Up for Dégustation

Want the best of the best? La Mer withstands the test of time with its ever-innovative, five-star fare.

Similar to the monarchs who once ruled the kingdoms and empires of France, La Mer restaurant has long reigned as the perennial five-star dining experience in the islands.

Perched in the treetops on the second floor of the historic main building of the luxurious Halekulani, La Mer (which means, “the sea” in French) is virtually cantilevered over the ocean of Waikiki, with spectacular Diamond Head views. It sits as a peaceful time capsule of the sophisticated grace and exquisite style brought to the islands by the European travelers who first visited the hotel in the 1930s. And still today, a night at La Mer is far more than dinner; it’s a culinary escape to be remembered long after the evening ends.

Led by Vikram Garg, executive chef at the Halekulani, La Mer’s menu combines nouveau French cuisine with the finest and freshest island ingredients.

“We have the gift of the place. It is even a gift to us. This is such a beautiful setting—the view, the dining room and it’s our job to add the element of luxury with good food and good wine,” says Garg. “We don’t believe in just feeding people; it’s about creating a memory.”

In addition to La Mer’s jaw-dropping ocean views and spectacular service, the décor of the dining room itself is what gives the restaurant its highly regarded reputation of “understated elegance.” The 14-karat gold foil wallpaper, originally installed on the ceilings when the restaurant opened in 1983, still remains today, as does the custom-designed McGuire rattan furniture. The walls of the restaurant are covered with Asian-inspired fabric murals by IIonka Karasz, entitled “East of the Sun.” With age, these have taken on the look and feel of kapa (traditional Hawaiian barkcloth), which is even more fitting for the restaurant’s idyllic setting of “On the Beach at Waikiki.”


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Seafood salad with mango, fennel and pineapple vinaigrette

But just because the restaurant has lasted decades in the ever-changing restaurant scene of Waikiki, doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved. The brightest addition to La Mer is the restaurant’s new bar concept L’Aperitif. A historically-based concept focused on La Belle Époque—a period of French history when the arts and sophisticated Parisian social culture reached unprecedented heights—the cocktail bar is designed to be enjoyed as a prelude to dinner at La Mer.

The artfully created menu by Colin Field (of the legendary Hemmingway Bar at the Ritz Paris) pairs each signature “haute couture” cocktail, such as the Esprit Chanel or Hemingway Old Fashioned with a small sampling, such as the flaming Foie Gras Crème Brûlée or Oyster, Lychee-Ginger Sorbet ($20). Like many of the staff at La Mer, L’Aperitif’s resident bartender Henry Kawaiaea has worked at the hotel for 31 years and continues to train with Field (long recognized as the “Best Barman in the World”) before every revision of L’Aperitif ‘s menu. After relaxing to talk story with Henry Kawaiaea and enjoy just one of his libations, I was able to regain that joie de vivre that I have not had since last walking the Champs-Élysées in Paris years ago. Only now, was I appropriately prepared for La Mer’s main act.

Whenever dining at a highly-acclaimed restaurant like La Mer, which was recently awarded a five-star designation by Forbes Travel Guide—the only restaurant in Hawai’i to receive this accolade-I prefer to put myself at the mercy of the masterful chefs and partake in the Menu Dégustation, which in this case is La Mer’s signature eight-course tasting menu ($195) with wine pairings ($95). If selecting this dining option, allow yourself a minimum of three hours. While eight courses may seem like a lot of food, La Mer’s culinary team understands that when properly executing a tasting menu the goal is to not leave the clients overly full, but rather wanting more, which is exactly what Garg and his team accomplished.

We danced through the courses guided by our waiter, whose flawless service was a result of him too having been with the restaurant for well over a decade. Beginning with Poached Oyster, Cauliflower Mousseline, Caviar, Star Anise Butter and a crisp Domaine Huet “Le Mont” Vouvray, Sec, 2012 (Loire Valley, France), I quickly picked up on the chef ‘s influence from the South of France. While I am normally not a fan of foie gras, La Mer’s chilled Foie Gras Terrine with Blood Orange Chutney and Citrus Chips was surprisingly different and the perfect cool adaption for a warm Hawaiian night.

The highlight of the tasting menu for me was the Poached Lobster, “Albufera Sauce” with Shaved Truffles, a traditional French dish normally prepared with chicken, but swapped out for local Kona lobster. La Mer’s Albufera sauce was so delectable that the staff subtly placed a dish of extra sauce on the side of our table, clearly in anticipation of our desire to lap up every last drop with the freshly made quinoa rolls. (This was the one moment of our La Mer experience that I felt far more American, than French.) The wine accompaniment to this dish, served by Halekulani wine manager and resident sommelier Kevin Toyama, was also an evening standout—Anthill Farms “Tina Marie Vineyard,” 2012 Pinot Noir (Green Valley in Sonoma, California). It was the perfect complex mix of spicy, savory and smooth. And with just 200 cases produced annually, I felt privileged to discover it.

“Cognizant of global trends, our wine list touches upon many wines that are rich and compelling. Among the cavalcade of new regions and producers, we try to be thoughtful of how it fits the big picture.” says Toyama. “And for the aficionado, we are known to tuck away rare selections and older vintages in our cellars. Sometimes a new adventure is only a conversation away,” he adds.

The dessert portion of the evening was exceptionally impressive and highlighted the culinary team’s application of modern techniques, such as molecular gastronomy, proving that although neoclassic in foundation, La Mer is keeping up with the global culinary trends.

“We don’t get trendy, but we follow the trend,” Garg says. “That is important for us, because when you get trendy, it’s a very short life, and we don’t believe in that. We believe in setting trends and making them a reality for the future.”

Clearly, after 31 years as arguably the finest dining establishment in Hawai’i, Garg and his team have figured out the perfect formula to withstand the test of time, while remaining a true classic.

La Mer, Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road, 923-2311 or www.halekulani.com

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