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New Chef at Hawaiian Expense Account Heaven

With its beautiful décor doused in soft lighting, crisp linens, and stylish elbow room, Roy's fits right in with San Francisco's downtown restaurant scene, and one might never guess that it is just one of founder Roy Yamaguchi's 20+ dining establishments across the country. Yamaguchi isn't in the kitchen of course -- that's new Chef/Partner Ty Mahler's job. The former Tampa chef is inching his way westward as of mid-2005, crafting Roy's signature flavor of island fish prepared with "Hawaiian fusion" design.

And the fish is very good. Tender butterfish, fleshy opakapaka, and meaty ono are clearly the stars of the menu, though they share the spotlight with several meat entrees. Still, the prejudice I bring to the table is the awkward realization of eating Hawaiian when I am surrounded by a local sea of Pacific halibut, Dungeness crab, and striped bass. But to savor the taste of an island holiday, to venture to Kona for an evening because it's all you can muster, this is the place to do it.

Requisite of any tropical vacation getaway, the house cocktails are amazing -- entirely making up for a well-traveled, but not so worldly, wine list. The Hawaiian Martini and Roy's Secret Mai Tai were lush with fruit juices gussied up with vodka and rum where it counts.

As a restaurant patron, I always vow to sample any food served in a boat, as nautical tends to mean good, if not copious. I have taken in much sushi and many banana splits in sticking to this rule. And of course, it seemed mandatory that I take the helm of the Canoe Appetizer for Two, featuring a giant handful of plain edamame; crisp, chewy lobster potstickers; prawns far sweeter and fuller of body than what most local restaurants serve; and gooey, astoundingly-tender baby back ribs, cooked until falling off the bones, sweet and fatty and remarkably good for a seafood place.

The aforementioned fish in the entrees were immaculate and, though short of a bit of salt, well grilled, but I cannot speak so highly of the caliber of their accompaniments. The red Thai peanut curry on the ono was mild and thin, and the baby bok choy was served as plain as the edamame. I could spot no chanterelles or detect no chanterelle essence in the chanterelle mushroom ragout, and the diced carrots and peas nestled next to it tasted as if they had been frozen. The problem with a high-end niche chain that services most regions of the U.S. is that they attempt to cater to the American palate in general, leaving us West Coast food snobs craving a bit more flash in the pan.

Desserts, too, were a sweet finish, but not the fire on the island. Much ado is made of the house specialties -- a molten chocolate cake and a pineapple upside down cake -- both of which must be ordered well in advance, committing diners to dessert before their entrees arrive. The Guittard chocolate cake is worth ordering, and is one of the best-balanced versions in town. The kitsch value of the upside-down cake makes it worth a few bites as well; thick, sweet, and served with a pleasant coconut ice cream. Both are the final ending to a dining experience better than expected, a hula trinket that's enough to make you sigh, but no substitute for authenticity.