What was most Hawaiian about Leilani's of Hawaii was Leilani Wallace, whose hearty, raucous cackle infused vitality and warmth into the dining rooms and the bar of this pretty, antique eating place. We liked her spirit. When she brought our entrees to the table, giggling coquettishly she apologized for not serving like a pro. "One of my waitresses called in to say her uncle died," she said. "I asked her if it was the same uncle who died last month in North Carolina. Oh no, she said, this uncle died in Virginia." Operatic runs of chortles. "We don't always know when we're not telling the truth, do we?" Giggle, giggle. Leilani's molten, maternal nature is central to the experience of dinner at Leilani's.
Charming Howard Street rooms suit the dramas she enacts at meal time. Is this Paris 50 years ago or Baltimore a hundred years ago? -- this combination of thick panes of beveled and leaded glass, the spinach-green paint shade, the tiny white, yellow and black tiles on the floor, the baroque lamp sconces fastened into the mirrors along one wall, and the French Provincial chandelier. Hawaiian touches sound like egregious interruptions, but they're not. While big pictures of Polynesian beaches don't fit in any usual way, they're cheerful jumble, and who would pitch them?
The menu cover read, "Aloha, Lloyd's Cafe." Lloyd's was Leilani's last food venture, named, she says, for an investor who became her husband. In the beginning, she says, was a hot dog stand in 1980 that sold shish kebabs on Charles Street, then some catering, then Lloyd's, and now Leilani's.
Perhaps it's a crazy sense of adventure that produces a long listing of nine appetizers and 29 entrees. I tend to think that's a lot for a restaurant of modest size. Listed dishes included veal chasseur ($18.95), blackened salmon steak ($16.95), spinach pie veal Oscar ($18.95), California sushi ($5.50) chicken teriyaki ($5.95) and an empanada ($5.95). Is it a French, Cajun, Greek, American, Japanese and South American kitchen? Fortunately, one finds a discernible focus on fish and crab imperial.
Three of us were trying to decide on appetizers when our waitress said, "Order an appetizer combination plate. Everyone does." Its beauty and abundance delighted us. On a large glass plate shaped like a fish and decorated with sliced pineapple, strawberries and kiwi fruit, we discovered bacon-wrapped shrimp; squares of spanakopita (spinach pie); marinated, sauced slices of chicken breast threaded on skewers; long fingers of puff pastry twined with bacon; and crab-stuffed mushrooms. Delicious, all of them. It's true, when we got our bill later, and saw that it cost $17.95, we wondered whether that wasn't steep, but it was an afterthought.
Caesar dinner salads are one of the restaurant's strongest food cards. The dressing was marvelous.
Our main courses were visually striking, framed by smooth-glazed black plates. Surf and turf ($25 on the menu, but we were charged $25.95) was a mammoth tail of lobster mounded with crab imperial next to a peppery nugget of filet mignon. Terrific, until we found the interior of the lobster was nearly raw.
We were also pleased with a fillet of mahi-mahi, topped with crab imperial ($16.95, though $18.95 on the menu), until we found, it, too, raw at the center. Then we heard an entree at the next table being sent back because it was undercooked. Confusion. We liked the basic designs of our entrees -- fresh-tasting seafood, healthy, light fruit saucing, and side dishes of rice and sauteed carrots, red peppers and zucchini -- but at these prices, cooking times should have been well worked out. Still, one entree was a success -- a sweet, fruit-sauce glazed Dover sole ($16.95), topped with bananas and stuffed with shrimp, crab, scallops and whitefish.
Why the cooking glitches? We had two conjectures. One was that these were very good quality, frozen, microwaved dinners resisting a quick thaw. The other was that Leilani was still working out the kinks in a new operation. The first time we'd gone, we'd been sent away: "The oven's out." On a second occasion, we'd called ahead and been told to "come on down, I'm here, I'll cook you something," though the restaurant had essentially gone to bed on a quiet night. What's certain is that Leilani's is a highly personal operation, charming, engaging, but, at least at this early stage, not predictable.
Desserts ($3 each) didn't work out, though a carrot cake with wedding cake frosting was better than a stale mousse cake based on a red berry that had lost its flavors. The kitchen was out of decaffeinated coffee. Tea came without milk. Regular coffee came with coconut milk instead of cream. Oh, never mind. Leilani's vivacity and drive will vanquish all obstacles. *
Leilani's of Hawaii, 889 N. Howard St., 225-2610
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: A varied menu