Thursday, July 23, 2009

Steak at the beachhouse, and faux kukui nut leis

Pretending it's June 21

Steakhouses don’t tend to be hotbeds of innovation, not because their chefs and owners lack creativity, but because, for the most part, their guests don’t want them to be innovative. When you go to a steakhouse, generally, you go to eat a steak. It should be delicious. The wine should be red and loud, because a steak can handle it. The chef should cook the steak properly and otherwise stay out of the way.
Since my job is to spot trends and to observe innovations, steakhouses are not usually useful places for me to go for work. Unless it's using some new cut of beef or serving it on Himalayan rock salt (like David Burke does) or getting unusually funky with the sides (BLT), there’s not a lot to learn, trendwise, from a steakhouse.
So I wondered why I had been booked to eat at the Beachhouse, the Moana Surfrider’s restaurant. I mean, I didn’t resent it. I like steak, I like eating on the beach in Waikiki, letting my mind empty itself of troubles while watching the sunset. That’s all right. But this is my job, after all. I must learn while I dine.
I did learn that I was wearing a faux kukui nut lei. Kukui is what Hawaiians call candle nuts — just like they call passion fruit lilikoi and have to say “mahalo” instead of thank you and “aloha” instead of hello or goodbye. They polish the nuts and string them together into leis. I got one a few years ago when I was on Mau‘i and staying at the Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel, as a guest of that island’s visitors bureau, so I thought something was amiss when I was handed one at the Royal Hawaiian and it didn’t weigh anything. Because kukui nuts have some heft.
I wasn’t sure it was okay for me to wear a lei. Did Hawaiians actually do it, or would I look like a touristy idiot?
I’d actually asked my taxi driver about it the night before on the way to dinner at Chef Mavro (yes, I have a rented car, and I already knew how to get there even without the GPS, but I planned on having wine with dinner, and it is bad form for food writers to get DUIs). He was a Vietnamese fellow who had been in Hawaii for a number of years. He said leis made of kukui nuts or seashells were sort of like neckties, to be worn by men as a way of dressing up.
Flower leis were for women, he said.
But in Mau‘i I had been greeted on my arrival with a nice-smelling tuberose lei.
“Welcome to Mau‘i. Please sign here to confirm that you have received your lei greeting,” said the woman who draped it around my neck, proffering her clipboard. It kind of dampened the effect, but I appreciated the gesture anyway.
I won’t say I was disappointed that I wasn’t adorned with a nice smelling lei when I arrived in O‘ahu, because that’s really looking a gift horse in the mouth, but, well, here I am mentioning it.
The Mau‘i bureau also rented me a Mustang convertible. It was a different economic time, I know, I’m just saying.
Anyway, I had my faux-kukui nut lei in my pocket in the taxi on the way to Chef Mavro. When the taxi driver said it was okay to wear, I put it on. I asked my dining companion, Mavro’s wife Donna, if it was okay to wear, and she confirmed that it was in fact a good accessory.
My server at the Beachhouse also said it was fine for me to wear it, but asked if perhaps those were faux kukui nuts.
I shrugged my shoulders. He reached out and touched them for less than a second and said, very politely, mind you, “Yeah, those are fake.”
And there was something interesting and trendy at Beachhouse: the wine list.
They’d just revamped it, clearly with the economy in mind, offering bottles to people who might want some wine with their steak but not if they were going to have to sell a kidney to pay for a bottle.
One way to do that is to stack the list with what people in the wine business call "fighting varietals,” wines that are just a step or two pricewise from jug wines and make up the bulk of the wine market. Often they’re brands big enough to advertise on television. You’ve heard of them all, and so has everyone else, and so they have a certain appeal for people who want wine without fussing about it. I think there should be more wines like that.
But instead the folks at Beachhouse stacked their list with relatively obscure wines that, because of their obscurity, aren’t in such high demand and so they can buy them cheaply. I asked them to pick a couple with the food I ate, so I had a 2007 Domaine la Bauvade Côtes du Rhône (a red one), with my Kona lobster bisque with crème fraîche and green onion crouton.
And with my Moyer Farms 20-ounce rib eye, I had a 2006 (red, obviously) Clos la Coutale from Cahors, in Southwestern France.
I also had a Mau‘i onion and hamakua mushroom sauté that wasn’t your typical steakhouse fair either.
I hadn’t expected that.

To view all the blog entries about my trip to O‘ahu, click here.


Anonymous said...

Never would I think that you would have fake kukui nuts

Deepak Bista said...

Interesting article.