chicago diningandentertainment

Roy's Hawaiian Fusion — Miles above the ordinary.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014 tgoandco

When walking South on State Street from the gold coast, when one crosses Chicago Avenue the first restaurant you hit is Roy’s. It sits on the corner of State and Superior at 720 North Superior and is kitty corner from Holy Name Cathedral. Roy’s is a “chain” but I use that term very, very loosely — as it is not in the same category of “chain” as P.F, Chang's, Buca Di Beppo or Maggiano’s. It stands heads and shoulder above most independent restaurants and way exceeds many “chains”. I really don’t think of it as a chain as has so many unique qualities that it makes it hard to quantify it as such but it is. It has about 20 locations in the continental US but it really is found in Hawaii as the food is Hawaiian.

Not your typical fare, it is similar to Asian and is predominantly fish and seafood based. One will find lots of chicken, beef and pork on the menu as well as a large quantity of vegetarian items.  Flat out — Roy’s food is wonderful. It has a particular blend of flavors and exoticism that crosses many flavor pallets. This is Roy’s strength. There are many Italian, French or Sushi restaurants as well as a variety of restaurants that specialize in fish and seafood but Roy’s has the market on Hawaiian. Many years ago, there were a few Polynesian spots like Trader Vic’s and a few other tiki bars. Those miss the mark by covering the food and atmosphere with a layer of kitsch. While they have been fun for an experience a time or two, they were not a place one would go repeatedly for special occasions. The experience or the food got old after a time or two. Roy’s is different. It sprung out the head of chef Roy Yamaguchi. A James Beard Award winner, Yamaguchi was the international host of the six seasons of ‘Hawaii Cooks with Roy Yamaguchi’ and the author of three cookbooks. Raised in Tokyo, Yamaguchi was trained in New York then traveled to Los Angeles to be executive chef at La Serene before going back to his grandparent’s roots in Hawaii. It is in Hawaii that he really found the inspiration to make Roy’s and opened his first Roy’s in 1988. Hawaii as a designation location adds a special quality to the restaurant. You won’t find a Roy’s on every street corner and in every suburb. Unlike Italian or French, the flavors will be memorable but not comparable to anything or anyplace you have had before… so Roy’s does become special.

Roy's Chicago

Besides Hawaii, Roy’s is located in a few designated cities. You won’t find Roy’s in New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Washington DC. It has nine locations in California, a few in Florida and a couple in Arizona. Illinois is quite lucky to have scored a Roy’s and you don’t have to schlep to the burbs to enjoy it. Chicago has been graced with a Roy’s for 12 years and it has done quite well. It is typically packed on a Friday or Saturday night. It has a lot of people making it their destination for their special occasion. This night, there were many anniversaries, a few birthdays and a large contingent of business associates celebrating a corporate accomplishment. As it turns out, some of these folks have been celebrating with Roy’s for quite some time. Vince Vecchio, the new manager of Chicago’s Roy’s says there are many people who have been coming to Roy’s every anniversary for 15 or 20 years or more. “We are very lucky to have customers that consistently come back to us to celebrate their major life events.”

Vince has a great handle on Roy’s. As the new manager of Roy’s for just under a year, he is making an significant impact on Roy’s so it stays on your radar screen and is more a regular destination hangout than just for special occasions. He has taken on or completed many new improvements. The most noticeable is the three season enclosed patio. In the summer, it can open up to take advantage of the breezes. In the chilly spring or fall nights, it is heated to take advantage of the last few days before winter cold sets in. The dark red interior walls has been lightened up and freshened up. There are new booths and seating coming. The best view in the house is along the kitchen at the kitchen bar. It encompasses the kitchen so you can see the chefs do their work. The
energy of the kitchen gets infused in the food. It is also a chance to ask the kitchen questions about the food experience. This is a very existential place. If watching people labor over your food is not your thing and you just want to relax, a table by the window overlooking the tree-lined street is lovely.

Searching for a deal

Roy’s is different from many chain restaurants and there is input from the local managers. Many restaurant chains dictate from the home office about what is allowed on the menu, what are the specials are and how the place looks.
Chili’s menu is typically the same from place to place, as is McDonald’s. There might be some local differentiation if you’re in a McDonald’s in China vs Manhattan but across the states, they are essentially the same. Roy’s is different with a portion of the menu is designed by each city’s executive chef. Chicago’s local chef is Michael Stewart. He has worked for Roy’s as Sous Chef and has recently been promoted to Executive Chef. Also unlike other chains, each location has a portion of the menu designated by each manager to make the selection based on the locations desires and clientele. The Chicago location has a portion of the liquor menu that is devoted to local area beers. Vince has a deep knowledge of wine and alcohol and knows his way around a bar. This is not his first rodeo and his local cocktail offerings are spectacular. He also has some tantalizing specials cooked up by Michael Stewart and part of that is a pretty spectacular prix fixe. A common site in many cities, the prix fixe menu seems to be a lost artifact in Chicago. A staple for many New York restaurants especially on the upper west side, the prix fixe allows people to try a new restaurant without the bite of a high bill or a gouge if one hates the meal as it may be something less than expected. Usually they are offered by newer restaurant looking to attract a following so I love it when an established restaurant that already has a following chooses to offer a prix fixe. The prix fixe is usually the best deal in the kitchen and the restaurant puts out what is fresh and what they can get as a bargain from their area food store. Chicago seems to ignore the tradition of the prix fixe. I am not exactly sure why that is the case. It just makes sense. It can sway someone to try some place new particularly if you are in a group. Roy’s loves the prix fixe concept and embraces it. They always have a prix fixe options on the menu available and it is a good one.

A $6 Cocktail

Roy’s is a lovely place to have a special meal but aside from being a special occasion restaurant, Roy’s is working hard to keep you coming back. They are not content to have you visit once a year. They routinely run promotions that are designed to keep you happy. It is not uncommon to see a steak and lobster combo on the promotion list or something that has your mouth watering. The promotions change frequently so you are never bored with the menu.

They also have a lovely selection of cocktail and wine promotions. Tonight’s drink special is a fabulous cucumber martini made with top shelf vodka, Midori Melon and the juice of cucumbers. The aroma is that of a summer day in Capri or Monaco. Not too sweet nor too dry, it is perfection. Other drinks from the home bar include a Ginger Buck. Made of gin, Domain de Canton, gin and a touch of lemon juice. This drink has a spicy flavor that is perfect for fall. Call me a stickler for a good bartender, wine and cocktails add flavor and fun to a meal. Flavor shouldn’t stop at the kitchen door but extend to the bar. This bar ranks as a favorite that I have found in Chicago. The atmosphere is a bit cozy but with the addition of the patio, that is less of an issue. 

Best of all, it won’t break the bank ESPECIALLY for a downtown bar. When it is not uncommon to find a downtown bar gouging for $12 and $14 for a cocktail, Roy’s drink list has something for everyone. Vince does a wonderful job selecting his wines and cocktail selections. That fabulous cucumber martini was just $6. A glass of merlot during this evening’s meal was a savory $6. Usually I would be a skeptical of a bar that is serving a $6 glass of wine — don’t ask why. Good things can be cheap but in wine that is not usually the case. I was so wrong here. This was lovely with my meal. It was from Milbrandt Winery. It had a peppery finish that is perfect with tonight’s special Seared Shrimp and Lemongrass Chicken Confit from the Prix Fixe Menu.

Not into Meat?

I really have to applaud the chef at Roy’s for a wonderful vegetarian menu. I have seen menu offerings for vegetarians that were incredibly small or positively unsavory. Usually a guest has to navigate through menu pages looking to find something that is vegetarian and many times you are left with two options. I personally get a little annoyed looking though a menu for a little asterick that denotes vegetarian offerings only to find there you are left with a salad. Roy’s puts out a variety of courses for the vegetarian and they have their own menu. While I am not vegetarian, this menu has entrees I like that do not center around tofu or lettuce. You won’t feel like a second-class passenger on this dining trip because you are vegetarian. This is the one of the first vegetarian menus that I have seen where I actually want to order a variety of the item because they are really good. I have no qualms about bringing a vegetarian guest to Roy’s as they can enjoy their dining experience and I can too as a meat eater.

The Sweet Spot

The finish for the meal is dessert. Truth be told, I am finicky about sweets. Anything too gooey or too dry and I get turned off. It’s a delicate balance between wonderful and belt expanding. The typical fare offered on some menus usually has me resisting as I like the thought that I am sweet enough without the added sugar but also because I know what cheesecake tastes like. The desserts at Roy’s are a bit of a religious experience. They are not dull. The house specialties are the Pineapple Upside Down Cake and their famous Hot Chocolate Souffle Cake is to step off the diet for. Both of these are amazing with a lovely presentations and not-too-small/not-to-big proportions. They really are just right. Both of these two take extra time as they are specially prepared for each guest. Trust me, they are worth the time and you will not be bored. You will also not be bored with the offerings on the dessert wine list. You will find Nivole Moscato d’Austi, “Vidal” Icewine, Justin “Obtuse” Caberet Sauvignon and Dow Late Bottle Vintage Porto just to name a few. The parings of the dessert wines with desserts are fabulous. If you are confused as to what would be best, just ask your server. Also, check out the champagne offerings. As Roy’s is known for being a special occasion spot, they have a lot of champagne and sparklers that compliment a meal. By the bottle, they have over a dozen. By the glass, they offer Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs. It is a lovely sparkler at an easy to swallow price.

Speaking of service.

The servers know their food and can answer questions (and you know I asked questions). The service was attentive but invisible. They were engaging and fun when you interacted with them but let you enjoy your meal. The servers didn’t hover or swoop down to grab a plate the second my fork leave my mouth. They were able to answer questions about the wines and if they didn’t know the answer, they didn’t try to fake it. They got the answer or found someone who knew. I appreciate that. Before I forget, I can’t let it slide that they have a bar menu that is awesome. I can easily sit in the bar and make a meal. Yes, I can get a burger and so can my date and it’s a nice casual night out. I can also get Red Curry Chicken Samosas, or Tempura or amazing Butterfish Lettuce Wraps. It is a bar menu that is uncommon in flavor and uncommon in price for a downtown restaurant.  It is priced so you can get a couple of things and try flavors. This goes back to what I love about this place. They offer a variety of flavors that my mouth wants to experience. I wasn’t bored with the flavors or trying to compare the experience to something I have already had. Roy’s really is a stand-alone and a standout. It is an experience that is hard to express but lovely to enjoy. It is mature yet fresh, engaging while not over powering. It is sophisticated without feeling stuffy.

Bottom Line:

So my review may sound excessively positive — trust me it wasn't easy. I have sat trying to find something to pick apart — and damn it, I can’t find anything. (It makes me feel like I haven't done my job when I can't find ANYTHING) It was an amazingly lovely experience. The ambiance in the place is loud enough to be festive and quiet enough to have an intimate conversation. There is enough visual festivities to keep my eye engaged. The kitchen is fun to watch. The food was full of flavor and engaging to the eye. My god — they even have mints in the washroom. There is a nice attention to detail that makes me feel pampered yet the economical price makes me stand up and take notice. It was such a lovely experience I can see why people love to come back for special occasions. It doesn’t have to be a totally special occasion. It’s a Tuesday. I don’t want to cook. That is reason enough. I won’t feel guilty with my wallet on Wednesday so I can enjoy Thursday too. I could easily see being a regular here and would like to be.

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