Roy's says aloha to Baltimore

Restaurant: Hawaiian fusion cuisine has arrived, and, like a trip to the islands, it can be wonderful but very expensive.

Sunday Gourmet

November 18, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

For a restaurant whose founder is a celebrity TV chef and cookbook author, Roy's arrival on the Baltimore dining scene in late August was remarkably quiet.

Roy is Roy Yamaguchi, and Roy's is one of a new breed of upscale casual restaurants that don't quite fall into the chain category, even though Roy's Baltimore is No. 25. When you get this kind of sticker shock at the end of a meal -- we spent $75 a person -- you want to think of the restaurant as one of a kind.

Roy's executive chefs create their own menus at individual locations, which gives each Roy's an independent restaurant feel. (Yamaguchi has final say over the dishes and, of course, they have to be in Roy's Hawaiian fusion style and include signature dishes like the macadamia-encrusted mahi-mahi.)

Hawaiian fusion, you ask?

Imagine that Julia Child is making a dish with macadamia nuts, pineapple and wahoo. If you were expecting Asian, think again. The server brings around crusty French rolls at the beginning of the meal, and dinner can end with hot chocolate souffle (if you order it before your entree arrives).

That's not to say there aren't Asian dishes on the menu, particularly among the appetizers. But the typical entree at Roy's is fish or meat layered with potatoes or rice and three pencil-thin asparagus spears, all of it surrounded by a cream or butter sauce sparked with Asian spices. Wine is taken seriously here, with pricey selections by the glass and recommendations for many of the dishes.

The decor has the same kind of eclectic personality as the food. The colors of the 200-seat dining room are Pacific Rim Hot -- mango and bright red -- with bamboo and tropical motifs like orchids and palm trees. But the chairs and banquettes are comfortably padded in traditional styles, and tables look formal in white tablecloths, heavy silverware and wine glasses. I would have given Roy's three stars for atmosphere, but it was pretty noisy and the faucet came off in my hand in the ladies room.

The staff has been trained to be super friendly and super encouraging -- we didn't order one thing that our waitress didn't say was excellent. But even if you're of the waiters-should-be-seen-but-not-heard school, you'll end up liking Roy's staff because everyone is so efficient and concerned for your well being.

You never know what will turn out to be a stellar appetizer in a Hawaiian fusion restaurant, but I wouldn't have guessed wild rice risotto with Asiago cheese, asparagus and mushrooms. Other stars include huge shrimp encrusted in coconut, fiery little duck wontons with a pineapple chili dipping sauce and blackened ahi, sushi-grade tuna in a pool of beurre blanc and a mustard sauce. Appetizers are arranged with precision on large white plates, then prettily garnished with frizzles of beet and carrot. Flavors are clear and forceful.

The menu is divided into two sections: the classics, which are ongoing and include many of Yamaguchi's original fusion dishes, and the nightly specials. It's a big menu, with so many intriguing choices you may have a hard time deciding.

Seafood is showcased here, but surprisingly my vote for best dish ends up going to the beef short ribs, succulent and fork-tender, with a spicy-sweet sauce that enhances but doesn't dominate.

The signature mahi-mahi is notable for its gold crust of macadamia nuts and the lobster bisquelike sauce. Both are wonderful, but the delicate fish gets slightly lost in such elaborate treatment. One could say the same of the ono (wahoo), with its gorgonzola, spinach, crab and champagne basil cream sauce. Still, the combination is so decadent, who cares?

A handsome combination plate features enormous shrimp and scallops that are lightly seared, which gives the shellfish a smoky edge. Two sauces linger in the background and then weigh in with sharp flavors of garlic, lemon and fruit.

Simplicity isn't really an option at Roy's, so it's no surprise that the hot chocolate souffle comes with both ice cream and raspberry sauce. It would be spectacular if the kitchen would bake it five minutes longer. It wouldn't be quite so runny. The fresh fruit strudel is also baked to order, and it shouldn't be missed. The buttery pastry bursts with fresh pineapple and apple chunks and the fruits' sweet juices.

When we called to make reservations, the maitre d' asked if it was a special occasion. Roy's gets a lot of them, and a number of desserts came out with candles while we were there. It's an interesting choice for a birthday or engagement: The food is as elaborate, wicked and rich as you could possible want. The bill will reflect that. But at the same time most of the folks are dressed casually, so it doesn't quite feel like your usual special-occasion eating place.

ROY'S

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 720B Aliceanna St.

Hours: Open daily for dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$24; main courses, $6-$27

Call: 4410-659-0099

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ****; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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