards and walking along the beach to digest.  Somehow eating a big buffet in the mid morning, gives you a lot more time to digest than at dinner time when you're probably going to drop off to sleep soon afterwards.     With all of our fancy hotels in Waikiki, there is no shortage of good places for a Sunday brunch buffet.   They may not exactly be cheap, but it's a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday. 

There are a few brunch buffets that stand out in my mind than others.  Of course, I love visiting the Willows.  You can't beat them for greenery, Hawaiian music, and Hawaiian food.  I adore the Prince Court in the Hawaii Prince Hotel.  They may have one of the most elegant settings in Waikiki.  I really love going to Hoku's in the Kahala Resort (formerly the Kahala Hilton and then the Kahala Mandarin Oriental).   I distinctly remember going there for my Aunty's birthday one year, and they had these oysters that were sizzling in their own juices on the half shell over an open coal grill.  They were so plump and juicy, and the smell of the oysters was just carried in by the sea breeze.  They were fantastic.  And of course after you're done, you've just got to walk around the Kahala.   It's such a beautiful resort, that my best friend was married there on the beach.  I love their gorgeous rock stairwell that is completely covered in all different types of blooming orchids.  There's one orchid there that smells exactly like chocolate!  I love the waterfall that they've got right outside Hoku's.   I love walking their own private strip of Kahala beach, just about the perfect beach.   I love flopping down in their rope hammock and listening to the surf wash ashore.  But most of all, I adore the 4 dolphins they have in their lagoon.  My wife and I used to take moonlit walks on Kahala beach, just to come visit the dolphins at the Kahala, and do some snuggling and stargazing in the hammock.   We love them so much, that on our 5th wedding anniversary we decided to forego eating at Hoku's entirely, and decided to just have a swim with Kolohe and Niele.  

Swimming with the Dolphins at the Kahala Resort
While I adore the Kahala Resort, there is one other buffet that we tend to patronize more than any other place for Sunday brunch.   That would have to be the Oceanarium restaurant in the Pacific Beach Hotel.  While I've got great memories at the Kahala, I have a ton at the Pac Beach as well.  Pac Beach is where I had my junior prom in high school (with the girl I had a crush on since I was 11).  Pac Beach is where we spent countless birthdays, Easters, and Mother's Days.  When my wife worked at This Week magazines, they would frequently give her bonuses in the form of credit at Pac Beach, so we would find ourselves taking guests to Oceanarium frequently as well.

The 3 Story Aquarium at the Pacific Beach Hotel
Of course, the most striking feature of the Pac Beach is their 3 story tall aquarium.  Growing up, my wife was neighbors with the family that owned and designed the tank at the Pac Beach.   Even when I was a little kid, I remember having dinner at the Pac Beach and staring endlessly at all of the fish in the tank.  Nowdays, I see my son doing the same thing, utterly fascinated with all of the fish in the aquarium.   Both of us particularly love the giant stingrays that they have, which glide so effortlessly and gracefully through the water.   My son also likes it when the puffer fish comes up to him, for it appears to have a built in smile on its lips.  He also loves watching the diver come by every hour to feed the fish.  Although I have never understood how so many of them like nibbling on lettuce, when lettuce obviously isn't part of their natural diet.

Fish Feeding in the Aquarium at the Pacific Beach Hotel
For as long as I could remember, the Pac Beach had 3 restaurants near the aquarium.  Diners at the Oceanarium could view the colorful reef fish at the bottom of the tank.   The middle of the tank created the illusion of the deep open ocean, more appropriate for the seafood lovers at Neptune to view larger fish wandering about.  The waterfall at the top of the tank was the perfect addition to the Japanese decor at Shogun Restaurant.    My wife always loved Shogun, because she likes to keep her food separate (something I found extremely funny that the TV character, Monk, has in common with her).  So she really appreciated a Japanese buffet that featured bento boxes with distinct chambers, something you don't find in many places.   Sadly, the Shogun closed a few years back, but at least the other two are still there to enjoy.

Out of all the restaurants there however, it is the Oceanarium that we tended to visit the most.   Not just because you could see more of the fish in the aquarium, but also because we really love the brunch buffet there.   Whenever I go, my first plate will inevitably be a plate with all the different types of cheeses they've got.  I love cheese, and having a spread of cheddar, swiss, jack, gouda, and brie is like heaven to me.   I always follow that up with a cold plate of all their fresh seafood items, poke, sashimi, oysters, mussels, and shrimp cocktail.  Admittedly, the oysters are nowhere near as plump as the ones I remember at Hoku's, and the sashimi is nowhere near the quality of a place like Yanagi Sushi, but they're decent and usually whet my appetite for everything else.   My favorite thing at Oceanarium will come next.   I love the made-to-order omelette station they have there.  I always have mine with some Portuguese sausage, bay shrimp, olives, mushrooms and cheese.  Now, I'm a pretty good hand at making omelettes myself (something I do every Mother's Day), but it's nice to have someone do it for me.   Plus they use a lot more buter in theirs than I do, so it's always more rich.   As far as eggs go, they also make a very good eggs benedict (or is it eggs florentine?).  Usually I don't like eggs benedict, because the hollandaise sauce usually makes the english muffin all soggy and when english muffins get soggy they get very chewy.   But the ones I've had at Ocenarium are always still pretty toasty and crisp.  They've also have a great mix of breakfast and lunch items, from bacon to coffee infused tenderloin to seafood pasta.   But if you're serious about getting the good stuff you head straight for the prime rib carving station or the snow crab legs.  My son really likes the snow crab legs, as long as his Goong Goong will sit there and shell it for him.  To top it all off, they've got a lot of nice desserts, but my favorite was always their hang yen tofu (or almond float).  A lot of places that make almond float make it too thin and watery, and rely on the fruit cocktail to give it flavor.   Other places I've had it make it kind of hard and there's almost an unpleasant crispness when you bite into it.   But the one at Oceanarium is almost (not quite) how my Po Po used to make it.   It's firm, like very firm finger jello (not the jiggly regular jello), but when you bite it, it instantly becomes very very creamy.   It has a yummy milky taste, similar to white rabbit candy.  It's just the thing to top of a great meal there. 

Sunday brunch may not be the casual everyday meal that my friend was thinking of, but it was also a great way to welcome her home, when I eventually took her.   Walking the beach in your Aloha shirt after enjoying a great Sunday brunch, may be the idyllic vision of Hawaii that everyone dreams of, but that only we get to enjoy.


  1. Ah, White Rabbit Candy. That's pretty good stuff. I also like the Oceanarium's Almond Float.

    It's kinda' odd eating bacon and eggs, then following that up with poke, sashimi and crab legs all in the same sitting, but with elaborate Brunch Buffets like the Oceanarium and Prince Court, that's the way it is. And heck, I ain't complaining! lol

    I think food-wise, The Prince Court is a little better, but you can't beat the entertainment value of the Aquarium at Oceanarium.

    I haven't been to Hoku's yet. Gotta' try.

    I heard the Pagoda has been going downhill lately. Just terrible food. Used to be pretty good.

    I see you're talking about sushi, which means RICE. Something I always avoid at a buffet are the starches. Gotta' save room for da' GOLD! Namely the prime rib, poke, sashimi and crab legs!

  2. as an ex-new yorker, I'd recommend Cafe Kaila, Eggs and Things, Boots & Kimo's, and Original Pancake House for brunchy stuff at home.