Lanai rekindles memories of trade winds and happy times
Photos by Kate Melton
295 Alexander St.
Your shared life began on such a good note. A pig roast wedding under a Maui sunset with three dozen of your closest family and friends affirmed that your marriage would be something special. And for a while, it was. For the next two years, your social media profiles were packed with romantic moments over fancy cocktails and white tablecloths.
Then the kids happened. You were happy warriors at first, but the couples moments got edged out by children’s milestones and thoughtful nostalgia. The smouldering gazes guttered out to be replaced with harried relief whenever you walked through the front door. “Thank God you’re home! I gotta go to Wegmans.”
The shift happened by tiny increments. Date nights gradually became monthly affairs planned around work schedules and the availability of in-laws and teenaged babysitters. There was no longer time to linger over one more drink. Your life became no different than thousands of parents across the city wishing their soundtrack could switch from Yo Gabba Gabba! to hip nightclub DJ.
You decide to take action. Since Valentine’s Day is on a Thursday this year, the babysitter has to stay home and work on a science project. Your mother-in-law, however, has helpfully offered to watch the girls until ten. You remember seeing a listing for a Hawaiian restaurant in the old Mex location on Alexander Street. It’s called Lanai Restaurant, named for both Hawaiian screened porches and the island south of Molokai with the cat sanctuary. You smile as you glance over at the wedding photo with the orchid chains and palm trees.
With the girls happily ensconced at grandma’s house, you step inside a classic Rochester bar with South Pacific maps and souvenirs dotting the walls. You’re directed upstairs to a dining room that winds around the staircase to create three or four private areas. Other couples with the same idea chat with one another as a slap bass pounds away at Wipeout on the sound system. The vibe is the Hawaii of Elvis Presley and Annette Funicello.
You slide into the vinyl booth and raise an eyebrow at a menu that represents a deep dive into actual Hawaiian cuisine. There’s Spam Musubi, a lazy person’s sushi served at fine gas stations across the Aloha State. There are also cheesy hashbrowns with kim chee sauce. In fact, lots of dishes on the menu are rooted in Japan and Korea but adapted to the tastes of transient sailors, business people, and tourists who flock to the islands.
“I’m getting the poke,” you say, properly pronouncing it “pokey” ($12). You flash back on your attempts to get to know the “real Hawaii” after the wedding guests flew home and the island-hopping honeymoon began. The two of you hit up a supermarket and marveled at a deli counter with ten different kinds of poke—a salad made with raw sushi-grade fish, vegetables, nuts, and soy sauce. A poke trend has swept through Rochester recently, but you had it first in Honolulu. Lanai’s version is more composed, the fish salad carefully shaped on a bed of rice.
Your drinks arrive, neon slushes with a paper umbrella on top, a Zombie and a Blue Hawaiian. Both are properly strong with good pucker factor. You had a few too many that night in Waikiki, but tonight you know you have to behave.
Rochester is proud of its garbage plate, but Hawaii is the pioneer of the “plate lunch,” a similar pile of high-fat ingredients liked roast pork, mac salad, and fried eggs tied together with a dollop of gravy. Nineteenth-century pineapple plantation workers feasted on it to gather strength for the fields, but for suburban office warriors such as yourself, it seems both excessive and irresistable. You order the Loco Moco ($15) with adobo pork, rice, hash browns, and kim chee gravy. The last time you had such a thing was out of a styrofoam container handed to you through a drive-through window. This time, it’s comfort food reinterpreted as culinary art. The hash browns here are hand cut and seasoned rather than slopped frozen onto a short-order grill.
She gets the Shoyu Ribs ($16), a.k.a. kalbi, her go-to dish when she eats Korean. Rumor has it that Hawaiians add Coca Cola or Sprite to sweeten up the marinade, but you detect none of that cloying flavor in the teriyaki sauce.
As the dinner unfolds, you laugh with her over memories of the North Shore shrimp truck, the ramshackle rental house you snagged on Kauai, and all the secret waterfalls you discovered like little Letchworths in the rainforest. Hawaii was a shared fantasy you planned for so long that was made real as you pledged your lives to each other.
“You know, we need to do these kinds of things more,” she tells you. “I feel a little guilty saying it, but I miss the you I knew before the kids.”
“Every couple needs some time to themselves,” you reply, placing your hand on hers. “You think your mom would give us a week to go back?”
Lanai is the kind of restaurant that manages to evoke the idealized Hawaii of those who have never been as well as the Pacific Rim hodgepodge that Hawaii really is. The menu reflects the distinct spin the islands have given the Asian and Indian dishes that immigrant farm workers brought from their homelands. Theme restaurant kitsch is kept well in check, allowing a more authentic atmosphere to shine through. For experienced travelers, Lanai will evoke past trips with specific culinary touches. And it might make those who have remained closer to home start shopping for plane tickets.
Mark Gillespie is a freelance writer and designer who enjoys the food, culture, and great outdoors of the Rochester area.