REVIEW: Hilo Bay Cafe – New Location, Menu and Staff
Change. Hilo loses Nihon Restaurant, but gains Hilo Bay Café actually located at the bay. For a decade a cozier Hilo Bay Café was nestled in the Waiakea Shopping Center in Hilo amidst Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and Office Max.
These were strange bedfellows for a pioneer restaurant offering island residents a type of cuisine that (a decade ago) was predominantly found in Kohala.
Unfortunately, for long-time repeat customers the feel and food quality of the new location does not match up to the old, smaller, more intimate spot located near Wal-Mart.
In 2013, the Café had seen quite a few upheavals. Chef Joshua Ketner left the Café and Chef Larry Quirit was promoted. The restaurant moved, the menu changed, and staff turnover continues. In June, Chef Larry moved on from the Café, and this month former Café Sous Chef/Special Events Chef Aaron Anderson assumes the executive chef role.
However, a few customer favorites were saved from the chopping block. The warm chocolate Lava Cake, French Onion Soup, Eggplant Parmesan Custard, Beef Carpaccio with fried capers, the Bay Burger made with local grass-fed beef from Kulana Meat, fish ‘n chips, pot pie, fries with truffle mayo, and the flax seed burger, remain.
Now for the review: The Beef Carpaccio is still delectable. The fried capers and sprinkling of sea salt afforded a nice textural counterpoint to the oh-so soft grass-fed local meat.
The new menu’s tiramisu is creamy loveliness with a kick of heady espresso.
The pork belly bowl with a sake-mirin-soy sauce and sautéed bok choy over a bed of rice, lacks consistency. Depending on the line-chef/night, the melt-in-the mouth, fall from the chopsticks sensation of almost too tender pork belly, is exchanged for a chewy glob of lukewarm fat.
At the Café, the sushi bar and its placement is an attractive addition to the space. A golden-flecked Mt. Fuji spans the wall behind the sushi chefs. The mid-toned wooded bar and minimalist lines make the space feel clean and refreshing. Maybe it was an off night, but the fish didn’t taste the freshest.
The cuts of hamachi were generous and the su (sauce) on the rice was very subtle. The California Roll was decently portioned, but again, the fish had a more pronounced flavor. To be fair, our frequent visits to the Café don’t usually include the sushi.
If you have a desire for sushi excellence that demands an “oh my” with eye rolls skyward, and a thanks to the heavens for simply being alive… then go elsewhere. Miwa’s Restaurant in the Hilo Shopping Center, and Takenoko Sushi are both amazing alternatives.
Post dinner, some complimentary sweets and a little note from Chef Aaron and the Café to all diners mark another shift in direction. Menu and bar changes are surely soon to follow.
So, where do you go for a nice night out? This is a question of value and preference. If you prefer amazing food, there are other establishments that offer the diner a deliciously satisfying experience. However, if you’re just looking to relax with views of the bay, drink in hand — then Hilo Bay Café fits. They have a fully stocked bar, sake, local brews on tap, and specialty bottles like the Hitachino Nest White Ale. Treat your designated driver to the tiramisu and “arrive alive.”
Side note: Though the Café has amazing vistas, count them out for fiery festivities on July 4. They will be closed for the night.
Hilo Bay Café is now located at 123 Lihiwai St, Hilo, HI. Phone: (808)-935-4939.
Hours of operation are 11 a.m. till 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. till 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 5 to 9 p.m. on Sunday.