We begin our Hopping the Hawaiian Islands series which details our recent trip to Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (aka the Big Island), and Kauai. The series will pretty much go in chronological order, starting with the first island we visited: Oahu
My first sighting of Oahu - the view was so stunning I almost gasped out loud (and yes, this is just a straight up iPhone pic!)
I must confess. We didn't really spend that much time in Oahu.
It was basically our first time in the Hawaiian Islands, and more than one person advised us to skip Oahu if we wanted to squeeze the entire vacation into two weeks. Since our trip was more focused around diving, we opted to focus more on some of the other islands. Still, squeezing three islands in two weeks is pretty aggressive, and in retrospect, I'm not sure if I would advise it (though we did get a good sense of all the islands by the end of the two weeks).
Bryan had used his system-wide upgrades on American Airlines to book us a round trip ticket to Hawaii. I knew that we would be flying in and out of Honolulu. Because most inter-island flights occur in the afternoon, our arrival into Honolulu around dinnertime meant that we would need to stay one night in Oahu before flying out to Maui the next day.
We figured we would have dinner after our plane landed, spend the morning at Waikiki Beach, and then head out to our flight the next afternoon.
Making Sand Totoros on Waikiki Beach as part of my #Totoro100Days Challenge
One night in Honolulu . . . . where to go?
We had originally booked Alan Wong's, a popular, highly-rated Asian-influenced Hawaiian high-end restaurant. However, the night before our flight out of Boston, one of our friends found out we were going to Honolulu and said, "you must try La Mer . . . the food and service are absolutely fantastic. And there's this one table that has the perfect view of the ocean and Diamond Head in the background. The sunset is incredible. Their service is unparalleled."
Amuse Bouche from La Mer: Asparagus panna cotta, asparagus vichyssoise, smoked salmon
Indeed, La Mer has won numerous accolades. It's the longest consecutively named AAA 5 Diamond Restaurant in the state. It's the only restaurant in Hawaii that has a five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide. It's listed at the top of most "best of" lists. The restaurant says that the food is "[l]ocal Hawaiian ingredients cooked with Southern French style."
Our friend offered to call the restaurant to see if we could reserve the special corner seats facing Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach. How could we say no?
Alas, we soon learned that it's hard to book that coveted seat last minute. Those seats were already reserved during the sunset hours, but they might open up around 8:30PM if we were willing to wait? We decided to keep the reservation, curious to see what this place was all about.
Upon arrival, we learned that La Mer is one of the very few (if not only) restaurants in Honolulu that requires a jacket. Bryan had brought mostly casual clothing, with just one pair of "khaki" (ahem, hiking) pants. Thankfully, the restaurant was happy to provide a jacket, which he only had to wear while walking around. Though we didn't get the "special" seats (we had decided we wanted to eat earlier and not wait until 8:30pm), our seats did face an open balcony which overlooked a live Hawaiian ukelele and vocal performance down below, a nice touch that added to the island feel of the whole experience.
There is a seven-course chef's tasting menu ("Menu Dégustation") which costs $195. If you want to dine a la carte, you can opt for the three course ($110) or four course ($145) option. There are various add-ons which can quickly add up, such as caviar (anywhere from $160 to $280!!), adding shaved black truffles ($32), or the wine pairing ($95).
I was not particularly drawn to the items on the Menu Dégustation that day. Instead, we decided to each do the four-course tasting. If we ordered completely different dishes and tried each others' dishes, we would actually get to try more courses (it's like an 8-course tasting!) for less total cost. Plus, we would have some choice over what we wanted to eat.
My first course was the Smoked Salmon Lacquered with Leek Pureé. Each piece of half moon shaped smoked salmon was topped with a layer of leek gelatin and topped with aromatic herbs. On the side, two perfectly poached Quail eggs were topped with creamy sea urchin (uni), white asparagus, and baby leeks. The entire dish was finished with baby mushrooms and lemon oil.
Overall I thought the dish was nicely executed. The plating was beautiful, the smoked salmon was flavorful, and the quail eggs were nice and runny. The flavors did not necessarily excite me, but overall it was reasonably enjoyable.
Bryan's first course was the Chilled Dungeness Crab, which was served with aerated apple purée and topped with a variety of fine herbs and edible flowers. The dish was surprisingly creamy, fruity, light, and sweet. It tasted almost more like a dessert than a savory course. In fact, the sweet, fruity flavors overpowered the crab flavors, and we didn't get much crab in the dish.
My second course was the Morel Gnocchi, which came with a medley of mushrooms and shaved Parmesan. It was presented with morel cream poured tableside. The gnocchi unusual in that it consisted of one very thick flat sheet of pasta on the bottom. The mushrooms were piled on top of the sheet and you would cut pieces off with your knife. The dish had rich umami and overall nice flavors. I personally thought it was a bit rich but Bryan really liked it.
Bryan's second course was the Poached Lobster with "Albufera Sauce", a truffle foie gras cream sauce, and optionally shaved black truffles ($32 add-on cost). The lobsters are actually the same breed as the lobsters from Maine, but they are raised in tanks in Hawaii since the ocean water in Hawaii is too warm for the lobsters. The lobsters were tasty though I personally found the truffle foie gras cream sauce to be a bit too rich for my tastes (I think I have a bias against creamy sauces!). Bryan, who loves foie gras and cream sauces, thought it was delicious.The nutty black truffles were a nice addition, but they were not super fragrant so I'm not sure if they are worth the extra cost.
My favorite course by far was my third course, Abalone Meuniere served with a mix of a vivid green parsley sauce, garlic cream, and caramelized onions and topped with crispy chips. I have always loved abalone, and this abalone was beautifully sweet and had just the right amount of chewiness. The sauces were bright and flavorful, matching perfectly with the abalone. The textural crunch from the chips was a nice addition as well.
Bryan got the Red Wine Braised Pork Cheeks, served in their own jus along with poached baby root veggies and crispy prosciutto. The pork cheeks were quite tender and overall the dish was solid. I ate a lot less of it because I was enjoying my abalone so much, and Bryan was kind enough to let me eat most of it, even though we were supposed to be sharing!
We had two desserts as part of our four-course tasting. We decided that one of us would order the Tasting of Cheese, while the other would order a sweet dessert. They were kind enough to bring them out as two separate courses.
As part of the tasting, you can choose to try as little or as many of the cheeses as you want. Since Bryan has "never met a cheese I didn't like", he was intrigued by every single one, even the stinky ones. We ended up asking for a little sliver of each one, which was really fun. As you can see by the photo, we got much more than a sliver (they were kind enough to give us two pieces of each even though it was technically just one person's single course). The cheeses, most of which were from either England or France, were delicious and it was fun to try the variety.
For our sweet dessert, we ordered a souffle, which takes a bit of time to prepare.
I sort of have a weak spot for souffles - I absolutely love a good one, and this one was fantastic. It was simple but executed flawlessly. I loved the airy light yet exterior and decadently creamy interior.
When they had asked us earlier if we were celebrating anything, Bryan off-handedly mentioned that it was my birthday a couple weeks ago. After our souffle dessert, they brought out a tiny little cake with a candle for me to blow out.It was a sweet gesture and we really appreciated it. We both were so full at this point, though, that we weren't able to eat much of this raspberry matcha layered cake. We both found it a bit too sweet and dense, especially after the ethereal and light souffle.
We had a few little mignardises to finish off the meal.
As a parting gift, they gave us a little bag of dark chocolate covered macadamia nuts. These were really good - made with high quality dark chocolate ever so slightly dusted with powdered sugar. It was much better than the supermarket varieties that I picked up later on as souvenirs.General Thoughts
I can understand why La Mer has garnered so many awards. Food is executed at a very high level. The service was excellent, and the location and views are really, really nice. For me, the standouts were the abalone and the souffle. I was less blown away by other dishes, though by no means were any of the dishes bad. I just think I have a proclivity towards preferring lighter foods, so rich, heavy cream sauces are not usually my favorite thing. They seem to like that here (which works fine for Bryan!).The dress code is slightly annoying, considering that virtually no restaurants in Hawaii have it. I guess it does set them apart, elevating the dining room to a fancier ambiance. Personally, as a traveler, I prefer not to have to bring extra clothing that I don't need (especially a jacket to a warm place like Hawaii). Thankfully, they will provide a jacket and were perfectly happy to let Bryan in even though he was wearing a short sleeved collared polo shirt and hiking khakis (!). They were super nice about it, and never once did we feel any "lesser" because we were slightly underdressed.
All in all, a place like La Mer most certainly has its place in Honolulu. It's a place you bring someone if you want to wow them. I have a suspicion (though I'm not positive), that my friend who had that amazing experience there was actually celebrating something really special (perhaps he was proposing??!). For something like that, this is perfect. The views are phenomenal; the staff was willing to bend over backwards to accommodate his very specific needs (I think fresh roses were involved); and the end result was amazing. On the other hand, if you're a normal tourist who doesn't necessarily need the sophisticated atmosphere and are just looking for really, really good food, there are probably plenty of other options that cost a bit less, have just as good food, and don't require things like jackets and such.
This post is part of a larger series on our two week trip to Hawaii. Other posts in this series!
La Mer Honolulu
2199 Kalia Rd Honolulu, HI 96815