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 The Brancatelli File

joe A VISIT "HOME" TO HAWAII

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

September 1, 2003 -- A long time ago, and far too briefly, I lived in Hawaii. And every time I come back, I remember how much I miss it.

Mostly, I miss Oahu. It has everything I want: The most nonstops from the mainland. Great people and pretty beaches. Laid-back Honolulu and the quiet North Shore that rivals anything Hawaii's other islands have to offer.

Herewith, some notes from my recent visit "home."

FORTY TWO COTTAGES BY THE SEA
The long, strange saga of the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore seems to be taking one of its positive turns. Developed by Las Vegas visionary Del Webb in 1972 when he thought gambling was coming to Hawaii--Webb made a bad bet on that one--the 880-acre property had fallen on hard times in recent years. The cash-strapped Japanese owners let the property go to seed, Hilton pulled out as the management company and this blessed spot just an hour from Waikiki seemed headed for oblivion.

But a new owner and a new management company stepped in several years ago and they have invested about $50 million so far with surprisingly good results. The main hotel, with 375 large rooms, all with ocean views, has been tastefully, if simply, renovated. The meeting space is being upgraded and expanded in an attempt to build Turtle Bay into the mid-Pacific's primary conference facility. A spa and exercise facility are being developed. The resort's two 18-hole golf courses, ten tennis courts and riding facilities are all in good shape, too.

But what sets Turtle Bay apart are the 42 spacious, private beach cottages plopped right on a broad lawn fronting a pristine, white-sand beach. Each cottage has been extraordinarily well renovated with Brazilian walnut floors, poster beds, lavish bathrooms and comfy furnishings. Some cottages have two double beds, others have king beds with wet bars. The service is still a bit shaky, but it's always friendly. And there isn't anything quite like these cottages anywhere in Hawaii. Rack rates start at $550 a night (including breakfast), but are often available for as little as $400. And there are several compelling packages that bundle unlimited golf and tennis with a cottage stay.

One other thing: Turtle Bay has 12 miles of trails and seaside paths. You can--and I have--walk, bicycle or ride for miles along the beach without seeing another soul. It makes you forget all about the travails of a life on the road.

DOWN-HOME COOKING DOWN A SIDE STREET
Honolulu's best chefs invariably find their way to the Side Street Inn. But they don't cook: They hang out at this smoky, shambolic bar late at night after their own fancy places close. They also savor the ultra-local cuisine prepared by Colin Nishida, a short-order cook who's catapulted to fame as the chef to Honolulu's celebrity chefs. It's easy to understand what the Alan Wongs, Philippe Padovanis and Roy Yamaguchis (he's the Roy of the omnipresent Roy's chain) like about Side Street: a wildly flavorful fried rice, studded with char siu (sweet Chinese pork) and Portuguese sausage and topped with crunchy chopped scallions; pesto-crusted ahi (tuna); artful stacks of barbecued baby back ribs in lilikoi (passion fruit) sauce; steamed clams; fried chicken wings; salads of local greens; and the signature dish, pork chops, lightly battered, pan-fried and hacked into bite-size pieces.

Almost all of the 68 menu items are served family style on huge platters, which guarantees you'll order too much on your first visit. A better solution: Come with a crowd and come hungry with an appetite for comfort food and cold beer. Although the Side Street Inn is literally down a side street from the Ala Moana Center, one of Hawaii's biggest tourist draws, it's hard to find and tricky to drive to from the nearby Waikiki hotels. (Ask your concierge for precise directions.) Dinner for two costs about $40 before booze. Open for lunch (10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) and dinner (4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.). The Side Street Inn is located at 1225 Hopaka Street; telephone: 808-591-0253 or 808-596-8282.

PASSION ON A PLATE--OR SIX OF THEM
The passion and brilliance of George Mavrothalassitis are evident everywhere at Chef Mavro, his 60-seat jewel box of a Honolulu restaurant. And since the table you've reserved is yours for the entire evening, you'll have plenty of time to marvel at the decor and the cuisine. Mavro's menu, The Art of Pairing Food & Wine, perfectly matches each dish with a specific wine. Put yourself in his hands and indulge in one of the three tasting menus. I suggest the six-course menu because the three- or four-course versions simply don't allow you to sample enough. You'll enjoy dishes such as Hawaiian Ceviche, composed of ahi (tuna), tako (octopus) and opihi (limpets) with local corn, finger potatoes, ogo (seaweed) and watercress. Or perhaps you'll have White Peking Duck Breast, served rare with crisp skin on a stir fry of snow peas, hearts of palm, shitake mushrooms and pineapple. Mavro's signature dish is Onaga Baked in Hawaiian Salt Crust, a snapper stuffed with spinach, encrusted with sea salt and sauced with herbs and ogo. Save room for the Lilikoi Malasada, a unique take on warm Portuguese doughnuts. Mavro's ethereal version is filled with passion-fruit jelly and served with guava coulis and pineapple-coconut ice cream. Entrees cost $32 to $39 each. Tasting menus without wine are $55, $62 and $89 a person or $72, $88 and $124 with wine.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.