Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s Roots, Journey and Newest Restaurant

Chef Roy Yamaguchi. (Photo from the Goen restaurant website)

It’s about time I refer to Chef Roy Yamaguchi as a local boy. Because this Japan-born chef launched his culinary career on the U.S. mainland, I didn’t think of him as a local chef in the same vein as Chefs Alan Wong and Sam Choy at first. I placed him in the same boat as the Mavros, Gannons, Padovanis and Merrimans of the local-food scene.

However, he’s been on the local-food scene for the past 33 years — more than half his life — and always espoused local ranchers, fishermen and farmers whose bounty he had used in his 10 restaurants spread over four islands (O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and the Big Island) which catered to both locals and tourists alike – you can’t get more local than that!

Our First Experience

When Yamaguchi opened his first Roy’s restaurant in Hawai‘i in 1988, we were still young professionals and among the first to sample the cuisine of this chef who already had a following. His résumé boasted culinary establishments such as L’Ermitage and Michael’s in Los Angeles. And he had started 385 North in Hollywood with hints of what would inspire Hawaii Regional Cuisine – a food revolution beginning in the mid-ʻ90s by Chef Yamaguchi along with Sam Choy, Philippe Padovani, Roger Dikon, Gary Strehl, Amy Ferguson Ota, Jean-Marie Josselin, George Mavrothalassitis, Beverly Gannon, Peter Ellman, Peter Merriman and Alan Wong. That was more than a generation ago.

Despite Yamaguchi’s stellar credentials, I recall that the food was okay — not earth shattering and not an epiphany — and that the restaurant was loud. Very loud. The tables were placed so close together that your dining companion across the table was farther than the couples seated to your right and left; definitely not COVID-compliant in today’s world.

After a second visit, we stopped going to the Roy’s in Hawai‘i Kai, partly due to the drive (this was when the Kalaniana‘ole Highway was still being widened) and partly because other HRC restaurants had started opening in the heart of Honolulu.

Revisiting the Chain

A couple of years ago during one of our many staycations, my wife and I decided to make that dreaded trek into Waikïkï; we had always wanted to try Yauatcha in the new International Market Place, and after both Baku and Yauatcha closed for good, we decided that we better get there before any other decent restaurant shuttered permanently. So, we did a Happy Hour visit to Eating House 1849.

Eating House 1849 is Roy’s tribute to Portuguese immigrant Peter Fernandez, credited with opening the first restaurant in Honolulu in 1849 that he named Eating House, which was popular among Oahu plantation workers. As soon as you enter the restaurant, you see a quotation by Peter Fernandez: esposa feliz, vida feliz (happy wife, happy life). I’m sure all married men can identify with that quotation. We sampled several delicious cocktails, several appetizers and entrees that resembled upscale plate lunches (unlike the usual Hawaii Regional Cuisine at Roy’s) and finished with several signature desserts – the esposa usually orders both desserts but discretely places one plate in front of me, even if she finishes it. We left totally sated and happy and wondered why it took so long to sample Roy’s cuisine and make a trip into Waikïkï.

Just in the Neighborhood

Just after the new International Market Place lost several of its stalwart tenants, Roy was preparing a soft opening of his latest restaurant, Goen Dining + Bar. While goen also refers to a 5-yen coin, the graphic elements on the coin represent agriculture, fisheries and industry; Roy wanted the name to reflect the agricultural history of Kailua.

Goen Ko’olau Sour cocktail. (Photos by Ryan

Since Goen’s soft opening in late 2018, we’ve sampled many of its sit-down and take-out meals. And it doesn’t hurt that we don’t have to make a trek over the Ko‘olaus and that a Down-to-Earth is right next door for weekly grocery shopping after our meals. If we’re enjoying the dine-in option, I start with the Nippon 75, Goen’s take on the classic French 75 with Japanese liquor (Roku gin, yuzu and sparkling sake instead of lemon juice and Champagne) while Ms. S orders the Ko‘olau Sour. This is Goen’s take on the classic whiskey sour, except the mixologist uses rye instead of bourbon, a honey syrup and adds lilikoi to the lemon juice; an egg white makes a frothy “head” for this cocktail.

Normally, we start with one of the various sushi plates and order the Fry Basket with portobello mushroom fries covered in a crispy batter that doesn’t get soggy as the meal progresses as well as a side of waffle-cut fries.

Portobello mushroom fries.

The menu also changes on a regular basis which is good and bad. While you always get a new selection, that also means that the pork chop that we sampled on one occasion may not be on the menu next time. [This was one of the best pork chops we’ve ever sampled (12th Ave Grill created the other superlative pork chop).] And if you haven’t received your COVID-19 vaccination(s) yet, Goen is primarily an open-air establishment with Kailua breezes flowing through most of the restaurant. However, even with loosened restrictions to indoor dining, a reservation is a must, as most restaurants aren’t allowed 100% capacity just yet: remember, Kailua is just as much of a tourist destination as Waikïkï was back in the day.

When ordering take-out, keep in mind that Goen changes the menu every couple of months. So if something catches your eye, don’t wait! On a lazy weekend last summer, we sampled the Beach Tailgate take-out with grilled corn, grilled chicken skewers, shoyu pork belly musubi and flaked salmon musubi which also included a mixed six-pack of Orion beer from Okinawa and Echigo beer made with koshihikari rice. Of course, since COVID was still in full bloom with no vaccine yet, we simply noshed on this picnic fare on our home walkway while watching the waves crash against the shore of the Marine Corps Base Hawai’i.

Goen Nippon 75 cocktail.

We also ventured Goen’s Thanksgiving take-out box complete with all the fixins: mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and baked dressing that looked like slices of meatloaf since they were baked in a nine-by-four-inch pan. We also opted for the supplemental prime rib and sashimi platter. As expected, the turkey was moist, and Ms. S was delighted with her prime rib.

A little over a month ago, we sampled the Family Friday Chirashi. For $85, it is the most expensive take-out platter so far and includes spicy ahi, real lump crab mix, ahi, hamachi, King salmon, tako poke, ikura, ahi tataki and a market selection (ours was marlin tataki), all on vinegar-sushi rice. The restaurant advertises that this chirashi dish feeds three to four diners; based on our belly capacities, we were both stuffed with leftovers, so I estimate that it feeds three regular diners or four with lighter appetites. The highlights were the ikura, which wasn’t a simple soy-salt cure but also had a pleasing sweetness, and the tako poke, which was so tender, you could chew it with just your gums.

Lobster spaghettini. (Photo from the Goen restaurant website)

Though we haven’t dined in-house save for just two occasions since the start of the pandemic, Goen will likely be one of the first, primarily due to its location, open-air seating and most likely because the lobster spaghettini and fresh mushroom tagliatelle are only offered for dine-in patrons.

Goen Dining + Bar

573 Kailua Rd.

Kailua, HI 96734

Phone: (808) 263 4636

Website: royyamaguchi.com/goen-kailua

Monday thru Thursday, 4-8 p.m.

Friday thru Sunday, Noon – 3 p.m. and 4-8 p.m.

Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet” (nichibei.org/columns/gochiso-gourmet/).


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