Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine: Island restaurant that excels at dinner 

I normally favor independent restaurants, but I also find it difficult to deny myself the pleasure of eating at great chain places. That's why Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, the high-end string of restaurants started by island chef Roy Yamaguchi and owned by Tampa's own OSI Partners, still manages to drag me in for the occasional encounter with cuisine prepared with a Pacific vibe. I may be conflicted, but it's easy to forget when confronted with fantastic butterfish or tuna poke.

And when our local Roy's announced it would be opening during lunch hours -- a first for the chain -- I was ready to jump on the opportunity to get the same excellent dinner dishes I'm used to at a much more reasonable price.

Problem is, lunch isn't dinner, at least where this restaurant is concerned. After years spent perfecting its nighttime menu to the point where Roy's could be the best high-end chain in the nation, it's going to take more than a month of effort to bring midday dining to the same level.

Take the short rib sandwich, with meat stuffed between two pieces of golden focaccia. Slow-cooked short ribs are known for succulent meat loaded with dissolved connective tissue and fat. Here, it's dry, overcooked and topped by odd shreds of something fried -- probably onions.

Fish and chips show signs of the kitchen competence I've come to expect from dinner, the moist filet fingers coated in a golden brown and crackling crust. But the batter could have used more salt, and the fingerling potato chips are so thin and tiny that they lose all substance, resembling those "air-fried" diet chips that feel like they'd float away if you tossed them into the air.

Even when Roy's imports items from the dinner menu -- like the canoe sampler for two -- results are less than spectacular. Salty-sweet pork ribs are tasty enough, as are simply cooked shrimp atop a pile of spicy kim chee, but fried lobster potstickers are flaccid, flavorless and paired with an overwhelmingly rich butter and lobster stock concoction.

All that is boring, maybe, and easily forgotten once I bite into mystifying kobe beef wontons -- the fourth item on the platter. It's essentially an herbacious meatball stuffed with gorgonzola, which is then tucked into wonton shell and fried. Once the cloying chili-garlic sauce is added, you have the oddest, most unworkable food item I've tried in a long time.

So fine. Give them time. Another dinner visit quickly convinces me that Roy's hasn't actually lost it.

From the very start, the food is exciting. Kobe beef finds a much more satisfying -- if equally unusual -- home, atop a maki roll stuffed with spicy crab, luscious avocado and tempura asparagus that crunches and snaps. Nothing in the roll is lost: The rare beef gives off fat and smoke; the crab adds sweet and spice; and the vegetables provide a blend of contrasting textures. Glorious.

Tuna poke is a work of art that only gets better when deconstructed by fork and knife and shoveled into my mouth, exploding in a delicate interplay of texture and flavor. Roy's version of calamari is more straightforward, but the sweet sauce studded with garlic and chilis has me diving in to snatch up the remnants. One of my dining companions even grabs the decorative lettuce lining the bowl to create an impromptu wrap with the dregs.

Entrees are more hit or miss, although even the misses are well worth the price of admission -- like simple, perfectly cooked giant tiger shrimp atop a tangle of noodles nestled in soupy curry. The broth, although tasty, is so restrained it seems a waste compared to other menu options, especially when paired with surprisingly dense egg noodles.

After years of eating the Florribbean staple, I usually avoid any fish coated in macadamia nuts. I probably should have at Roy's, as well. Here, it's better than most, with a thin coating of rich, crushed nuts atop a meaty mahi mahi filet. The sauce is the star, a better version of the decadent lobster reduction served on that lunch plate, which provides a capable foil for the fingerling potatoes under the fish.

But then comes the humble pork pot roast, which I forced a dining companion to order instead of the boring steak he wanted. After the first bite, I knew he would thank me.

That basic cube of pig is sex on a plate, easily one of the best pieces of pork I've ever eaten. It's as luscious and rich as the fattest piece of belly, intensely but simply seasoned, and paired with both a straightforward buerre blanc and a deeply caramelized gravy. It also happens to be the cheapest entrée on the menu.

Roy's Classic Trio -- featuring small portions of butterfish, ahi tuna and salmon -- is almost as good. The butterfish is reminiscent of Chilean sea bass, with the same flaky flesh that's home to enough rich fat to make the origin of the name apparent. The chunk of seared tuna is competent and tasty, while the salmon features a crisp, salty crust surrounding medium-rare meat that tastes more like fish than the farm-raised junk at most restaurants.

By this point, I could take a pass on the desserts, but since several -- including a chocolate soufflé and the signature pineapple upside down cake -- need to be ordered in advance, it's easy to get trapped into the sweet stuff before you fill up. That pineapple cake is worth it, but a deconstructed plate of candy bars are both tough to eat and compare poorly with the mass-produced originals.

So lunch at Roy's isn't ready for prime time. No big deal, as long the place serves up blockbusters after dark.


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