"Aloha," says the hostess who pulls open the door.
"Aloha," says the busboy who fills your water glasses even before you sit down.
If you haven't figured out where you are by now, let me give you a few more hints: The ukulele. The lei. The luau.
Yes, we're at Roy's, the latest outpost from Hawaiian superchef Roy Yamaguchi. Only we're not on the Big Island but in the Mouse's Mouth -- Boca Raton, that is. We are also in a restaurant that is attached to a Holiday Inn, hardly the resort property one might expect, given that the first Roy's opened on a much more glamorous Honolulu property in 1988. Nor is the interior, though exceptionally striking, what one might expect. It appears almost formulaic, with lots of coral paint on the walls, a black wood-beamed ceiling, and banquettes of varying colors (meant to represent the textures and patterns of kimono silk).
Nevertheless, the place is unmistakably Roy's, which you'll know immediately from both the copyrighted sign and the tantalizing smell of mesquite-wood smoke drifting from the eatery. In front of the exhibition kitchen, a gigantic spray of tropical flowers vies with a display of Yamaguchi's cookbook, Roy's Feasts from Hawaii. But if you weren't sure even after all the clues, any trace of uncertainty will be erased after the waitress gets to you. "Aloha," she says (naturally). "Welcome to Roy's®. This is our 22nd restaurant." And yes, you can hear the registered trademark in her voice.
Therein lies the rub. I can understand why both the staff and Yamaguchi himself are proud of the trail of restaurants they have blazed across the mainland. Roy Yamaguchi pioneered New Hawaiian cooking, or what he calls Euro-Asian cuisine, much the way our own Mark Militello, Allen Susser, and Norman Van Aken brought our attention to New World and Caribbean fusion flavors. Yamaguchi was the first chef from Hawaii to win a James Beard Award. He hosts a PBS cooking show. He is, by all accounts, a really nice guy -- two forks up for that small blessing, pleasant people being such a rarity in this business.
He has also marketed himself as successfully as has Wolfgang Puck. In 1999 Roy's partnered with Outback Steakhouse, Inc., which operates more than 550 steak houses and 60-odd Carrabba's Italian Grills in 47 states and 11 countries, to take Roy's worldwide. Thus any pleasure derived from scoring a table at one of the newest, most popular places in town could be diminished by the realization that, from New York City to Tokyo, thousands of people are simultaneously forking down "Roy's® "Original' Blackened Island Ahi Tuna" with mustard/ soy/butter sauce.
Does the unuttered word chain have any effect on the Roy's dining experience? Yes and no. The menu is a mess of corporate confusion, with so many chefs and partners/managers given props on the pages that it's tough to tell who is ultimately responsible for your dining pleasure: "Roy's® Boca Raton Executive Chef/Partner" Edgar Theisen? "Roy's® Boca Raton Managing Partner" Richard Archer? Sous chef Peterlane Gampong? Managers Chris Auld and Chad Phillips? Just to add to the melee, check out the Website (www.roysrestaurant.com) to be introduced to even more major players.
The upside of supping at the umpteenth Roy's comes in the form of service, which is absolutely, even rigidly, correct -- but not stiff. Our waitress felt comfortable enough to tease me when, having overheard that I'm not fond of mussels, she found a shell from our Stonington Maine mussels appetizer on my plate. (In the end I couldn't resist the plump little morsels, baked with a topping of garlic, herbs, and bread crumbs.) Yet she never crossed the boundary from professional to personal -- I don't know her name, her career aspirations, or details about her family, all the sorts of things servers around these parts are way too eager to share.
In addition diners can be secure in the knowledge that all fare is cooked on the premises (unless Yamaguchi begins packaging the spicy soy-mustard beurre blanc that he serves with that beautifully seared and perfectly rare ahi, a sauce that is a robust and wonderful study in contradictions). Some of the items are Roy's signature dishes, the most popular ones from the original restaurant; these are menu mainstays. Others are Theisen and company's daily creations; the Maine mussels might come one evening with a topping similar to the one I tasted, or they might come with a nage of Chablis and tomatoes. Regardless, rest assured that everything will be fresh and expertly prepared.
If you think that Maine mussels are hardly Hawaiian, you're right. But Roy's promises not to be so islandcentric that it is insular; the menu states that, in all of the restaurants, patrons will be tempted by "the freshest, most honestly grown produce [and products] found regionally." That also explains the Maryland blue crab that shows up as an inventive salad. The crab had been stuffed, along with Boursin cheese, into kataifi, a fried shell of shredded dough, and placed over a bed of greens. Unusual, yes, but also delicious.
You can order the crab as cakes, too, which sounded mundane but turned out to be a pair of crisp disks with an interior as fluffy as a feather pillow. (In Hawaii these cakes are made with native Kona crabs.) An accompanying sesame beurre blanc attests to Yamaguchi's Culinary Institute of America training, where he studied classical French techniques. These sauces and methods of preparation, combined with Hawaii's native bounty and ethnic Polynesian and Asian influences, form the cornerstone of Yamaguchi and crew's recipe-building.
Indeed the beurre blanc, or white butter sauce, shows up as a foundation time and again, garnishing entrées that range from shutome (a billfish caught in tropical waters) to grilled or braised short ribs. Note that any appetizer or main course featuring the white butter sauce will maintain a richness that could make it impossible to finish a complete serving. If that sounds like a bit much, turn to lighter items like the butterfish, a flaky but sturdy whitefish pan-fried and dressed with a brothy toasted sesame¯nori vinaigrette.
The impact of some of Roy's more vibrantly flavored dishes will depend on personal preference. Parmesan-crusted lamb shank required a swim in the red wine reduction that surrounded it in order to moisten it, and the headiness of the sauce almost overwhelmed the lamb. But if you like strength matched to strength, this dish will become one of your favorites -- as will a hearty, thyme-laced kabocha pumpkin soup, garnished with caviar and Chantilly cream, and barbecued baby-back ribs exuding Szechuan peppiness.
Know going in, too, that the menu lists a lot of curry dishes. How these curries are constructed depends on what country inspired them. The Indonesian curry sauce napping the lobsterlike, fire-roasted giant shrimp and mahi-mahi fillet had a silky, muted quality. We found this curry preferable to the spice mixture that spiked the tempura vegetables, a shredded, somewhat greasy side dish that detracted from the pleasures of the main attraction, Chinese-style roasted duck. We also didn't care for an appetizer of wild mushroom¯stuffed dumplings. Though we had no argument with the delicate, translucent rice-paper skin or earthy filling, the sauce exuded a bitter flavor, attributable to an infusion of star anise.
Roy's desserts include a warm chocolate soufflé that takes about 20 minutes to bake, so the server will ask you -- several times -- to order it during the meal. This sweet was hawked so thoroughly we were actually turned off, going instead for a delightful sponge cake concoction with fresh fruit filling and chocolate. In his book Yamaguchi cautions "not [to] underestimate the impression a wonderful dessert can make. After all, it's the parting indulgence you can offer your guests, and who doesn't enjoy a creamy, rich, delicious finale to a meal?" He has clearly taken his own advice.
Roy's doesn't skimp on the wine list either, offering a terrific selection of wines that were purposefully chosen to complement the vino-tricky Asian flavors. We particularly enjoyed the inclusion of a Bandol rosé, a wine with such a dry finish it almost evaporates on the palate. Roy's may indeed be a chain with all the loss of cachet that implies, but it hasn't discarded any of its intentions, skimped on quality, or shed one iota of its promise.