Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fit for a King

Welcome to my 50th blog entry!   For my 50th, I really wanted to capture something extra special.  Something more than just a good restaurant or good cuisine.  I wanted something with a history and legacy in Hawaii.   Something that transcends all of the various cuisines in our heritage.   Something so extraordinary that it has become iconic of epicurian luxury.   So I decided to visit arguably the premier restraurant in Hawaii, John Dominis.

Firstly, you have to understand that I am a child of the '80s.   The '80s were the era when big business and economic success were paramount ideals.  Reaganomics were in full swing.  Michael Douglas had expounded on how "Greed is good" in the award winning film, Wall Street.   Michael J. Fox was an icon on the small screen as the money crazed Republican, Alex P. Keaton.    Everyone had dollar signs in their eyes for pupils.  We were all obsessed with achieving the posh, decadent, luxurious life characterized by sitting in the back of limousines, wearing fur and Armani suits, nibbling on champagne and caviar.   The dot com bubble had not yet burst.   No one ever foresaw an economic recession.   The fear and cautious worldview of the post 9/11 world were non-exisitent.

So as I was growing up in this era of rampant capitalism and fairly lucrid times, dining at John Dominis to me was like the symbol of success and luxury.   They were the Cadillac of restaurants.  They were the Donald Trump.  They were the caviar and the oyster (quite literally in fact).    They were the symbol of the chic, the haute, and the elite all rolled into one.   They were THE fine dining option for birthdays, anniversaries, and all other major milestones.   And for a young impressionable boy with dreams of ruling the world, they were the ultimate expression of oppulence and wealth.  Since that time, I've been exposed to a lot more of the world, both extravagant and humble.   I've found many other fine dining restaurants, some of which are actually much pricier than dining at John Dominis.  Chefs have become celebrities in the own right, and haute cuisine has become much more accessible to a lot of us.   But the image of John Dominis, remains in my mind.    The image of success and class and luxury persist in my mind.

So who was John Dominis actually?  Well, the original John Dominis was a sea captain, who frequently sailed from America to Asia and stopped in Hawaii during King Kamehameha III's era along the way.  But the restaurant is not named after him.   His son, John Owen Dominis was actually the husband of Queen Liliuokalani (which made him a prince consort), and an extremely influential man in Hawaiian monarchy.  But the restaurant is not named after him either.    It was actually named after John Dominis Anderson, who was the father of the well known politician, Andy Anderson, who actually founded the restaurant (and who ironically isn't Republican at all, but a Democrat).   But the Andersons and the Dominis' were close friends and John Dominis Anderson was named for both families.  The legacy of John Dominis as a restaurant is just as influential as that of its namesakes, celebrating 30 years in Hawaii.

I have never understood how such a beautiful restaurant could have been created in such a non-descript and industrial area.  It's really odd how to get there you must bypass what I think are defunct shipyards and fish packing warehouses.   At night the area is cat central, with the majority of Oahu's strays congregating en masse.   But beyond that is the beautiful Kakaako Waterfront Park.   I always have trouble giving my out of town friends directions to get there, because you're essentially heading into Kakaako Park and making a left turn on some nondescript street.   In this sense, I guess John Dominis is like another icon of fine dining, Tavern on the Green, in New York's Central Park.   

Stairs at John Dominis
For me, any evening at John Dominis must begin by watching the sunset at Kakaako Park.  There is a perfect corner, where you can sit and look one way and see the sun setting, and turn the other way and have a perfect view Diamond Head and the lights of Waikiki just lighting up.   Once inside, you cross the stairs over their indoor waterway, teaming with local fish.  My parents love to tell the story about how when I was a little boy (maybe around 5 years old), I stood at the top of those stairs and proclaimed to the whole restaurant at the top of my lungs, "I want to eat a stingray"  (or lobster depending on the teller).   The whole dining room has all these beautiful green vines dangling from the ceiling, and they have the most fantastic view of Waikiki and the ocean beyond. 

The Royal Platter (for 2) at John Dominis
You can actually enjoy a great meal at John Dominis for about $30 - $40 per person (much cheaper than going to some steakhouses on the island).   However, my favorite thing there is something so extravagant that they've even taken it off the menu.   But if you know about it, and you order it ahead of time, they're perfectly happy to make it for you.   It's basically the equivalent of John Dominis' mixed plate, a sampler of the best things on the menu, appropriately called the "Royal Platter".    It is pretty pricey, at $75 per person for 2 people, but if you can afford to splurge, it's so worth it.

One Serving of the Royal Platter at John Dominis
The most unique thing about the royal platter is the presentation.   They've got incredibly smooth mashed (actually whipped) potatoes separating each of the entrees like a very fancy bento box.  They bake the plates, so that the potatoes have a beautiful browned crispy crust over them.   It's one of the little touches that just makes everything taste so good.

Oyster Rockafeller on the Royal Platter at John Dominis
First up on the plate, and one of my favorite things, is the oyster rockafeller.   The thing I dislike about most places that cook oysters, is that they overcook them, and the once plump juicy oyster has shrivled into a little raisin.   But at John Dominis, the oyster is plump and unabashedly briney.  It's got the full on oyster flavor.  So much so, that the cheese and spinach (which can sometimes overpower the oyster taste) have also imbued the oyster flavor.  

Filet Mignon on the Royal Platter at John Dominis
John Dominis is a seafood place, not a steak place.   Yet the perfectly cooked medium rare filet mignon is remarkably tender.   You can really taste the beef on this steak.

Sauteed Mahi Mahi on the Royal Platter at John Dominis
As a seafood restaurant, the sauteed mahi mahi is second to none.   It's got a moist, tender texture.   The flavor of the fish is perfectly balanced with the sauce its simmered in.

Macadamia Nut Crusted Veal Piccata on the Royal Platter at John Dominis
When I was little, I absolutely adored their macadamia nut crusted veal piccata.  I never really cared for the little capers on it.  They were too tart for a little kid.   But as I grew older, the little buds really brought out the lighter taste of the veal.  As you would expect from veal, it is unbelievably tender and incredibly tasty.

Lobster Thermidore on the Royal Platter at John Dominis
But the best thing on the platter (except for maybe the oyster), is lobster thermidore.   In other places where you order it, they've got tiny little chunks of lobster and they let the sauce do all of the talking.   At John Dominis, you've got huge pieces of very succulent lobster, an entire tail probably.  The sauce is incredibly rich and creamy.   But it accentuates, and does not overpower, the taste of the lobster itself.  This is perhaps the finest dish at John Dominis and worth it all by itself. 

My wife really likes the mud pies at John Dominis as well.   It's got a really fantastic thick oreo cookie crust, and all the dark chocolately flavors come out.   Once when we were dating, and we wanted something special (but of course I couldn't afford it at the time), we went to John Dominis just for desert.   We sat in the lounge and shared a piece of mud pie.   It was so special just in and of itself.   But of course, who can eat mud pie after indulging in that enormous royal platter.

Througout the years, even after visiting other fancy steakhouses, celebrity chefs creating Hawaii regional cuisine, and other very nice fine dining restaurants opening, John Dominis has always persisted in my mind as the creme de la creme of all restaurants in Hawaii.   But it isn't the '80s anymore.   And after struggling through an economic recesssion, visiting a exclusive restaurant is not exactly on everyone's agenda.   Maybe it's because John Dominis is perceived as so luxurious that their tables aren't always filled.   Maybe the image of being an exclusive place for celebrations has, in time, worked against them.  Maybe they seem too extravagant or too inaccessible for these tough and lean times.  But sadly, John Dominis, like so many other Hawaii institutions, has sold its lease, and will be closing at the end of March 2010.   After 30 years of feeding us like royalty, John Dominis will only be happy memory as well.    So, when we found out, my wife and I had to go, on our 18th anniversary, one more time.  Just to enjoy and to remember.

There is really no better way to celebrate the success of my blog, than with a visit to John Dominis.  They were, and are for a little longer, the epitome of fine cuisine in Hawaii, the very best we had to offer.

1 comment:

  1. Love John Dominis. And you and your wife look tight in that photo. Invite me the next time.