Tradition Of Taste

Unpretentious dining at Michel’s in Waikiki

Fifty-two new restaurants opened on Oahu last year, many of them in Waikiki. So you’d think that a restaurant as old as Michel’s (it opened in 1960), with a menu rooted in European tradition, a German chef devoted to the perfection of complex stocks and sauces, and waiters who wear tuxedos, might be noticing a shift in customer traffic. You’d be right.

“We’re busier than ever,” says general manager Philip Shaw. “It’s a combination of happy, returning guests and our staff paying attention to the details.”

Shaw’s been in the restaurant business for decades, and paying attention to the details is his trademark. Ten years ago he came to Michel’s with the intent of restoring it to its former glory.

“Michel’s is a one-of-a-kind restaurant,” he says, “But perhaps sometime in the late ’70s or ’80s there wasn’t as much attention being paid to the details. The view is unbeatable,” he continues, “but there has to be more to a restaurant than just that. With the kind of competition we have in this town, you have to pay attention to everything.”

Simply being beautiful is not enough. “You can go sit on the beach with a picnic and get the same view we have from the dining room,” says Shaw of the famous “gold coast” location. “We have to have something more to sell than the ocean view.”

That “something more,” and the key to guests who return many times a year, is an incredibly enthusiastic young staff and a remarkably modest head chef.

“First of all, our staff is young and energetic and passionate about what we do,” says Shaw. “They understand that we need to take care of the people who come to Michel’s, and they understand that our guests require a certain level of attention.”

But while the wait staff might wear tuxedos, and the tableside preparation of dishes like Cherries Jubilee, Caesar Salad and Strawberries Foie Gras has never gone out of style, at Michel’s there’s a balance in the dining room between pampering and lack of pretension. Executive Chef Eberhard “Hardy” Kintscher puts it this way: “It’s like a magazine or TV advertisement where you’re lying by the pool and the waiter bringing your drink is wearing a tuxedo. It’s that combination of excellent service that’s almost beyond what you expect. What we’re saying, really, is ‘you can relax here, but we won’t.'”

Michel’s is open for dinner nightly, and if you can, get there a little before sunset, order a cocktail and peruse the menu in the soft orange glow of early evening. Most nights a gentle breeze blows through the restaurant, a backdrop to the buzz of conversation and the lapping of waves against the shore just feet away.

A couple of years ago, Michel’s began serving Sunday brunch, quickly earning a reputation for offering one of the most elegant weekend breakfasts in the city. With a la carte items like Hardy’s house-cured smoked salmon, omelets filled with a bounty of fresh seafood and homemade German apple pancakes, the restaurant sparkles in the morning before settling into understated elegance as the sun goes down.

Michel’s was originally conceived as a fine dining French restaurant by legendary restaurateur (and centenarian) Michel Martin. And while it hasn’t lost the classic French style, Hardy’s changes to the menu have been instrumental in reestablishing the restaurant as one of the best in Hawaii. His European training and experience working with Hawaii Regional Cuisine proponents like Philippe Padovani have given him an understanding of the importance of incorporating fresh local produce into any menu worthy of serious attention in Hawaii.

“We know what we do well,” says Shaw of the menu that features fresh mahimahi, lobster, abalone, steak and seafood. “And Chef knows the importance of combining local ingredients and classic dishes.”

With the same surprising lack of pretension that surrounds the entire Michel’s experience, Hardy’s menu is the most delightful combination of retro regional dining you’re likely to see in the Islands. There’s the Osso Bucco, for example, where the tender, marbled meat of the black, kurobuta hog is the star, and not traditional veal shanks.

“I think that with veal, the dish is more Italian and perhaps not so exciting,” says Hardy. “This way the meat has more taste, more ‘beefiness.'”

And it comes with a local twist. For years now, Hardy has had a relationship with some elderly ladies who make guava puree. “They are these wonderful ladies who have guava trees that produce so much fruit that they started calling me,” he says. Once he was sure of the consistency of their product, he ordered all they made, and continues to do so today.

Forming lasting relationships is something that comes naturally to this quietly spoken Black Forest native. “In 10 years together I don’t believe we have ever had a disagreement,” says Shaw, “and Hardy has the greatest kitchen crew because they trust him and appreciate him.”

“I just do whatever I need to,” says the chef who manages to keep his ego under control by loading the dishwasher or working the saut station. “If someone needs to work the line or empty the dishwasher, why wouldn’t I do it?” he asks, admitting that just the night before he washed the pots and pans.

“It’s hard to find a good dishwasher in this town, you know,” he says with a smile.

For almost half a century it’s been hard to beat the view at Michel’s. Nowadays it’s hard to beat the attitude and the food.

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