Review of ‘Ama ‘Ama at Disney’s Aulani Resort
BY MARY WARING – JANUARY 2012
Before we headed to Hawaii, I had read a number of reviews and trip reports for Aulani. One common complaint is that the restaurants at the resort are overpriced and not very good. I took those reports with a big grain of salt, especially since several of the writers had very specific dietary issues, such as being “picky eaters” or vegan. Quite a few complained a lot about the cost, which sometimes just reflects sticker shock – Hawaiian resort food is always expensive, as we’ve learned in our previous three trips to the islands. And some of the reports were written in the first couple of weeks after the resort opened, when I would expect some significant growing pains.
Disney does a great job overall with its food service at Walt Disney World, and a middling-to-decent job at Disneyland in California. I knew Disney had hired a very highly-regarded chef, Patrick Callarec, away from a 5-star hotel to be the executive chef at Aulani. Callarec has a big reputation and once owned his own top-rated restaurant on Maui. Besides, we were visiting almost five months after the resort opened, which should allow plenty of time for adjustments. So all in all, I expected Aulani’s restaurants would be better than I’d read.
Well, ‘Ama ‘Ama wasn’t.
I had made our reservation online, weeks in advance, for 5:45 pm. We never eat that early, but I wanted to watch the sunset from the restaurant, and sunset was at six o’clock that night. Also, it was our first night in Hawaii and we were losing 3 hours due to the time zone change, so I figured we’d be ravenous quite early.
Sure enough, we were starving. We got to the restaurant about 10 minutes early and checked in. I could see the place was less than a third full, but we were directed to sit and wait. Two other parties arrived, were told to wait, but were seated within 5 minutes or so.
While we were waiting, I had ample opportunity to take in the ambiance of the restaurant. The concept is basically a slightly upscale open-air fishing shack, perched on the edge of the lagoon. The restaurant is constructed of irregular logs that look like driftwood, has rough flagstone flooring, and is open on all four sides. Tables are hard-topped (no tablecloths) and chairs are woven rattan with cushioned seats. Over your head are some rather pretty “fishing nets” that are decorated with crystals. The effect they’re going for is “rustic chic,” though I’m not convinced the whole thing works that well for a high-end dining experience.
The main thing about ‘Ama ‘Ama is that you want to sit as close to the lagoon edge as possible, to enjoy the gorgeous view and the sunset. The view is what makes the experience. Unfortunately, the tables are lined up in perfect rows going back from the edge, so if you are more than two tables back, you can’t see anything. You might as well be eating in a fishing shack at that point. If the tables were at least staggered, that would help, but they aren’t.
Finally, a little after our reservation time, one of the hostesses approached us and asked for our name again. She went back to the hostess stand and there was a 5-minute conference there before we were called to be seated.
The place was still only a third full. The two of us were walked to almost the least desirable table in the whole place – a table for four, four rows back from the edge, directly behind three of the four other occupied tables in the room. I couldn’t see the view while standing next to the table, much less from a seated position. There was only one worse table, a big one against the back wall of the place. Yet plenty of better tables were available.
I was stunned. “Really?” I asked the hostess. “Can’t we have a better table?” There was an empty table for two right at the edge of the water, and two tables for four (same as the one we’d been assigned) in the next row back from the edge. There were at least five better tables in that room.
She gave me a blank stare. I pointed to the table for two by the water. “What about that one?”
“That one is reserved. They have a reservation.”
“Um, I have a reservation, too.”
Another blank stare. “I guess you can go back to the hostess stand and ask,” she said, and walked away toward the stand. So I did go to the hostess stand, where I was informed that someone had specifically requested the water-side table. Okay, fine, I can accept that. But I turned back toward our table and was again struck by the ludicrousness of the table assignment. It was as if the hostess had deliberately picked the worst possible location, in a nearly-empty room.
I said, “what about that one?” pointing to one of the tables in the second row. “Oh, the server in that section is going to be getting an 8-top in a few minutes.” At that point I just gave up and sat down – and immediately discovered that our table was very tippy and unstable, no doubt due to the rough flooring. While the hostess was standing there, waiting to hand us our menus, I rocked it back and forth in a very obvious manner. Rather than offering to put a shim under the legs to stabilize the table, she ignored the problem, handed us our menus, and walked away.
I was already pretty unhappy with my ‘Ama ‘Ama experience, but I decided not to hold it against the restaurant just yet. Maybe the food and drinks would be great.
Our server came over instantly and asked if we wanted cocktails. “Sorry, we just sat down. I haven’t had a chance to look at the cocktail menu. Can you give us a few minutes?” I said. He walked off and we didn’t see him for another 10 minutes. (He had two tables of four, plus our table, to cover at that point.)
Eventually I ordered the “Pineapple Ginger Mint” cocktail ($11). Mike ordered a gin and tonic ($7.25, including a premium liquor upcharge). Mike’s drink was so-so, as the tonic was somewhat flat. Mine was like drinking candy. I have never had such a sweet drink in my life. It also had no flavor of ginger or mint. I could slightly taste the pineapple vodka through the haze of syrup, but that was it. As far as I was concerned it was undrinkable, and I set it at the extreme edge of the table away from me, nearly untouched. For most servers, this would be an obvious sign that the patron is not happy with the drink. Our server and the food runners ignored it through the whole meal.
Toward the end of our meal, someone – a manager, perhaps? he didn’t introduce himself – removed Mike’s empty cocktail glass and asked generically “how is everything?” I mentioned that my cocktail, still sitting there full on the edge of the table, was not good. To his credit, he apologized and removed the drink from our bill, though he didn’t ask what was wrong with it.
Even after tasting my very disappointing cocktail, I was determined to keep an open mind about the restaurant. The hostesses might be incompetent. The bartender might not know what he is doing. Those are all training issues that can be fixed. But the food is the critical thing.
We were brought some walnut bread, sweet butter and two little dishes, each containing a miniscule amount of Hawaiian sea salt (one black salt, one pink salt) with which to salt the butter. There was only one spoon for the two salt containers, which made things a bit awkward, but no big deal. The bread was quite tasty, the butter was good quality and the salt was fine, though they certainly could have been a lot more generous with the quantity.
Even in Hawaii – and we’ve stayed in five of the top hotels in the islands, over the past four years – the prices at ‘Ama ‘Ama are on the high side. The least expensive appetizer is a salad for $12, and most appetizers are $17-$18. These are not large portions: realistically you would not share them. So for that kind of money, I expect the chef to present totally perfected dishes that make you sit up and say “wow.”
No such luck. I ordered the Chicken Firecracker appetizer, which is essentially a large curried chicken spring roll, cut into four pieces and stood up on end in a puddle of pineapple sauce. The presentation was uninspiring. The flavor was fine, but nothing that really stands out. My quibble with this appetizer is that the pieces of chicken inside the roll are too large, which causes the whole thing to break into big chunks when you try to eat it. I think the chicken should be minced or ground up, for a better texture and in order to make the item hold together better. My quibble would be minor if the dish didn’t cost $17.
Mike’s tuna poke appetizer ($18) got mixed reviews. We’ve had poke (pronounced poh-keh: it’s marinated, chopped raw fish, essentially an Asian-influenced ceviche) all over the islands. It’s pretty much THE typical Hawaiian dish, and it’s available everywhere: at fancy restaurants, in little hole-in-the wall cafes, and even at the deli counter in the supermarket. ‘Ama ‘Ama advertises its poke as “finished at the table.” What this means is that the busboy comes over and sets down a martini glass half-full of marinated, chopped raw tuna, then takes a cocktail shaker full of a clear, heavily salted marinade and dumps it over the fish. In my view, now you have a watery mess that you have to dig around in, straining the fish out of it with your fork. I tasted it and didn’t think it was very good. Mike, who likes his food salty, thought it was fairly good and wasn’t as bothered by the liquid as I was, though he thought the shaker thing was kind of silly.
And on it went. The waiter didn’t volunteer any information about the “sustainable catch of the day” at “market price,” so I had to ask. It was rice-crusted Mahi with a curry sauce. No price was volunteered, but turns out it was $39. The slightly overcooked fish and its hard rice crust tasted completely unseasoned. I don’t believe it was even salted. The Mahi was sitting on a bed of rice porridge (aka congee), also unsalted, and a few sprigs of overdone broccoli. The sauce was bland, with only a very slight flavor of curry. Luckily I was able to scrape out the last little bit of the Hawaiian sea salt still sitting on the table, or my dish would have been almost inedible. As it was, I left half of it on the plate, and no one asked why. All of our food was delivered by runners and the waiter never checked on whether we liked it.
Ironically, I had eaten a similar dish for lunch that day, on the plane flying to Hawaii. We were on Hawaiian Airlines in First Class, purchased with frequent flyer miles, of course. One of the dishes offered on our flight was Mahi with rice and curry sauce. The dish on the flight was delicious. When ‘Ama ‘Ama can’t beat airline food in a head-to-head battle, things are not going well.
Mike ordered the “lacquered duck” ($40), which is a standard Chinese preparation that should have crispy skin. It didn’t. He was told by the waiter that the duck would be cooked “medium” and not given any choice in the matter. As it turned out, he received three thick slices of medium-rare duck breast in a rather tasty sauce, and a few gnocchi (described as “dumplings” on the menu, which technically they are) that had been tossed with a totally flavorless green sauce of some kind. The waiter had warned Mike that the portion size on his dish was small, so he had also ordered a side dish of asparagus gratin ($8). He received about 8 short, fat asparagus spears under a totally unseasoned breadcrumb coating. Not horrible, not good.
We had each ordered a glass of wine to come with our entrees. When we were two-thirds of the way through our main plates, I managed to get our waiter’s attention and we received our wine. I had a glass of Sancerre ($15) that was delicious; Mike’s Pinot Noir ($10) was also excellent. At least the wine list is decent, if not ambitious. It’s overpriced, but I’ve come to expect that at Disney: a 4- to 5-times-retail markup is typical at all Disney restaurants. That means you’ll pay roughly the same for a glass of wine in a Disney restaurant that you’d pay retail for a bottle of the same wine. (Mike’s glass of Castle Rock Pinot Noir was $10; a bottle retails for $12.) That’s about double the restaurant industry average markup, but Disney can get it, because it deals primarily with captive audiences.
Our plates were taken and we sat finishing our wine. It was 7:00 pm and the restaurant was still half-empty. Two good tables near the water’s edge had never been used while we were in the restaurant.
We were asked if we wanted dessert and coffee. We did, but not at ‘Ama ‘Ama.
Our meal was $161.51 plus tip, for one cocktail, two appetizers, two entrees, one side dish and two of the lower-priced glasses of wine on the menu. Quite honestly the overall experience we had at ‘Ama ‘Ama would not have been acceptable at any restaurant, at any price. I cannot in good conscience recommend it.