Harbor Restaurant at Pier 38 touts Spanish-influenced fare—grilled to delicious perfection.

In the heat of a specialty grilling oven at Harbor Restaurant at Pier 38, glowing embers flicker and crackle as they convey unmistakably rustic and smoky flavors to sizzling slabs of meat.

The culinary magic sparked by la brasa, or hot coal, in that very oven mirrors the time-honored grilling culture of Spain. It also serves as the flavorsome foundation for the latest flame to ignite within Honolulu’s dining scene.

Though Harbor Restaurant has remained largely under the radar since it quietly opened its doors in May, word is starting to spread like wildfire about the intriguing new restaurant above Nico’s Fish Market with a menu centered around brasa grill ovens. The enclosed wood-burning grill systems—visible to guests through large glass panes that provide a peek into a crisply remodeled kitchen—are at once smokers, ovens and grills, lending themselves to a varied menu of classic bar-and-grill menu items. The only ones of their kind in the state, the Josper brand appliances use high heat to fiercely cook fare while locking in flavor and moisture. And thanks to burning hunks of traditional charcoal blended with an island touch of kiawe wood, the brasa grills leave their rugged barbecue mark on all the ingredients they touch.

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On the lunch and dinner menu is Brasa Grilled Scampi with roasted peppers and capers over squid ink pasta, where the brasa grill oven adds a particularly smoky taste to the seafood (photo courtesy Harbor Restaurant at Pier 38).

“We can deliver that undeniable smoky taste and texture of grilled meats and vegetables in a restaurant setting,” says Harbor’s marketing manager Shane Kaneshiro, as he welcomes me to the restaurant for the first time. I see the thrill of the grill firsthand—an experience much different to what I was expecting when coming to an eatery located at the fishing village at Pier 38, surrounded by maritime businesses and seafood restaurants. Throughout the course of chatting with a genuinely congenial staff, I find out that offering an alternative dining experience by the pier is every bit intentional, and that the stars on this menu are not so much the fish fillets, but rather the nicely charred cuts of bone-in ribeye slathered in gorgonzola-mustard goodness—a whole pound at that—as well as rosemary prime rib and bernaised ? let mignon. Steak-house quality beef is served here, sourced from the grain-fed cows of Omaha, Nebraska, but they’re paired with a casual ambiance instead of white tablecloths.

I savor each bite while seated in a truly noteworthy setting, which is undoubtedly one of Harbor Restaurant’s main draws. For O‘ahu’s foodies who are used to ? ling into the albeit cozy, but crammed, contemporary dining spots of Chinatown, it feels like a breath of fresh air to spread out amid approximately 6,000 square feet of space, with plenty of welcomed room between parties.

What used to be a large lanai for Harbor View Center’s events venue is now the restaurant’s enclosed main dining room, whose grandness is accentuated by an open floor plan void of excessive columns or booths interrupting my line of sight. A remarkable expanse of windows stretches across the walls and opens up to unobscured, crisp air, as well as a view that’s nothing like the postcards, but still beautiful in its own way. While staring out at Matson ships and fishing boats floating on a blue-gray bed of glassy water, I feel as though I could be dining in the Pacific Northwest—just before a swoosh of trade winds reminds me otherwise.

Though the interior decor has industrial touches, it is still very warm throughout with rich woods and luminous yellow light fixtures, the latter of which further connect guests to their surroundings, as they perfectly match the golden hue of the lights over the port. This break from the norm poses a wonderfully soothing atmosphere to unwind in, especially for pau hana at the copper top bar, Harbor’s statuesque centerpiece. The bar offers its own trendy feel within the larger footprint of the restaurant, with an exclusive menu of award-winning imported beers and wines, specialty cocktails and house-infused liquors, including many beverages that incorporate an element of fire—à la Smoked Manhattans. Guests can enjoy happy hour daily (from 3 to 6 p.m.) and have access to a rotating selection of 16 eclectic beers on tap chilled to an ideal 29 degrees, a temperature hard to maintain by most establishments in Hawai‘i’s heat.

The restaurant’s drinks and grilled foods may offer a nice deviation from the oceanic eateries nearby, but Harbor still satisfies the nautical cravings so fitting for its setting with a slew of seafood splendors. A lovely fresh catch is offered, of course, but what I really fall hook, line and sinker for is Spanish Grilled Octopus, one of the signature starters. Just like the beverages and meats, the seafood is sourced for its quality, and this octopus comes in twice weekly from Spain. With a chewing quality more akin to supple crab meat than typically tough, rubbery tako, the tenderness of this delicate octopus is met with a cold, refreshing splash of lime-cilantro vinaigrette to awaken the palate. The appetizer is a great segue to citrusy Seafood Paella, an exiting dish to see on a Spanish-inspired menu. While I love the entrée’s generous heap of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and fish, I would be happy to devour more of the delicious chorizo-speckled rice enriched with a spicy broth resting beneath it.

In addition to the colorful Spanish inspirations that permeate the menu, Harbor Restaurant highlights a well-rounded mix of approachable people pleasers, from pastas and salads to chowder and Cracked Pepper Wings. There’s a gorgeous Caramelized Maui Onion Soup on the menu, shining with the rich beef broth this soup calls for, along with gooey strands of melted Swiss cheese accompanying each spoonful. Burger lovers have a new bite to try, too, as Bourbon Bacon Cheddar Burger packs layer upon layer of flavor with a thick, juicy patty, fried egg, and sweet-and-savory burst of glazed bacon. The burger’s sides are just as notable, as fantastically crispy lattice fries—a French fry and potato chip hybrid—are addicting when dunked into French Maui Onion Dip.

Seeing as fiery brasa grills also can cater to one’s sweet tooth, I end my meal with the roasted bliss of Cast Iron Skillet S’mores finished with a cool contrast of vanilla gelato. With my final bite, I’m already left wanting more. Harbor ultimately gives its visitors a casually upscale atmosphere for enjoying a diverse range of approachable—and downright tasty—food. Through doing so, it is transforming the vibe at Pier 38. No longer is the area only a secluded spot to seek out fresh seafood—it’s becoming an overall dining destination.

Harbor Restaurant at Pier 38, 1129 N. Nimitz Hwy., 550-3740 or harborpier38.com