Hidden away in the posh Promenade shopping center in Bonita Springs is Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion restaurant. For over eight years Roy’s restaurant has been one of the premier destinations for special event dining in Southwest Florida. Birthdays. Engagements. Anniversaries. Graduations. Promotions. Whether you’re welcoming someone home, sending someone off, celebrating your last day of a Florida vacation, or just want an all-around exceptional meal…Roy’s in Bonita Springs has cultivated an enduring legacy as the ultimate place to enjoy vibrant food and celebrate special moments.
I decided to pay a visit to see if they were still rightfully honoring their longstanding traditions of carefully honed hospitality and cutting edge cuisine.
In 1988, Roy’s was first introduced in Honolulu by Chef Roy Yamaguchi, who holds the distinct honor of being Hawaii’s first recipient of the prestigious James Beard Award. For those who don’t know, the James Beard Awards are often called the “Oscars of Food”. Roy based the Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine for his restaurant on childhood memories of the feelings and flavors of Hawaii. His menu combines the freshest local ingredients with European sauces and bold Asian spices, always with an emphasis on seafood. Shortly after the original Roy’s opened in Honolulu, it was named one of Conde Nast Traveler’s “Top 50 Restaurants in the United States”. The New York Times referred to Roy Yamaguchi as the “Wolfgang Puck of the Pacific”. After opening several other locations in Hawaii, Roy branched out to the continental US and eventually partnered with Outback Steakhouse, allowing a much wider expansion of his restaurant concept. Yamaguchi is now regarded as a pioneer who mastered a distinctive style, which brought his cooking to the forefront of contemporary gastronomy. As testimony to his success, there are now 37 Roy’s, including 28 in the Continental US, 7 in Hawaii, 1 in Japan and 1 in Guam.
The Roy’s I was visiting is located right in front of Bonita Bay on U.S. 41 in Bonita Springs. Some advice: The entrance to Roy’s is a blink and you miss it affair. There is a small Roy’s sign, but U.S. 41 is an active road, and the sign is hard to see. To make it easy on yourself, just look for the Promenade sign instead.
The parking lot near Roy’s was full, always a good sign during the slow season in Southwest Florida. My dining guest and I were early for our reservation, so we took a short stroll through the Promenade shopping center. The Mediterranean-influenced architecture, ample tropical landscaping, and notable water features put us in a South Florida frame of mind. The sound of rushing water soothed us as we wandered in and out of boutique shops and art galleries.
When it was time for our reservation, we headed back towards the restaurant. Names of major cities with Roy’s restaurants are emblazoned on the two tall glass doors. A smiling member of the host staff opened the door for us as we approached, and gave us an enthusiastic “Aloha” for a greeting. The rest of the staff, behind a stately granite podium, smiled and greeted us just as warmly. We gave our name and were briskly whisked away towards our table. All the way to the table we were continually welcomed by servers and members of the kitchen staff.
The booth request we made was honored.
The Chef-Partner at Roy’s in Bonita Springs is Chef Wade Lowe. He is instantly recognizable. In this era of network restaurant shows, like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, Chef Lowe’s congenial and outgoing personality position him as a staple character in the local food media. His inspired arrangement of ingredients creates buzz and influences the menus of other local restaurants. He is a sought-after character, and his interviews and cooking demonstrations appear often in local magazine and television broadcasts. He also hosts well-attended cooking classes at Roy’s, teaching Hawaiian Fusion fundamentals, on a regular basis.
The open and expansive kitchen gave us a unique view into the work and artistry of the seasoned culinary crew preparing our meals. Sushi was dutifully prepared at one station, while grills and ovens were being tended to in another. On the opposite end, a dedicated pastry chef added finishing touches to freshly-made eye-pleasing desserts while engaging in lively banter with guests dining at the pastry counter. In the center position, orchestrating all the action and finishing each plate with colorful sauces, fresh micro greens, and other exotic flourishes, stood Chef Wade Lowe.
At Roy’s, our culinary journey began with an uncommon surprise. At just the moment most restaurants normally greet me with a few lackluster pieces of bread and tin-foil wrapped butter, Roy’s blasted all common dining expectations out of the water by presenting our table with a colorful bowl of freshly steamed edamame. Also known as Japanese soy beans, edamame are a healthy and flavorful alternative to the blah loaf of bread served by every other restaurant in the world. Roy’s seasons the soy beans with an addictive, and slightly spicy, blend of sea salt, Shichimi Togarashi and sugar. The edamame was a welcome deviation from everything I’ve come to expect from local restaurants. It was a unique and exotic way to begin our meal, and a sign that we were truly on a gastronomic road less traveled.
Seconds after our edamame arrived, we were greeted by our server with another “Aloha”, and asked if we wanted anything from the bar.
We both ordered a glass of Au Bon Climat Roy’s Label Chardonnay .
Our glasses of wine were set before us within a couple minutes.
After an appropriate duration, our server returned and gave us a full explanation of the menu. She guided us through the many different types of fish they were offering this particular evening, making certain we understood the taste and texture profiles of each, as well as how they were being prepared. Some were exotic Hawaiian species, such as the Opakapaka and Lehi. Others were of the local variety, like the Corvina, Pompano, and Cobia. In addition to the seafood, there were several enticing meat dishes. Standout offerings included the Braised Hawaii Kai Short Ribs and the 8oz Fire-Grilled Filet Mignon with a Roasted Garlic Shallot Reduction.
We asked for a few minutes to continue perusing the menu. Our server pleasantly acquiesced.
The interior of Roy’s restaurant in Bonita Springs is tastefully decorated and as innovative as their food. Tall purple walls meet a layered yellow ceiling. One section of the ceiling yields to an even higher cupola lined with bright pottery precariously balanced. An attractive lounge area and bar is near the front door. The light is ambiance low, but bright enough to read the menus. Soft Hawaiian music competes with the energetic sounds of a working kitchen. All the tables around us were full, but the restaurant did not feel crowded. The varied ages of the clientèle surprised us. Older teens on dates, trendy twenty-somethings enjoying cutting edge cuisine, parents with well-behaved children, senior citizens, businessmen, and full families celebrating special occasions all surrounded us. I guess the love of great food knows no age.
When our menus were closed in front of us, our server returned to take our order. We started with two appetizers. The first was a Nori Seared Ahi Tuna finished with a Peanut Ginger Soy Vinaigrette. The other was the Crispy Char Sui Chicken Spring Rolls with a Pineapple Black Bean Dragon Sauce. We ordered a split salad, the Mixed Field Greens House Salad. As an entree, my guest chose the Roy’s Classic Roasted Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahimahi. I opted for the Teppanyaki Seared U-10 Scallops and Butter Seared Tiger Shrimp, also known as the Shellfish Combo.
A few minutes later, a food-runner delivered our appetizers and took the time to explain the sauces paired with each. Chopsticks were offered, and we were politely asked to enjoy our selections.
The Nori Seared Ahi Tuna was served in a shallow bowl. The tuna itself, served rare by default, was coated with furikake and sesame seeds. It was sliced into bite-size pieces. Garnished with sliced ginger, shredded scallions, and bright red tobiko (flying fish roe), the tuna was served over a small bed of white rice. The Peanut Ginger Soy Vinaigrette packed a flavorful Asian punch, and provided a solid counterbalance to the mild, tender meatiness of the sashimi-grade tuna. The tobiko served as a functional garnish, adding another layer of complexity to the appetizer, complete with a smoky, salty taste and crunchy texture.
The Char Sui Chicken Spring Rolls brightened up the tabletop with the color, pizazz, and artful presentation Roy’s food is notorious for. A perfect appetizer to share, there were two spring rolls, chopped in half, arranged tower-like in the center of a swirling neon sea of Pineapple Black Bean Dragon Sauce. The exterior of the spring rolls were crisp, not greasy at all. The interior was comprised of baked chicken, bok choy, Napa cabbage and glass noodles. The sweet pineapple component of the sauce was dominant. As the “dragon” in the name implies, there is a pleasant, warming zip to the mouthfeel of the sauce. All in all, an undeniably unforgettable appetizer.
Our Mixed Field Greens House Salad arrived split onto two separate plates, as we had requested. The unique pairing of baby field greens, candied pecans, and dried cherries with a maple raspberry vinaigrette impressed. In a world where soggy lettuce and tired Italian dressings reign supreme, this boldly executed creation far exceeded our expectations. Explosions of flavor. Layers of texture. Garden-fresh ingredients. Impeccable.
Our table was consistently crumbed between courses by the attentive server. Before the main courses arrived, the server described several warm dessert options and told us we’d need to order them in advance, as they took twenty minutes to cook. We couldn’t decide on one, so we ordered the Roy’s Molten Chocolate Souffle and the Pineapple Upside Down Cake.
The server also asked if we’d enjoy some wine with dinner. Roy’s restaurant in Bonita Springs has an extensive wine list, including many surprising by-the-glass choices. My guest ordered a Roy’s Label Laurel Glen Desolation Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma. I went with an Ali’i selection. The Ali’i, or Hawaiian Royalty, wine choices are marked with a small crown next to the wine name, which indicates wines of distinct character and flavor, rarely available by the glass. My particular selection was the Caymus Belle Glos “Meiomi” Pinot Noir, also from the Sonoma Coast.
The timing was perfect. The wines arrived in large burgundy glasses at precisely the same time as our entrees. The wines were identified as they were placed before us. Again, the main dishes and sauces were named and briefly described as they were presented.
My guest’s Roys Original Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahimahi satisfied. The sizable portion of versatile mahimahi lent itself nicely to the finely ground macadamia nut and panko crumb topping. Served atop some roasted bliss potatoes and sauteed asparagus, and surrounded by a signature swish of Maine Lobster Cognac Cream Sauce, this dish is a perfect example of Hawaiian Fusion cooking at it’s finest. The tropical fish and nuts, asian bread crumbs, and European-style sauce merges into a single plate of Roy Yamaguchi created goodness. The mahimahi flesh was milk white. The lobster cream sauce was rich and decadent against the rough terrain of the crispy macadamia nut crust. Roy’s food always looks great…and tastes even better than it looks.
My Shellfish Combo was picture perfect. Teppanyaki Seared U-10 Dayboat Sea Scallops and Tiger Prawns presented, almost Napoleon style, stacked above a bed of Pad Thai noodles, snow peas, and Asian vegetables. The arrangement looked intricate and handsome to the point where I almost regretted having to disassemble and eat it. The Kim Chee Yuzu Lime Butter was slightly spicy and had a quiet citrus element to it. The scallops were caramelized on top, but gave easy to the fork. Tender. Succulent. The large shrimp were pink and firm. Excellent shellfish variety and complex flavors were delivered with each bite.
Throughout dinner we saw multiple people celebrating special occasions. Desserts, with candles and personalized messages written in chocolate, were tactfully presented to the guests of honor. As an additional service, Roy’s servers take pictures of all their guests commemorating special moments and furnish them with a complimentary and attractively framed photograph before they leave the restaurant. Rest assured, your cherished dates and important moments will always be delicately handled by the capable staff at Roy’s.
Dessert was a double home run.
The Pineapple Upside Down Cake is something of a sleeper hit among Roy’s regulars. The legendary Roy’s Molten Chocolate Souffle usually takes center stage, propelled to front runner status by the rabid exclamations of obscenely addicted chocolate aficionados. The Pineapple Upside Down Cake eaters are more apt to order and enjoy their dessert in quiet confidence. But today I share their secret with the world: The Pineapple Upside Down Cake at Roy’s is, perhaps, one of the most undermentioned desserts of all time.
Chocolate may be sexy. Chocolate may attract attention and sell magazines. And the taste sensation of that molten chocolate center paired with slowly melting vanilla bean ice cream may increase serotonin levels in the brain and act as an aphrodisiac….BUT…from a purely gourmand perspective, nothing ties up all the loose ends of a true Hawaiian Fusion dinner like Roy’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Call me a purist, but that merging of caramelized pineapple sugars and coconut ice cream resonates somewhere deep within me, whisking me away with visions of tropical, swaying palms and soaring, splashing waterfalls. Did I mention the grass-skirted hula dancers, crashing waves, and exotic flowers? Roy’s Upside Down Pineapple Cake is the true taste of Hawaii, and offered appropriate closure to one of the finer meals I’ve enjoyed in a long time.
I wholeheartedly assign Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion of Bonita Springs my highest recommendation. In an industry notorious for its high turnover rate, managing partner Sondra Hon has assembled a high-caliber, veteran crew of restaurant professionals for her waitstaff. Full of personality, and well-versed in the nuances of fine dining etiquette, their product knowledge and ability to create a magical dining experience burst forth effortlessly. The kitchen crew follows suit, using their formidable skills to create absolutely stunning plates of ground-breaking food, completing the balance necessary for restaurant success. The food was to die for and the service was exquisite.
Mahalo to Roy’s for the unforgettable dinner.