My favorite part of a Hawaii vacation is, at least at the places I’ve stayed so far, the big reveal. It’s the moment you enter the hotel. The doors open, and if you’re lucky, someone hands you a fresh floral lei or a kukui nut necklace; you walk into the lobby, only to immediately be hit by dazzling sunlight and some of the most vivid blue water on the planet.
As far as big reveals go, it’s hard to beat the one offered by Aulani, Disney’s resort on Oahu. The lobby is designed so that the business parts are off to the side, and your first impression is of the grand hotel and its absolutely stunning grounds. The main building, constructed of dark, carved wood and colors meant to blend in with the landscape, is shaped like a V. It’s designed to push your gaze out into the central area, filled with pools, a lazy river, lush landscaping and a “mountain” that hides waterslides. All of that comes before your eyes make it out to Ko Olina beach and the calm lagoon that gives way to the glittering sea beyond.
I didn’t think the hotel could possibly top that level of aesthetic achievement and appreciation for the singular beauty of Hawaii. But then I went back, this time to Ama Ama, its newly reopened and reimagined fine dining restaurant. The food was good. The view was, quite possibly, the best I’ve ever had during a meal.
I stayed at Aulani for the first time last year, when it was still in phased reopening from the pandemic. Though Makahiki, the hotel’s main restaurant, was open, it wasn’t offering its signature character breakfast, and Aulani’s luau was also indefinitely on hold. (Both of those things have since returned.) I wasn’t sad about missing them, but I was really sad about Ama Ama. The hotel was using the closure and phased reopening as an opportunity to remodel and reimagine its smaller, waterfront restaurant.
In the 18 months that followed, I had been back to Aulani but not to the still-shuttered restaurant. In October, I happened to be on Oahu the same week that Ama Ama finally reopened. I called. Could I have a table for 6 p.m. to catch the sunset? Even though I wasn’t a resort guest, I could. I got in the car and drove 30 miles north from Waikiki to Ko Olina, where Aulani is. I’ve been to the hotel a few times now, but I still do the same thing every time: walk directly through the lobby and onto the terrace beyond, just to spend a few minutes taking in that incredible vista.
When I walked into Ama Ama, it was the same effect but on a much more intimate scale. You walk past the host stand, and the interior of the restaurant immediately gives way to absolutely stunning beach and ocean views. It took my breath away. It was probably a solid 10 minutes between checking in and sitting down, simply because I couldn’t stop walking around and taking in the view of the lagoon and ocean beyond.
The setting was — and I don’t say this lightly — perfect. The restaurant’s redesign leans into its namesake, the Hawaiian ama ama fish, with light fixtures inspired by Hawaiian fishing baskets and the fish’s fins, along with reflecting pools and fountains that bring water elements inside. The interior has a wall of intricate floral leis for sale that doubles as a photo backdrop.
The space has two open walls to maximize the connection to the outside. Our table, technically inside, was at the furthest corner of the space, so I had uninterrupted beach views from my seat. Just beyond the patio, a man sang and played guitar; the acoustic, islandy music wafted inside.
Before its closure, Ama Ama served breakfast and a la carte dinner, but my understanding is that it wasn’t as elevated a dining experience as the one offered now, which is $125 per person for four courses, with a $55 optional wine pairing.
Chef de cuisine Nicholas Amoriello’s menu, Disney says, offers “contemporary island cuisine” that “pays homage to the spirit of Hawaii, with unique flavors, high-quality ingredients and locally sourced fish and produce.”
I started with Night Fell on Ube, an old fashioned with a purple ube-infused ice cube in the middle, and then the amuse bouche came: one polished bite of chicken liver pate with pickled radish. The sun started to set as our first courses arrived: kabocha squash soup served with a whole prawn in the bowl, featuring hints of coconut and shallot; and kiawe-smoked fish pate topped with smoked trout roe, fresh herbs and taro chips.
The food at Ama Ama absolutely reflected local resources and was clearly inspired by Hawaiian foodways but wasn’t as heavy-handed as some common menu items in Hawaii. Nothing was macadamia nut-crusted, laden with sweet coconut glaze, or drowning in creamy, lilikoi-infused butter sauces. The ahi and uni crudo I had next was beautiful and dainty, with careful arrangements of garnish and vegetables, with no one flavor overpowering anything else.
For mains, ika ink ravioli with shrimp and scallops, with pea, mint and a light yuzu cream; and "paniolo" kobe rib-eye with a chimichurri made of shishitos, garnished with shallots, mushrooms and fondant potatoes. The steak was one of the best I’ve had all year — but whatever miracle created those silky potatoes is one I would like to happen in my kitchen every day.
Desserts made by pastry chef Carolyn Portuondo were true works of art. We tried the “citrus bar,” which was a kalamansi curd with white chocolate-pistachio crunch and lilikoi glaze; and the coconut flan with tres leches cake, coconut shortbread and fresh mango.
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