As the World Turns

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Dramatic Views and a Creative Menu Keep a Landmark Restaurant on Top

By Alana Folen

AS HAWAI’I’S ONLY REVOLVING RESTAURANT, the Top of Waikiki has been enticing the palates of diners for decades. Eclectic in nature, the riveting three-tiered restaurant stands on the top floor of the Waikiki Business Plaza, and since its inception in October 1965, has served more than 1 million guests from across the globe.

“You literally have a picture-perfect view of Waikiki, including three of the island’s extinct volcanoes-Diamond Head, Koko Head and Punchbowl,” says general manager Craig Bunkley. “Then as night falls and the sunset comes through, you have a gorgeous view of the cityscape.”

And while the view may be spectacular in itself, it’s the award-winning, upscale cuisine that is still turning heads, literally. Top of Waikiki’s ever-evolving menu is now in the capable hands of executive chef John Neff, who took over for former head chef Sean Priester in 2009. With more than 15 years of experience in the food-service industry, Neff and his highly skilled culinary team have transformed the already popular menu into a symphony of island flavors all its own.

“I want to give people more innovative and creative samplings and selections that maybe they haven’t seen before, as well as things that people are more comfortable and familiar with,” says Neff, who associates himself with renowned chefs like Roy Yamaguchi, Michael Mina, Anthony Amoroso and Chai Chaowasaree, having worked for each in Seattle, Las Vegas and Honolulu.

“Having grown up in Hawai’i and also having had the Mainland experience, I work to bring the best of both worlds into my cooking,” he says, adding the use of fresh, local ingredients is key.

For starters, the Blackened Seared Ahi with Kahuku Sea Asparagus Salad is an alluring appetizer featuring savory slices of ahi perfectly paired with sweet and sour fennel, sweet Maui onion and orange segments accompanied by a wasabi-avocado citronette.

Showcasing his tantalizing creation of New Zealand grilled lamb chops with mint infused basmati rice with toasted almonds, Neff finishes the dish with roasted Hamakua mushrooms and curried Cipollini onions dressed up in a pomegranate Cabernet Sauvignon reduction. And while this is surely any carnivore’s delight, the Cioppino with Linguine remains a seafood lover’s fantasy. This exquisite entrée consists of Seared Day Boat Scallops, Mexican white shrimp, fresh island fish, calamari, New Zealand mussels, crab with a roasted pepper and tomato seafood broth and garlic crostini sitting atop a bed of fresh linguine.

“When John came on board as executive chef, the menu did change a bit in influence,” Bunkley explains. “We lost the Southern influence of Chef Sean, but gained more of a cosmopolitan feel with additional local flair.”

Already very much involved with the menu development as chef de cuisine under Priester, Bunkley continues on how it was quite an easy transition for Ness to make.

Inside the establishment, guests may be surprised to find an intimate dining room with retro décor that somehow manages to warmly envelop all of downtown Waikiki.

Wine aficionados have kept the Top of Waikiki a close secret, as the extensive wine list boasts nearly 100 vineyards. Bunkley and his team specialize in wine pairings and are happy to offer unique suggestions aside from those printed within the menu.

“Previously, our wine menu was heavy on your traditional Cabernets and very traditional Chardonnays,” Bunkley adds. “However, we’ve expanded it… with more European wines, Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines.”

A recent pairing that has garnered a bit of attention is a Willa Kenzie Estate Pinot Gris with the Grilled Atlantic Salmon. The tempura shrimp and scallop soufflé, accented with braised baby bak choy and white Shimeji mushrooms, pickled daikon and carrots drizzled with a miso consommé, diversify the dish enough to warrant a simple yet sharp Pinot Gris with enough acid to cut through the intense flavors on the plate.

“The Seafood Paella Risotto, on the other hand, goes nicely with a Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc, 2008, while the Roasted Garlic Grilled Ribeye with Soy-Balsamic Glaze pairs with the Edmeades Vineyards Zinfandel 2005.”

According to Bunkley, a boost in staff wine education has shown in the repeat wine savvy clientele.

“Our staff has become very familiar with the many wines here, and I would say we’re selling 20 percent more wine now than we did last year.”

A revolution in multi-ethnic cuisine, the Top of Waikiki has consistently remained on top, only to reach higher and higher into the culinary stratosphere.

Top of Waikiki, Waikiki Business Plaza, 18th floor, 2270 Kalakaua Ave * 923-3877

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