The oughts saw a steady stream of prestigious restaurant-group chains arrive in Hawai‘i. Among powerhouses like Nobu Matsuhisa and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Laurent Tourondel arrived in 2009 in collaboration with partner ESquared Hospitality. The pair eventually parted ways on their BLT—short for Bistro Laurent Tourondel—enterprise, followed by a 2012 agreement allowing ESquared to license those crucial initials. And it retained ownership of the BLT Steak holding a dimly lit and sumptuous court in a corner of the Trump International Hotel Waikiki Beach Walk. And it has thrived ever since, thanks to a winning steakhouse-gone-chic formula, and chef Johan Svensson kept things lively with the blackboard specials.
Things must have been going so well there that ESquared resurrected its BLT Market concept (the original debuted in The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park, but closed its doors back in 2012) for the recently opened The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach. As the property’s primary eatery, it offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In a smart move, ESquared has installed Svensson at BLT Market, where the blond wood room —a tasteful mashup of Japanese, Scandinavian and midcentury-modern influences—better matches his Swedish roots. Take note that the glorified hallway does overlook the building’s pool, so at 7:30pm, dinner may very well be punctuated by splashes and shrieks of joy coming from below. But the handiwork of Guerin Glass Architects—the firm that also designed BLT Steak—provides sufficient distraction with its splendid decor. I’d say, in fact, that the indoor-outdoor restaurant is one of the sleekest spaces in town, with a gleaming green-and-gray tiled floor that evokes 1960s Italy, and a cluster of illuminated globes that are as enchanting as an art installation. The architectural lines are a visual lead-in to a menu of clean, crisp dishes. In keeping with the high-end resto trend, the emphasis here is on farm-to-table dishes.
As I sat down to dine at BLT Market, I ended up remembering an octopus special Svensson made at BLT Steak—it was outrageously tender and accented with pesto and chorizo oil. Happily his uberdelicate tako is on the BLT Market menu, braised for an hour and a half, cooled in its liquid, then charred and served amid an octopus’ garden of Kahuku corn kernels, corn sponge (kernels are freeze-dried, pulverized, then nuked), corn puree, gremolata and a few leaves of purple spinach from Mari’s Garden in Mililani. (Svensson is regretful that the octopus is from Spain, but says: “Everything else on the plate is local.”)
There are good options to start your meal. Subtly sweet bibb (and butter) lettuce is woefully underused at Hawai‘i restaurants, and it makes an appearance here with big hearts of palm and a roasted tomato vinaigrette—a refreshing starter. The bistro chestnut steak tartare has seen a resurgence (again) in New York, and Svensson puts his spin on the classic. With his version, you don’t need to spread it on toast points—he tops his disc of flavorful, handcut Moloka‘i beef with quarter-size coins of toasted bread, along with caviar, sea asparagus and a piped on horseradish-creme fraiche mix. It’s a balanced surf and turf unto its own.
Nothing on the menu is unfamiliar in name—beet salad, risotto, roasted chicken—but Svensson rises above the pedestrian (as the premier Waikīkī location demands). Order the seared ono and tenderloin, and get a kick out of the way the fish and beef echo each other in presentation—both appear as artfully placed medallions accompanied by carefully selected partners. The crusted rounds of ono have a pink center and tumble across the plate with three clams that taste like they’ve just been fished out of a tomatoey Mediterranean stew, and hunks of grilled giant Japanese green onions. A puddle of green onion soubise brings it all together. The beef medallions are glisteningly moist inside a crisp prosciutto skin and accompanied by a deceptive hearts of palm puree (it sure looks like potato puree!).
In this menu starring Svensson’s creations, the one notable dish that was developed with ESquared corporate chefs is the pineapple-glazed crackling pork shank for two, served on a cutting board and accompanied by a bowl of paellaesque saffron rice with clams and prawns.
To go with the food are pungent well-made cocktails that hit all the bar buzz names (mojito, mule, mai tai) and a big-name wine list.
Order dessert—the restaurant has a find in Pastry Chef Rhiema Acosta, who, like Svensson, puts her contemporary mark on the tried and true (cheesecake, souffle, mousse). Her mousse is a Japanese homage, made from delicate persimmons and accompanied by maple leaf-shaped hazelnut cakes. But the star is her take on the internet dessert sensation—the marvelous melting chocolate ball. Acosta gives it a local accent by pouring warm guava sauce over it, which makes the sphere of rich, textural chocolate disintegrate like the head of Viserys Targaryen of Game of Thrones. Once the exterior is dissolved, the POG affogatto within is revealed. I was scraping the last traces of it off the plate.
In a town where chic indie operations like the new Senia or established Chef Mavro now draw attention, BLT Market, thanks to Svensson’s work and the swinging design-minded decor, is definitely worth adding to your restaurant roster.
The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach
383 Kalaimoku St., Lobby Level, Waikiki, O‘ahu, 729.9729
Hours: Breakfast, 6:30-10:45am; Lunch, 11:30am-2:30pm; Dinner, 5-10pm; Brunch,
Appetizers: $8-$28; entrées: $28-$138
Creative types on assignment, expense-account executives and Japanese jet-setters
What to Eat
The menu does change seasonally, but for the time being, opt for charred octopus, steak tartare, paniolo tenderloin and the pork shank for two.
Where to Sit
Anywhere is pleasant, but take the seats with a view of the city.
What to Drink
Any of the house cocktails will satisfy, such as a super gingery Market Mule—made with Maui vodka, of course.
Originally published in the March issue of Modern Luxury Hawai'i