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Hawaii, uh-oh: Roy's Cherry Creek has experienced a sea change.
Mark Manger

Lunch at Roy's Cherry Creek was fantastic -- comfortable, cheery, leisurely, and deeply, profoundly satisfying. Over my long history of long lunches, rarely have I had a better one.

It helped that Roy's space, just to the right of the valet stand at Cherry Creek Shopping Center, was made for long lunches. The decor is that Tokyo-meets-Portland style of wood-grain and bare-metal minimalism -- nice, if a little generic these days. You can lounge at the bar or sit in the bright, polished, well-appointed dining room, where curved, pale-wood fixtures flow overhead like waves, and tables clothed in white are set a comfortable distance apart. At one on a weekday afternoon, Roy's had a buzz of good energy that infected me like a strong cup of coffee with a Prozac chaser. Everyone was smiling, customers and staff alike.

The hostess asked where I'd like to be seated and then cheerfully led me to the spot I'd requested, the best seat in the house: one of the six stools set before a counter at the end of the kitchen. This de facto chef's table offered a perfect view into the bustling, clean, crowded but incredibly well-organized exhibition kitchen where, beneath a faux-bronze valance, the crew labored through the last half-hour of the lunch rush. Far from the grim, screaming, mercenary stereotype, these guys were quiet and efficient as they tended their stock pots, temp'd sauces, tossed off mountains of mirepoix and worked over long, dark tenderloins of ahi tuna with fine-bladed knives.

From Roy's light-luncheon bistro menu, I started with a salad of red wine-poached D'anjou pears and bitter greens, which laid the foundation for a lemongrass and rice-wine vinaigrette that blended the milky sourness of crumbled bleu cheese and the spiky sweetness of candied walnuts into complicated patterns. It was a restrained, skillful combination, built with care and delivering bold, brave flavors. Even bolder was the sushi -- a new concept for this particular link in the chain of self-proclaimed "Hawaiian fusion" restaurants founded by James Beard Award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi. The Cherry Creek Roy's (as well as one in San Diego) recently added a signature sushi menu, inspired and prepared by Amy Yamaguchi, Roy's cousin and former sushi chef at Boulder's Sushi Zanmai. I tried her shotgun spread of traditional sashimi (raw planks of ahi and yellowtail tuna, immaculately fresh and scantily clad only in tiny ringlets of green chile or shreds of grated daikon), bright orange sea urchin with a flavor like murky crab pudding cupped in a hollow lime rind, and nigiri (folds of whitefish -- fluke, actually -- shaped by hand into a rose).

And then came a more risqué bevy of maki beauties, dressed in worldly, weird and innovative ingredients that Amy has added to sushi's traditional, finite mix. Sizzling rainbow maki wrapped buttery slices of salmon around meshi rice, avocado, ginger and sprouts, the roll arriving on a plate drizzled with truffle oil. For the Lanai rolls, king crab, tobiko basil and avocado had been dressed in rice, covered with shaved avocado -- creating distinctive green and yellow racing stripes -- and then arranged on a plate doodled with Roy's "dynamite butter," which broke all the rules of traditional sushi-making by introducing sauce elements to plates that traditionally rely on the natural flavors of the fish alone.

Gutsy, that's what this was. Lovely, fearless and exploding with flavor -- and just as cutting-edge today as fusion cuisines were when Roy opened his first joint in Hawaii back in 1988.

But then two of us returned for dinner and found an almost entirely different restaurant, one clearly past its prime. The staff was suddenly cold, shuffling us as far into the back of the dining room as they could. The room was packed with a crowd that seemed more fussy, uptight and elderly than I'd encountered at lunch, and the food -- which had been so simple, spare and elegant in its presentation of strong, sure flavors -- was suddenly leaden, rubbery and jumbled.

"If this is how they're supposed to eat in Hawaii," my friend Glen said to me across a table littered with shrimp tails, rib bones and edamame pods, "How do they all get so fat?"

Glen is a jerk. That's one of the reasons I like him, and why, occasionally, I'll bring him along to dinner. He's a big guy himself, bending the scales somewhere around 280 at a rough guess, but he's a funny, fat jerk, tragically born without a volume control, who knows food and knows what he likes. And neither of us liked where our meal was headed.

We were polishing off Roy's signature "dim sum style canoe for two" when Glen made his astute observation on the portly carriage of native islanders, and we both started laughing, apparently way too loudly. Having fun is obviously a sign of trouble at Roy's, because our laughter caught the attention of the floor man, who came by our table to ask if everything was all right.

No, everything was not all right. There wasn't much left on our appetizer plate -- just the aforementioned shrimp tails, bones and smeared puddles of sauce -- but then, there hadn't been much on it to begin with. Twenty-six bucks had bought us two skewered, butterflied shrimp that tasted like the plastic the poor crustaceans had been wrapped in before freezing, then deep-fried in shredded coconut; two (very) short ribs blackened on the grill and speckled with white sesame seeds, but thick with fat and barely drizzled with a sweet barbecue sauce that wasn't powerful enough to stand up to the char; two slices of peppered ahi tuna that were very good, but each only the size of a matchbook cover; two bias-cut chunks of vegetable spring roll heavily loaded with black mushrooms; and two gingery, gooey, slightly underdone chicken pot stickers.

This was a pu-pu platter. Fancied up a little, yes, but still just a pu-pu platter that -- by universally agreed-upon international law -- should never cost more than $9.95. This miserly array was served on a plate decorated with artfully swirly sauces, including a sweet-and-sour mustard-soy reduction and a red-chile-spiked sweet-and-sour cocktail sauce that were almost shockingly good considering the company they were keeping, but it was still just a pu-pu platter. And although the menu claimed this little art project was enough to feed two, that was obviously determined by testing it on a focus group of anorexic supermodels. I'm not a big guy, and I could have eaten everything in that canoe and come out the other end hungry. Glen could have also eaten the plate, the tablecloth and the little sprouting bamboo table decoration and still taken on more.

As it was, we had to wait a considerable amount of time before we saw any more food, or the wines we'd chosen off a solid, globe-trotting list assembled with an eye toward pairing. And even when our food did finally arrive, Glen immediately pointed with his fork at the macadamia-nut-crusted piece of yellowtail lying limply on the plate before me and said, "That is an unhappy fish."

"Why?" I asked. Although it did look a little worse for wear, by then so did we. At least the fillet was nicely crusted and golden along the edges.

"Taste it," he said.

I did, and he was right. This was an unhappy fish. The flesh was gray, greasy, cooked through but retaining no firmness and little flavor.

"Heavy crusts like that, cheese sauces," Glen continued. "Those are the last, desperate moves of a kitchen trying to unload a bunch of junk fish on unsuspecting rubes like you."

"I know that, Glen," I said.

"Yeah," he laughed. "And you fell for it, anyway."

On the other side of the plate - but miles away, metaphorically -- was a piece of broiled Hawaiian walu (known in other, less fashionable circles as oil fish) in a simple herb butter. This was as near to perfect as any fish I've had: crisp and spongy on the surface, dense with flavor, soft and flaky all the way through.

The menu promised that the fish combo would be served with a fondue of Haystack Mountain goat cheese, but people who use the word "fondue" as a descriptive irk me. It's the same as guys wearing too many gold chains who use the word "party" as a verb. Plus, this was a semantic mistake, because "fondue" really refers to a method of cooking that involves a pot of something very hot and things to dip into it. The word this kitchen wanted was fondre - basically, French for "melt" -- to indicate that a bunch of goat cheese had been melted somewhere on the plate. Not that I ever found any goat cheese, mind you. There was some pale, tasteless white goo puddled at one end of the plate, and that's the closest I got. Further, the braised baby red potatoes that were supposed to accompany the yellowtail were simply boiled, split in two and used to lift the fish out of what was alleged to be a lobster beurre blanc but tasted like a weak, watery orange bisque.

The menu also said that a Red Bliss potato cassoulet would serve as the seat for an herb-rubbed broadbill swordfish. Now traditionally, a cassoulet is a slow-cooked white-bean-and-meat stew, but all I found under the good, fresh swordfish were some potatoes that had been slow-roasted with onions, tomatoes and garlic. No meat. No beans. Therefore, no cassoulet.

It got worse. A medium-rare filet mignon, rumored to be napped with some sort of soy-bourbon reduction that took a dozen words to describe on the menu, came to the table damp with bitter Kikkoman, blow-torched on the outside, chilly in the center and pasty throughout. The filet had no tone, no firmness and all the texture of a beef custard. I know there's nothing a kitchen can do to save a poor cut of meat, but it can be observant enough to stop the meat from going out into the dining room in the first place. What's more, the watery sauce that should have glazed the beef had run off and puddled beneath a gluey, stiff risotto I wouldn't have served to my cats.

"How much are they getting for this?" I asked Glen.

"Thirty bucks, I think."

"And does it look worth thirty bucks to you? Because I'm thinking of paying that lady behind you four dollars to eat it for me."

The meal was awful. Abysmal. It was the kind of tasteless, passionless pap I'd expect to be served at an overpriced yuppie chain restaurant, but the fact is, although Roy Yamaguchi entered into a joint venture with Outback Steakhouse in 1999 involving most of his properties, that deal did not include Roy's Cherry Creek or any of his six restaurants in Hawaii. Just this past summer, Jackie Lau -- executive chef at the island restaurants -- was in Denver, working with the kitchen on sharpening up its plating (which shows) and its beds (which does not). The restaurant has a new chef, Bill Trevino, formerly of Roy's Hawaiian and Baltimore locations, who's struggling to improve both Roy's staff and its specials, but things are not coming together quickly enough. "We have quite a bit of autonomy," explains managing partner Roger Turek. "As far as the menu goes, 80 percent changes on a daily basis." And what comes into the coolers is chosen individually by this kitchen; sourced, as often as possible, through local growers and purveyors. Roy's gets its fish fresh every day. A lot of places say that, and a lot of them are lying. Roy's is not.

And while the fish may be fresh, Roy's original concept -- Hawaiian fusion with a modern Euro-Asian twist -- is getting stale. The "fondue," the cassoulet and that haphazard risotto are all hallmarks of a kitchen totally out of ideas and floundering under the pressure to be fresh and creative with a new menu every single night. The sushi was new, though, and the sushi was good. I'd return to Roy's for lunch and sushi in a heartbeat.

But I will not go back for dinner. Ever. That meal at Roy's had all the warning signs of a house in disarray, a kitchen on the edge, and unless Trevino turns things around -- quickly -- this place is done. Morte. As past its prime as yesterday's walu.


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