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Hawaii: Disney's new Aulani hotel dining options are few and pricey

The restaurants at Disney's new Aulani hotel in Hawaii are expensive and limited, unless you like fine-dining food and prices at every meal.

The $800-million Aulani in Ko Olina on leeward-side Oahu had a soft opening in late August with an official grand opening scheduled for Sept. 22.

> Aulani: Photos of Disney’s new Hawaiian resort

I've been staying at the Aulani the last few days with my wife, Nancy, and our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, where we spent a small fortune on food on top of room rates starting at $399 a night.

We did much more than eat at the Aulani, but I wanted to give you an overview of the meals we had at the resort during our recent visit.

On our first night, we made reservations at 'Ama 'Ama, Aulani's signature fine-dining beachside restaurant, which takes its name from the local mullet fish and its inspiration from 12th century Hawaiian fishing settlements.

The restaurant, designed to look like a fisherman's waterfront home from the 1890s, features an international menu set amid a thatched-roof hut sprinkled with fishing gear.

For an appetizer, we shared the delicious Kalua pig with cheese croquettes and Serrano ham in a romesco sauce ($16).

For dinner, I ordered the goat cheese ravioli ($31) and asked for the recommended Sauvignon Blanc (although the wine never arrived). Nancy got the Chinatown duck breast ($40) and Hannah, who will never be a cheap date, went with the New York Strip ($41), which I cut up for her tableside.

The highlight of the meal was the soufflé potatoes side dish ($8), which looked and tasted like potato chips filled with air.

For dessert, we shared a meringue mousse and a pineapple tart.

After dinner, I watched the sun set behind the low lying clouds  in what would turn out to be one of the most memorable moments of our vacation.

We all agreed the food at 'Ama 'Ama was good but not great. Pretty much standard high-end hotel food.

Dinner for three with cocktails came to $200 before tip. Not outrageous for a special dinner, but there was no way our wallet or waistline could afford to eat like that at every meal, even on vacation. But as we’d soon find out, the Aulani’s dining options were limited after the 'Ama 'Ama.

The next day we headed over to the Off the Hook poolside bar for lunch, where the menu was filled with $17-$19 sandwiches and a $21 Angus burger (all served with chips and cake).

I'd come to expect $10 tropical cocktails in Hawaii. I had my share of agave nectar margaritas rimmed with red sea salt while Nancy preferred the passion fruit mojitos. But $21 for a burger? Come on.

Add to that the $32.99 refillable drink mug sold in the gift shop (good for your entire visit) and it was clear the Disneyland pricing model would be employed throughout the Aulani resort. I quickly realized I'd have been better off if I'd taken the $100 Disney wanted me to spend on Coca-Cola and gone shopping at Walmart to load up on soda, water, beer, wine and snacks.

After passing on Off the Hook we ventured back to 'Ama 'Ama for lunch, where the prices were more affordable than the night before, with sandwiches and salads from $12 to $24.

The Lomi Lomi salad with corn chowder ($9) was easily our favorite dish of our visit. We could have licked the plate clean.

I wanted the crab and lobster roll, but I couldn't stomach paying $24 for a sandwich. I went for the Kalua pulled pork sliders on rice buns ($14), which represented the exact type of fun and accessible Hawaiian food generally missing throughout the resort.

Nancy went with the well-prepared opah fish tacos ($19). We got out of there at a more manageable $55 (before tip). Nancy, who writes about food for a living, found the lunch at 'Ama 'Ama a better value than dinner.

That night we had reservations for dinner at the Makahiki buffet, which turned out to be most in keeping with the Hawaiian theme of the resort and our favorite meal at the Aulani.

The Makahiki, named for an annual Hawaiian harvest festival, featured a dining room-length mural using paints that change from vibrant purple-reds to cool, ocean blues with the aid of special lighting.

Our waitress, Oahu-born Michelle Uyematsu, recently returned home after living in Orange County, and she asked us if we liked Hawaiian food.

We'd made a point of visiting authentic Hawaiian restaurants during our pre-Aulani stay on Oahu, sampling the poke at Ono Seafood, the plate lunch at Rainbow Drive-In, lau lau at the Highway Inn, kalua pork at Helena’s and malasadas at Leonard’s Bakery.

"It sounds like you guys have been trying a lot of the local cuisine," Uyematsu said. "A lot of people are afraid to."

Among the appetizers: octopus poke, lomi lomi salmon and, of course, the omnipresent poi. The best of the entrees: the guava barbecued ribs.

Uyematsu explained to Nancy how to eat pork and butterfish Lau Lau, which is kind of like a onion-shaped tamale in presentation if not taste. You peel off (but don’t eat) the outside tea leaf to find the meat and fish on the inside. Most people skip the pork fat, which is added just for flavor.

"My husband always tries to eat the fat, but I don’t let him," Uyematsu said.

Hannah tried all the desserts. Her favorite: the coconut bread pudding with vanilla bean sauce.

At $43, the Makahiki was more expensive than any buffet we've ever had in Las Vegas. And Hannah paid the full adult rate, since the $21 kids price was only for children 9 and younger.

On our last full day, we grabbed a continental breakfast in the 'Olelo Room, the resort’s etymological-themed bar.

If dinner at the Aulani was pricey and lunch was limited, breakfast proved to be one ($32 buffet in the Makahiki) or the other (a la carte muffins, danishes and cereal in the 'Olelo bar). Breakfast service starting in November doesn't hold out much promise of improvement.

Breakfast server Alohalani Reola-Yocor turned out to be the most interesting part of the 'Olelo continental breakfast service, greeting every hotel guest with chatty banter about her personal Hawaiian experiences that Disney wants every employee to exude.

A resident of Waianae by way of Cerritos and the Philippines, Reola-Yocor told unsolicited stories about her family, remembered the names of hotel guests and offered sightseeing recommendations.

"Do you have a car?" Reola-Yocor asked. "I'll tell you where to go."

At lunchtime, Hannah was heading to Aunty's Beach House kids club so I grabbed her a quick bite at the One Paddle, Two Paddle takeout stand hidden from sight behind the 'Ama 'Ama.

Hannah went for the reasonably priced ($6.75) kids meal box lunch that came with two cheeseburger sliders, chips and a drink, while Nancy and I headed off-property for lunch after exhausting all of our choices at the Aulani after only three meals (two at the same restaurant).

We ended up at the Hawaiian barbecue fast-food restaurant in the Ko Olina Center across the street, dining on loco moco plate lunches, which proved delicious and affordable.

The largely vacant shopping mall also features Just Tacos Mexican restaurant with a tequila bar and an ABC Store with a deli sandwich counter and an extensive wine selection.

On our last night at the Aulani, Hannah watched "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" under the stars with another cheeseburger box lunch while Nancy and I went to the 'Olelo Room for pub grub.

At the 'Olelo Room, Hawaiian for "word," bartenders provided pointers on Hawaiian pronunciation in a cocktail lounge covered floor to ceiling in the local dialect.

The most Hawaiian room in the resort and one of my favorite spaces at the Aulani, surprisingly offered the least Hawaiian fare: Nancy went for the Kobe sliders ($15) while I went for the cheese plate ($17).

We would have eaten every meal at the 'Olelo if they offered more than five things on the menu (and were open at lunch).

And as the bartender said: "The more you drink, the better you speak Hawaiian." After a few sangrias, even I could almost pronounce humuhumunukunuku apua'a.

Overall, we found the food options lacking at the Aulani. It may come with the price of admission at a $400-a-night hotel, but we quickly grew weary of dinner tabs for three in $200 range. What the Aulani lacked most was a fast, casual sit-down restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I hope that's on an upcoming menu.

Related:

> Disney's new Aulani hotel emphasizes Hawaiian culture

> Disney's Aulani offers many ways to chill out, stay cool

> Where's Lilo and other fun and games at Disney's Aulani

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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