That's a Hawaiian term that translates as "the family and aloha spirit," says Alex Fabrigas, the general manager of Roy's Cherry Creek. But when Fabrigas left a Hawaii Roy's to bring us this new restaurant in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, he didn't just bring ohana with him -- he also brought fabulous food, matched by incredible service.
"I know a lot of restaurants, especially the ones that are franchised, pay lip service to the idea of being there for the customer and of truly serving the customer," he says, "but it's always been made very clear here from the owners on down that we are serious about it."
Roy's Cherry Creek
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (limited menu 2-5:30 p.m.)
That quickly becomes clear to diners, too.
The Roy behind Roy's is Roy Yamaguchi, a highly regarded chef who opened his first Roy's Restaurant in Honolulu in 1988; by then, he'd already owned the successful 385 North in Hollywood, where he introduced the California-French-Japanese cooking style for which he's since become internationally famous. A combination of experiences inspired that cuisine: Although Yamaguchi was born in Tokyo, his father had been raised on Maui, and Yamaguchi himself spent quite a bit of time in Hawaii while he was growing up. He graduated from the Hyde Park-based Culinary Institute of America in 1976, then went on to work in several well-known French restaurants in California before starting his own place. Today six Roy's, including the one in Denver, are owned by Yamaguchi and a small group of partners that numbers among its ranks renowned wine buyer Randy Caparosa, who oversees the wine lists of the entire Roy's lineup. The other Roy's, sixteen of them, are franchises. (We got lucky -- from here on out, all new Roy's will be owned jointly by Yamaguchi's group and Outback Steakhouse Inc.)
Fabrigas wasn't the only Hawaiian import involved in bringing Roy's to Denver. Executive chef Tom Hope is also from the fiftieth state (he came here via Chicago); Hope answers to David Abella, the uber chef who's responsible for Roy's innovative menu. Although Abella has been in town since Roy's Cherry Creek opened at the end of last year, he's scheduled to depart soon. So the big question is whether the high level of Roy's food will go with him.
It's hard to imagine that the food could be any better. Although Roy's offers some unusual fare -- no fried calamari here -- what's even rarer is the kitchen's approach to cooking: The main elements of each dish are left almost alone, keeping flavors pure; the rest of the dish is all about the sauce. I counted two dozen sauces on the intriguing menu, many of them different combinations of the same ingredients that were tailored to bring out specific characteristics of the dish's primary component.
The blackened rare ahi appetizer ($8.95), for example, brought eight slices of ahi stacked on their sides like dominoes, with most of the pieces barely touching the spicy soy mustard butter sauce pooled on the plate. That way, we could enjoy our tuna unadorned, or slap it in a sauce that had a mustardy, peppery bite, with just enough butter to enrich the concoction. An order of island-style pot stickers ($7.50) delivered six bundles filled with sweetly seasoned ground shrimp; they came sitting atop a peanut sauce strewn with fresh basil. Although here you couldn't avoid the sauce, it was a refreshing change from the icing-like peanut goo you find at many Thai eateries: less sweet, and much thinner.
Both of those starters were from the left side of the menu, which lists "dim sum-style" dishes along with about twenty mainstays of Roy's repertoire; more than two dozen more dishes change daily. For our entrees, we picked one standard and one special. With the latter, we netted the macadamia nut monchong ($22.95), a fish I'd never encountered in Denver, but had tasted before as "pomfret." Under either moniker, it's a beautiful black fish found off the coast of Hawaii that doesn't get a lot of use in the States because it's usually caught by accident in tuna hauls (a "by-catch," in fishing parlance). The monchong deserves more respect, since its high oil content makes the moderately flavored flesh hold up well under high-heat methods (much like salmon). Roy's encased the monchong in chopped macadamias, then sautéed it until the nuts had browned slightly and the flesh inside steamed to a perfect medium-rare. Delicious on its own, the fish got an extra boost from a Kona lobster butter reduction that was so strong with lobster flavor that it tasted as though the crustacean had been boiled in a big vat of butter. This was one special that deserved the title. Our standard entree, however, was anything but: The roasted duck ($18.95) coated juicy, tender medallions of the bird with another fabulous sauce, a cabernet-based liquid enhanced with star anise. The result was a rich, licorice-kissed flavor that played off the duck's sweetness and also went well with a mound of mashed potatoes that contained teeny chunky bits of unmashed spud, as well as just enough scallion.
As he'd set down those exquisite entrees, our ever-efficient server had informed us the dessert list included two items that required twenty minutes of cooking: a chocolate soufflé ($6.50) and a baked fruit crisp ($6.50); we ordered both. The soufflé turned out to be a heavenly cup of velvety chocolate soufflé with a warm, runny chocolate center; that night's crisp, essentially a thin cobbler, was strawberry-rhubarb and displayed a flawless balance of sweet and tart. We washed it down with another excellent balancing act: Roy's slightly nutty, even less slightly fruity champagne, which is bottled for the chain by Iron Horse in California as a limited-edition late- distilled blanc de blanc. (In fact, all of Roy's label wines, including the German Riesling, are made special by top wineries.)
During our perfectly paced meal, we had ample opportunity to appreciate what Roy's had done with the place, a space once occupied by the Rattlesnake Grill. In order to expand the dining area -- and add much-needed breathing room to the see-and-be-seen table arrangement -- Roy's moved the bar to the front of the restaurant. The lighting was also lowered, via light fixtures that look like honey-colored strips of bacon.
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But on our next visit, a gorgeous, warm Friday night, we eschewed artificial lighting altogether and moved our meal to the patio. Initially, we'd worried that the constant valet action and mall patrons would be annoying, but instead we found it very soothing to eat under the stars. Roy's pacing, while not as impeccable as it had been on a weeknight, was still impressive, and helped make our meal very relaxing.
And that was miraculous, since I was with my children. But Roy's staffers took my party in stride, cheerfully proffering crayons and a menu to color. While not as adventurous as the adult menu, the offerings on this junior version were just fine. Ten bucks each snagged my kids a four-course meal, starting with cheese-filled quesadilla triangles garnished with carrot curls; then apples, celery and carrots cut into interesting shapes and artfully arranged, with ranch dressing for dipping; an entree of either penne with tomato or parmesan butter sauce or Asian barbecued chicken; all followed by a simple chocolate sundae -- with a less-than-simple chocolate sauce.
My much more adult meal began with the escargot cassoulet ($6.75) of tender snails and mushrooms in a pancetta-flavored, cabernet-spiked gravy. From there, I moved on to the fresh tomato soup ($3.95), so thick it would have worked on pasta and nicely garnished with big blobs of gorgonzola. My entree of soy-charred scallops ($24.95) consisted of four large specimens on a skewer, sitting atop a mound of rice surrounded by a sea of scallion-packed vinaigrette garnished with tobiko caviar -- one pile wasabe-kissed, the other left wondrously plain. At once salty and spicy, sweet and savory, this dish balanced perfectly on the Pacific Rim.
In fact, everything about Roy's evinces that same extraordinary balancing act. Ohana, indeed.