Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine In Po‘ipu

Roy's Po'ipu executive chef Matt Dela Cruz offers fresh and tasty meals every night. Daniel Lane photos

For some, Roy Yamaguchi represents excellence and success. For others, strong feelings tie him to their culture and the food they grew up with. He is a chef’s chef, a mentor and an example of fusing who you are with where you live.

Yamaguchi was born in Tokyo, graduated from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in New York and mastered European techniques in California kitchens. He is credited with inventing Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine: an eclectic mix of French sauces, Asian seasonings and fresh, local ingredients.

There are 31 Roy’s throughout the world, and while the aloha style of service and his signature dishes – such as the Blackened Island Ahi ($34.50) – are what they have in common, the menu for each location is shaped by what is grown in that region.

‘Fancy Kine’ Spicy Ahi Poke with tobiko vinaigrette

The first Roy’s opened in 1988 in Honolulu, and I wondered what made an empire that has lasted 23 years continue to be successful. I went to Roy’s on a busy Wednesday night to find out.

Yamaguchi leaves his Po’ipu restaurant under the care of executive chef Matt Dela Cruz, a graduate of the Kaua’i Community College Culinary Arts Program. Born and raised here, the 34-year-old chef’s whimsical style is equally inspired by Yamaguchi and by the best that Kaua’i has to offer.

“Our food never gets stagnant; it moves forward with the times,” says Dela Cruz, who has been the executive chef at Roy’s for five years. “A lot of the chefs who were popular in the ’80s haven’t survived because they didn’t change with the times.

Crispy Skin Thai Snapper

“It’s 2011, what are you offering that’s new?” asks Dela Cruz, who notes smaller portions, such as tapas, as a current trend.

Besides the continual training provided by Yamaguchi, Dela Cruz is an avid reader of industry magazines, cookbooks and admits to being a devoted Food Network fan. But all that education won’t be put to good use if he doesn’t push his limits.

At this year’s Taste of Hawaii, Dela Cruz created Cured and Smoked Island Ono Tartare with Yuzu Chili Peppa “Shave Ice.”

“I don’t think anyone has tried that before,” he says, “and that’s what I want to give people.”

Kaffir Lime Crusted Scallops with pineapple couscous

To make the dish authentic, he rented a shave ice machine. To make it playful, he put the shave ice in little paper cups with a wooden spoon. “I like to have fun, and eating should be like that.

“Kaua’i is a melting pot of cuisine,” he says, remembering childhood potlucks with his family. “My dad cooked Filipino food, my Japanese auntie made sushi and my Hawaiian uncles make laulau.”

In the restaurant, Dela Cruz’s knowledge of different food cultures combined with Roy’s signature style allows for endless possibilities. Collaborating with sous chefs Vance Matsumoto and Reno Rodriguez, the trio creates nightly specials based on what’s in season.

Elegant cuisine and casual atmosphere at Roy’s Po‘ipu

This week, an inventive dish transforms lamb into Charred Rack of Lamb ($36.50) with house-made “lamb bacon,” a pink peppercorn, Port and hoisin reduction with a heart of palm purée.

“People are more knowledgeable as far as food goes, and more adventurous as far as eating goes, so you’ve gotta be offering something that they probably have never tasted,” says Dela Cruz, who changes the menu every other night.

“The main thing about the menu is that this is all unique to Po’ipu. I can change it however and whenever I want. So, it stays seasonal, it stays fresh.”

Coffee-flavored 385 North Buzz Martini and Roy’s Ginger Fusion. Daniel Lane photos

The Prosciutto Charred 8-ounce Filet Mignon ($34.50) features goat cheese from Kaua’i’s Kunana Dairy. Oxtail ravioli, fat Japanese hon-shimeji mushrooms and a pecorino risotto accompany this hearty dish.

It’s no surprise that Yamaguchi’s name is globally held in high regard, and here in Hawaii he is an icon. Regular training and creative freedom empower chefs like Dela Cruz to turn regional food into exquisite dishes year in and year out.

“That’s the fun part of the job: I get to create every day. We’re not just a Mediterranean restaurant, we’re not just a Japanese restaurant – we can do whatever we want!”

Melting Hot Dark Chocolate Souffle

Roy’s Po’ipu Bar & Grill
2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive, Koloa

Reservations recommended: 742-5000
Open 5:30-10 p.m. daily roysrestaurant.com