Fantasy Islands

At Mahalo Grille, Hawaii is merely a metaphor. A $65-a-plate one.

I’ve never surfed the pipes off Maui. Never hiked up a dormant volcano. Never camped out on Waikiki with a piña colada, a thong, and a vat of Coppertone. Yet I feel confident writing about Mahalo Grille, the six-month-old Hawaiian restaurant in downtown Pleasanton.

That’s because Mahalo Grille subscribes to Hawaii as an idea more than a place. If you want to eat among real Hawaiians, stop by any of the diner-style “plate lunch” restaurants in San Leandro and Hayward, heart of the East Bay’s Pacific Islander community, or taste the intuitively multicultural cooking of Va de Vi’s island-born chef, Kelly Degala. Hawaii as interpreted at Mahalo Grille is a metaphor for the influence of the Pacific Rim on contemporary restaurant food. The restaurant’s swordfish is served with Thai green-curry butter and its short ribs are braised with star anise. Hawaii, the idea, conveniently comes bundled with tropical-escape fantasies, evoked in its fruity cocktails and profusion of macadamia nuts.

Which, believe it or not, is not my complaint about the place. Mahalo, which opened last June, is making a stab at being one of the toniest bistros in Pleasanton, as popular as Hap’s Original Steakhouse and the Blue Agave Club. If the perennially full dining room, and not the uneven food, constitutes evidence, it is succeeding.

One of the main draws is the lushness of Mahalo’s plates: An appetizer of ahi tuna poké with mangoes and avocados is molded into a small layered dome, a gold and jade mosaic of diced fruit pressed onto a base of coffee-colored tuna chunks marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil. The poké arrives on one corner of a squeeze-bottle grid of sauces opposite a precarious stack of wonton triangles, so crisp they crackle when touched.

The restaurant’s founder, Richard Ring, owns a chain of steakhouses along the West Coast, as well as two Pasta’s Trattoria restaurants in Pleasanton and Livermore. Chef Don Nolan, who serves as regional chef for a number of Ring’s corporate enterprises, also thinks big: Big flavors. Big visual statements. And in the case of his Chinese chicken salad — a direct descendant of Wolfgang Puck’s creation, the Caesar of the Pacific Rim — bowls big enough to bathe your chihuahua in.

Nolan doesn’t do tiki food à la Trader Vic’s. It’s much smarter. The mixed greens in his Mahalo salad come with mangoes and macadamia nuts, but also a potent cilantro-lime dressing. His sugarcane-smoked pork ribs are brushed with a sauce just tinged with the sweetness of hoisin sauce, not some sticky tropical-fruit syrup. The cooks steam a salmon roulade inside a banana leaf, pairing the tender, mild meat with lomi lomi, a salad of chopped raw salmon, cherry tomatoes, and macadamia nuts. A big pat of green-curry butter melts slowly over a tender, meaty swordfish steak, a hint of fiery chiles in its perfume.

Desserts, done in Hawaiian-friendly flavors, are also comfortable and good. Having dealt with Nolan’s big portions, my friends and I only had room for a slice of pecan-style pie made with macadamia nuts — a big butter fest, which is not a bad thing — and a respectable Key lime pie, simultaneously tart and creamy.

However, many of the dishes didn’t convey the same mystique as their menu descriptions. Sometimes it was just one off element, such as a tasteless, dry vegetable rice-paper roll propped up next to the swordfish, or a jarringly acidic sauce spooned around the salmon roulade. A sea bass fillet was beautifully grilled — its haunting miso-sake marinade disappearing into the meat — then presented atop oily wild mushroom lo mein (calling farmed shiitakes “wild mushrooms” didn’t help). And Mahalo’s Kobe beef shortribs didn’t make good use of the ultra-prime meat. Two big chunks of beef, bones removed and fat trimmed, were braised in a skillful East-West take on the Chinese style called “red-cooking.” The braising liquid, reduced to a sauce, combined the fragrance of star anise with the richness of Syrah. Too bad the chewy meat wasn’t braised long enough, thus those marvelous flavors didn’t permeate very far.

I enjoyed both of my meals at Mahalo well enough, flaws and all, until the check arrived, and the casual neighborhood bistro turned out to charge as much as Oliveto. I guess 65 really is the new 45. But with premium prices come premium standards. For a $65-a-plate meal I don’t expect the entrées to be ringed in carved-carrot leis, but the kitchen should get everything right.

In general, the waiters provide $65 service: They consider little extras like splitting salads unasked, they know the menu forward and backward, and they check in for refills on your cocktail before you start sucking the last of the booze off your ice cubes. They deliver salads with iced forks rimed with frost — I’m not sure why, but gosh, it seems sort of elegant — and coffee with whipped-cream twirls in lieu of a pitcher of milk. Unfortunately, the waitress on my second visit spoiled the effect. She dropped off our check with dessert, already one of my pet peeves, since it says, “You’re free to leave any time … starting now.” Then she doubled back to the table to ask us to pay up right away. Startled, I whipped out the bucks and she rushed off. Family emergency? Early morning exam? We couldn’t tell, since she was still fussing about the back of the room when we left a half-hour later.

Mahalo Grille’s decor softly reflects the Hawaiian theme. The room is primarily done up in classic suburban bistro — walls washed in muted colors, speckled blown-glass lights dripping from the ceiling — with a faint whiff of the rainforest in the subtle palm-leaf print covering the banquette seating. Once in a while, the soundtrack goes hula, but not to the point of kitsch. In fact, during my last meal, the yodel-and-ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” started up, and we heard someone in the back dash over to the stereo to punch the skip button. Apparently, there’s only so much aloha spirit you can take.

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